As I watched the final seconds tick off the clock in Game 4 with the Mavericks ahead by seven points, I could only sit and say, “How in the curse word did this happen?”
Not many have had to endure this kind of cruelty. Blowing 15-point leads in the postseason doesn’t happen very often. Elias says no team in the last 15 years has done that. And of course, it happened to the Thunder.
I say “of course” for two reasons: 1) Because it just always seems like this type of crap happens to your team, doesn’t it? and 2) because we really should’ve seen it coming.
The writing has been on the wall before. Games 3 and 4 against the Grizzlies revealed closing issues, but the issue goes deeper than that. The Thunder haven’t finished well all season. Silly turnovers, dumb fouls, bad shots and horrific execution have made nine-point fourth quarter leads into tie games quite a few times this season.
Maybe it’s a part of the process, maybe there’s something to learn from it. I thought the same thing after the breakdown in Memphis, but evidently, not a lot of learning took place.
So like I said, how did this happen? How did the Thunder let a game like this get away at home, much less? Here are a few reasons:
James Harden fouled out. Harden’s sixth foul not only started the unraveling, but it gave the Mavericks two points and a start to their comeback. While Harden walked to the bench after picking it up, you could almost feel the tension in the arena. Everyone knew. Oh crap, we’ve got to close this with Thabo on the floor. All of a sudden that 15-point lead felt like five.
It’s not like Harden was playing that great of a game either. He had just seven points. But his presence on the floor made a massive difference Brendan Haywood said after the game, “When Harden fouled out we focused all our attention on KD. That was basically it.” You see, it’s no secret what other teams are trying to do to defend OKC. And you can see why it’s often unfair to be critical of Russell Westbrook. Options were limited and the offense struggled in a great way. Over those five minutes, the Thunder went just 1-9 for two points and turned it over three times. Harden, evidently, is important.
Dirk is good. The Thunder gave the game away for sure. But Dallas had to accept the gift OKC was giving them. And the biggest reason they were able to come back is because Dirk was pretty incredible. In that five minutes comeback, he went 4-4 for 12 points. And it’s not like Nick Collison’s defense on him changed one bit. Dirk just hit impossible — and some lucky — shots.
Horrible offense, or I should say, Thunder offense. Zero ingenuity, zero design. Post KD high, try and get Jason Kidd to switch. Once he does, give KD the ball and hope something good happens. The Mavs were doubling on every catch for Durant, forcing him to give the ball up. Why didn’t the Thunder try and post Durant a bit on the block? Where was the cutting, the screening, the moving that we saw the first 45 minutes of the game?
The easiest way to let someone get back into a game is by not scoring. You can’t rely on your defense to win you a game. Not when the other side has weapons like Dallas. One more basket and the Thunder wins that game. Just one more. But they had no idea how to get it.
Missed free throws. Westbrook clanked two free throws with OKC leading by seven with 2:11 left in the fourth. Those were big.
Three dumb fouls. It started with Harden’s foul, then Westbrook picked up a questionable one after Jason Kidd stripped him and then Westbrook got another for going over the back on a rebound. Three fouls 90 feet from the basket and the Mavs picked up six free points with roughly 40-50 seconds not coming off the clock that otherwise would’ve.
A questionable call. Did Nick Collison probably foul Dirk with six seconds left? Yeah, I think he might have. He hooked him around the waist for just a second and got tagged with pass interference.
My issue with the call is that in that moment, you call that a foul? On one end, Shawn Marion assaulted KD so much I think he needs to register as a sex offender but Collison touches Dirk and you make that call? Really? The ball would’ve just been off Collison and gone back to Dallas. Again, it’s not The Reason the Thunder lost Game 4. A comedy of errors led them to the point of that call even mattering.
Westbrook? No, not this time. (Really according to me, he hasn’t been entirely to blame the other times either, but that opinion is pretty unpopular.) Scott Brooks re-inserted Westbrook with nine minutes left in the fourth. The bench had done a solid job to start the quarter taking a four-point lead to nine, 90-81.
It was a bit curious to me why Brooks came back with Westbrook with 8:37 left, when the bench was as he would say, increasing the lead.
However, after Westbrook checked in, the Thunder outscored the Mavs 9-3 over the next four minutes and took the lead to 13. Westbrook assisted KD on a beautiful backdoor cut and was part of a unit that was, increasing the lead.
Now as things unraveled, could Brooks have come back with Maynor again in those last five minutes? Yes, definitely. The problem with that was Harden had fouled out. You take Westbrook out and now the Thunder’s offense is entirely one-dimensional. If Harden’s still in the game, I’d actually had been an advocate for finishing with Maynor those last three minutes as Dallas clawed back in the game. Westbrook took a couple questionable jumpers, turned it over once and committed a bad foul. Maynor might’ve steadied things.
But without Harden as an option, if you thought the Thunder’s offense was bad then, well, you can only imagine.
Bad coaching. Second-guessing is so easy when a coach’s plan doesn’t work out. But with the way Scott Brooks was handling the close of Game 4, there was a lot of first-guessing going on.
His hands were tied the moment Harden fouled out. He had three options: A) Stick Thabo in for Harden and play on. B) Go with Daequan Cook for Harden and sacrifice some defense for solid spacing offensively. Or C) Put Eric Maynor back in and slide Russell Westbrook off the ball. Initially, I’d say he made the right call. Thabo is a defender and had done a nice job on Jason Terry all night. OKC held a 15-point lead and in reality, scoring more shouldn’t have been the issue. Just a few stops would handle things. Cook’s sharpshooting wasn’t needed yet and with Maynor and Westbrook playing fewer than 10 minutes together all season, it seemed like an odd time to test that experiment.
So again, initially, Thabo was the right call.
But as the meltdown started and it was clear that Dirk was bringing the Mavs back and the Thunder couldn’t score, I had to wonder one thing: Why didn’t Brooks go offense for defense? He called timeouts. There were dead balls. He could’ve brought Cook in with 39 seconds left for the big possession where Thabo, yes again Thabo, missed a 3 with 20 seconds left. He could’ve brought Cook back in for the final possession in regulation. After Kidd hit the 3 in overtime, he could’ve come back with Cook there after a timeout.
There was every opportunity to put in an offensive player in Cook and STILL have your so-called stopper in the game on defense. This was a mistake in hindsight, but it was also one in plain-sight.
Panic. Once the Mavericks started coming on, there was a look in the Thunder’s eye that said, “Please, please hurry up clock.” It was almost like they didn’t even know how they got to the point they did.
Is that a sign of youth? I don’t think so. I think anyone in that situation starts feeling to pressure to not choke. The Mavs were an experienced bunch in 2006 when Game 3 of The Finals got away from them against Miami.
And while I don’t think inexperience is an excuse, I do think the team might be mentally exhausted. So many extra games, so much more preparation. They’ve got to look at the same team every day and when they advance on, it’s a new team for two weeks. It’s draining.
All of the above. All of that stuff piles into one big mountain of disappointment. And that’s what I mean when I say one person isn’t to blame. Scott Brooks did his part. Westbrook his. Durant his. Thabo, Harden, Ibaka, Collison — all of them were a part of the meltdown. I think I’m even going to blame Jeff Green a little here too just for good measure. I understand fans react emotionally and immediately want someone to suffer the consequences, but firing someone does the team no good here. Trading players doesn’t help anything. This team, and I mean the entire team — coaches, players, trainers — were good enough to tie up the Western Conference Finals 2-2. They didn’t because they all combined to let one slip away.
Not only did the Thunder blow a 15-point lead with 5:05 left, they blew a 10-point lead with 2:15 left. It’s all almost a blur how it happened. There’s something to learn from this sure, but right now, the only thing to take away is a whole lot of pain and disappointment.