Now that that’s out of the way…
That kind of seemed to be the mood in the Thunder locker room postgame after their 106-101 loss to the Nuggets Wednesday. There wasn’t the typical glum feeling as there is after a loss. Players were joking, laughing, talking and their normal upbeat selves as if they’d just handled business on their home floor. They know this game didn’t carry a ton of meaning, outside of maybe who they’ll match up with in the first round. Instead, both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant talked postgame about the team having another “level” they could get to, as if they’ve kind of been holding back and saving it.
“I don’t think we reached our ceiling by any means,” Durant said. I think that everybody is going to come out and get better. Our defense is going to be a lot better to start the game. I think we’re moving the ball better. Everybody in this locker room comes to work every single day and that’s going to help us out.”
Said Westbrook: “I’ve seen it before. I have seen us turn it up a notch. We started off the year on that level and we can hit that level again.”
Hopefully, that’s the case because the Thunder are 7-7 in their last 14 games, and 0-7 against the last seven playoff bound teams they’ve faced. Oklahoma City entered Wednesday’s game locked into its playoff spot, only able to affect its first round opponent. A win over the Nuggets would’ve leaned things toward facing Denver, not Dallas in the opening round. The entire team said they don’t care who they play though, and saying they only care about themselves.
“I’m not one to manipulate who we play and who we don’t play. You play who you play,” Scott Brooks said. “If you’re going to win a championship, you’re going to have to go through four very, very good teams. You’re going to have to play them all.
“The strategy was I wanted Russell and Kevin to get in the mid 30s,” Brooks said. “I probably played Kevin two or three minutes longer than I wanted. The game was close and he wanted to stay in. But that was the strategy to get the guys minutes. We have plenty of time off. We won’t play until Saturday or Sunday.”
Brooks had said pregame that he would sort of just see how the game goes in determining how long to stick with his starters. One way or the other, he decided he wanted to win this game, choosing to play Durant and Westbrook down the stretch. Whether that was in an effort to avoid Dallas or just because he wanted to try and stay sharp heading to the playoffs, who knows. But the Thunder didn’t close well, turned the ball over too much, didn’t rebound that well and eventually came up short to the Nuggets for the first time in almost a year.
But again, it was clear there wasn’t a level of motivation for the Thunder about this game. It seemed like they more wanted to get through it than anything else. They’re all competitive so they played hard, but that first half was another defensive waltz as the Nuggets piled up 64 points. It appears that OKC was just sort of on cruise control with this one. At least that’s the hope.
- The Thunder really should’ve won this game. I’ll bite my tongue on the officiating (30 free throws to 15, which included six straight fouls on the Thunder at one point in the fourth quarter), but a somewhat ill-advised 3 by Derek Fisher with OKC down three was just long. That shot was certainly questionable, but it was an offensive foul on Durant with a couple minutes left that really swung the game. KD had Danilo Gallinari in an early post situation, but Gallo appeared to trip and Durant was called for an offensive foul. OKC could’ve taken the lead on that play, instead the Nuggets got the ball and scored to go back up by three.
- Again, Brooks stuck with Fisher for an extended stretch in the smallball lineup. Daequan Cook was hot again, hitting 3-of-6 from 3, but sat while Fisher closed. I can see the reasoning this time though. The Nuggets had Lawson, Miller, Afflalo, Brewer and Faried on the floor for a lot of it, which meant if he had Cook in there, he’d be defending one of the smaller guards. I would’ve gone with Cook if it were me, but at least I can see the thought process.
- Corey Brewer is some kind of handsy, pesky defender.
- KD got 32, meaning Kobe needs 38 tomorrow to win the scoring title. Durant was asked if he’ll watch, or if he cares: “I probably won’t watch. If I don’t win the scoring title or MVP or whatever, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good year by my standards. To think back on everything I’ve done this season, I’ve got better. I’ve improved in every area I wanted to improve in. I scored a few points, but I think as a defender and a facilitator I got better and that was the whole thing. If I don’t win a scoring title, that doesn’t mean I had a bad year.”
- Durant was also asked to assess his season: “I think this was probably my best year as an individual. More efficient, from the 3, from the field. Free throws were a little down. I passed the ball better, I had turnovers, but I passed the ball better. I rebounded. I think this is one of my better years, probably my best one. If I don’t win any awards that’s cool with me. I just want to grow as a player. Hopefully they start to come later in my career.”
- Here’s the thing about KD though: He’s got lots of room to improve still. He can improve as a passes, ball handler, creator and defender. He can evolve his post game, he can get stronger, and he can develop more in help defense. He’s one of the two best basketball players in the world for my money, but he’s only 23 and still has a lot of room and time to grow.
- Prior to the game, Westbrook addressed the crowd to thank them for the season and whatnot, but he actually had to stand silently and let a solid 45 second standing ovation finish for him. This city absolutely adores Russell Westbrook.
- Both Westbrook (wrist) and Ibaka (hip) were injured during the game but both played on and are fine.
- Westbrook kind of got a little of his mojo back. He finished with 30 on 10-20 shooting, had nine assists, six rebounds, four blocks and three steals. His mid-range game was working, he finished at the rim and he played a smart game, only turnover it over twice.
- Before the game in the locker room, film from OKC’s last game against Denver was playing and on one play, Westbrook made a fadeaway baseline jumper. He immediately said, “You guys see my Dirk shot!?!” Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor busted up laughing at it and Cook got up to rewind the play to watch it again. Westbrook swore it was a Dirk shot, saying, “I’m like Dirk!” but Maynor and Cook wouldn’t allow it. You might just have had to be there.
- During tonight’s invocation, the preacher actually said, “and we pray for world peace and all of our soldiers abroad…” The crowd and even some players laughed.
- Thabo is a pretty great no-look passer. That’s a much harder skill to have than it looks.
- Durant’s dunk over JaVale. Wow. You don’t see two-handed posters very often.
- I don’t know what kind of shoe Ty Lawson is wearing tonight, but it doesn’t look like they’re tied.
- I eagerly await the day Ibaka blocks a shot so hard that it goes in the other basket for a 3-pointer. It’s going to happen. You wait.
- Some dude walking a tightrope was the halftime show tonight and he totally fell off and hurt his leg. So to recap, Oklahoma City nearly had someone drown to death and now some guy might’ve blown out his knee or something.
- The Birdman is terrifying.
- KD talked about the clutch before the game tonight: “To be honest, I really don’t care if I make or miss. You can’t think about it too much. My first few years in the league, I’d go to the bench and we’d be tied up with a couple seconds left and I’d be like shaking because I was so anxious to want the shot and make the shot that I’d go out and miss. This year, I was just like, ‘I don’t care. If I make it, cool. If I miss it, learn from it.’ I just go back to the bench, nothing on my mind and once I get the ball, you know. Luckily some went in this year, and I missed a lot. I made some. But all in all in the clutch, it was a good year for me.” He was then asked what changed to make him think that way. “I heard Robert Horry say he doesn’t care. And he’s made some big shots in some big moments, so I tried to take that approach.”
- Brian Davis Line of the Night via @GetOffTheTip: “”Manimal, shooting the free throws as if he does not possess opposable thumbs.”
Next up: Playoffs.