Last week was the first losing week of the season for the Thunder. Which not so coincidentally, makes it a lot less fun to talk about how players performed. Because, and you’ll never believe this, there’s a direct correlation between player performance and losses.
What surprised me most about the three straight losses is that I expected more panic. There was the regular amount of hand-wringing over Scott Brooks’ decisions and such, but not a crazy amount of doomsday talk. At least not that I saw.
I think maybe the reason for it is the way the Thunder lost. In all three games, they played outstanding defense, but were unable to execute offensively and turned the ball over a little too much. Both things that are not only correctable, but in terms of offense, that hasn’t been a worry with this team all season. What has been the concern is the defensive end, but the Thunder have played consistently well on that end for about three weeks. There have been lapses — like the first half against Indiana — but overall, Oklahoma City’s defense has been better, which in an odd way despite the losses, is encouraging.
Because, as you know, defense is what you must rely on in the postseason. Big offense is nice, but that can come and go. Defense is something you have much more control over.
Plus, I think the Thunder built up a bit of equity within the fanbase with that run of wins over the Clippers, Heat, Lakers and Bulls. It was established that the team is very good when they’re focused and ready. Of course losing the Western lead is upsetting, but there’s time yet. And if the Thunder can finish out the season defending, they should be able to reclaim it.
Now to the rankings:
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
It really wasn’t a standout week for anyone on the team, so almost by default, KD takes the top spot over again. (He did do this to Roy Hibbert, which is big bonus points.)
He was good against LeBron and Miami, but had nine turnovers. His game against Indiana was splendid, though in a losing effort. But that Pacer game showed that really, Durant could average 35 points a game (or more) if he truly wanted to. When you watch a Thunder game, it’s obvious that Durant can get a quality look almost whenever he wants it. But he’s an incredibly disciplined scorer that wants to score only efficiently. It truly seems like Durant could just pound 18-foot jumpers for an entire game if he wanted. Two hard dribbles, a crossover to run his man into a pick and then pull up. Sometimes he makes it look so incredibly simple.
It’s obviously not and there are nights the jumper isn’t falling like usual. But the focus it has to take to tell yourself to let go of points and key on assists and efficient scoring is impressive. But then again, it’s KD. What do you expect?
2. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 1)
Westbrook endured his worst shooting stretch of the season last week hitting just 26-77 (33.7 percent) from the floor. You might assume he was settling for jumpers or just jacking 3s. Actually, that’s not the case. Westbrook went 4-15 from 3, which isn’t an inordinate amount of 3s. Westbrook actually struggled in the paint, going just 12-24 at the rim (a low number in both attempts and makes for him), while also struggling mightily from 3-9 feet hitting only 5-19 from that location.
What has become his sweet spot it seems is that 10-15 foot range jumper, but he only took six shots from that spot, missing all of them. (He was 6-15 from 16-23 feet.)
It’s kind of ironic to think that Westbrook needs that jumper to be his normal effective self, but it’s true. He’s a terrific finisher and can get to the rim with relative ease, but he’s such a dynamic scorer when he’s hitting jumpers along with attacking the rim. I mentioned it in the recap Sunday, but I can’t tell if it’s a defensive strategy from teams, if Westbrook’s just passing on that look or if it’s something else.
3. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 3)
It’s been a curious thing as to why Scott Brooks seems to sit Ibaka down in games where he’s impacted the first three quarters. Against Indiana, Ibaka had seven blocks in 20 minutes. Against Miami, five in 24 minutes. In April, he’s averaging 5.6 blocks a game in just 23.4 minutes per game. That’s 8.6 per 36. 11.4 per 48. That’s insane.
So why is Brooks sitting him? He was asked before Sunday’s game about that. “With playing small, you only can play one big because Kevin is the other big depending on what type of center they throw on the floor. Like with [Roy] Hibbert, he gave us fits in the first half, but Perk did a good job of stopping him in the second half. That would have been a tough matchup for Serge. Serge is a great shot-blocker and a good help defender, but he’s working on being a better low-post defender. It’s one of the toughest decisions you have to make. The same thing with Thabo and James. It’s a tough decision, because Serge was having a lot of blocks in that game. I felt we needed a mixture of scoring and a low-post defender because of Hibbert’s ability to score at the block.”
Is that a good enough explanation? I can accept it, but it still doesn’t feel right. I see why he chose Perk to defend Hibbert instead of Ibaka, but there has to be a creative way to make sure Ibaka is able to properly impact a game regardless of matchups. I mean, we’re talking about a crazy amount of blocked shots, plus Ibaka’s excellent offensive rebound, plus his deadly mid-range jumper that’s just sitting on the bench doing nothing.
Ibaka needs minutes. He needs more than 25 a game. He needs to be on the floor because he’s the type of player that can impact a game. I understand there are times Nick Collison is a better low post defender on someone or the team is playing smallball, but Ibaka has just been too productive to sit right now.
4. Nick Collison (Last week: 6)
Did you know Collison had seven offensive rebounds against Toronto? And did you know he went 12-17 from the field last week? And did you know he did this? That putback dunk is obviously one of my favorite plays in NBA history.
5. James Harden (Last week: 4)
Harden went through easily the worst week of his season averaging only 11.2 points on 39 percent shooting between the Laker and Pacer games. He was essentially a non-factor off the Thunder bench, making only minor impressions on the game. He appeared to restore some of that swag though Sunday against the Raptors scoring 17 on 11 shots. Harden’s extra scoring isn’t just important in the final tally, but it relieves so much pressure off of Westbrook and Durant that the Thunder are incredibly more balanced with it. Harden spaces the floor, makes the offense more dynamic and versatile and takes OKC’s offense to another level. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the week Harden’s offense dropped is the same week the Thunder’s offense sank a bit.
6. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 5)
Thabo hasn’t scored in double-figures since March 18. He’s only hit nine 3s since his return. He’s not scoring very much. So in other words, back to normal.
7. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 7)
Perk has had three technical fouls rescinded this season and one changed to a flagrant. He’s sitting on 11 for the season, two more putting him at a suspension. If those previous technicals hadn’t been changed, Perk would’ve missed two games already with a suspension. But with only 10 games left, it looks like Perk is going to make good on his guarantee to get the techs under control when he needed to. Except he didn’t. The league office just bailed him out.
8. Derek Fisher: (Last week: 8)
Derek Fisher made two 3s against Toronto. Two! He’s acknowledged he’s not shooting the ball well lately, which I think is the first step in shooting slump rehabilitation. So maybe he’s putting the bad shooting behind him and will have it locked in for the postseason. Believing in unrealistic things is fun.
9. Daequan Cook (Last week: N/A)
With Cook back and evidently healthy, Scott Brooks now has his full 10-man rotation again. He was asked Sunday if he’d stick with a 10-man and he actually had to think about it for a second. He ended up saying yes, but that scared me. Because I fear Cook would be the player cut from it.
Brooks obviously has a thing for Fisher and a smallball lineup, which is fine, but that lineup is absolutely more effective with Cook. Brooks has cited rebounding as an issue for that group but both Cook and Thabo are quality rebounding guards, while Fisher isn’t at all. The preferred situation is Cook goes back to his spot duty of 10-12 minutes of sharpshooting while also being available for extended stretches in a smallball lineup. Not Fisher, unless extreme circumstances warrant it.
10. Nazr Mohammed (Last week: 12)
Or maybe Mohammed’s the one getting squeezed. Who knows.
11. Cole Aldrich (Last week: 9)
Two things I love about Cole Aldrich Garbage Time Fun: 1) Him trying to madly rebound every miss and block every shot and 2) his celebratory dunk that has become the Thunder’s victory signal. My dream is for an NBA Finals game to end that way.
12. Royal Ivey (Last week: 10)
13. Lazar Hayward (Last week: 11)
They played a combined five minutes last week, all coming in the blowout over Toronto. And… we’re done here.
Inactives: Eric Maynor, Reggie Jackson