With 2:23 left in the fourth quarter, Serge Ibaka powered through a two-handed dunk to put the Thunder up 99-93, appearing to put a pesky Clippers team away for good.
Thirty-one seconds later, it was a different kind blow Ibaka dealt to the Clippers. One that will certainly be reviewed by the league, and one that nearly cost the Thunder a tremendous road win. Battling Blake Griffin for rebounding position under the rim, Ibaka was being held off and out of clear frustration, chopped down hard at Griffin.
As Matt Barnes’ 3 swished through the net, Ibaka’s swing landed right in Griffin’s painted area, dropping the L.A. big man to the floor. Official Danny Crawford whistled a foul, then the trio of refs went to the monitor to review the play. It was determined to be a Flagrant 1 foul, thus giving the Clippers two free throws and the ball. Griffin split the pair, then on a second attempt after an offensive rebound, Jamal Crawford buried a 3.
One possession, seven points. And a 100-99 lead for the Clippers with 1:30 left. All that great work over the last 46 minutes and 30 seconds wiped away by one completely boneheaded moment. What was set to be a terrific road win against a big time Western contender was just put in jeopardy. The Thunder survived a mid-fourth breakdown against a brainbusting Clipper zone to put themselves in a great position to win. And then poof, it was slipping away.
Then a weird thing happened. Russell Westbrook, not Kevin Durant, assumed the crunchtime controls and led the Thunder to a suddenly improbable win. He came right back after the Crawford 3 and buzzed to the rim for an easy layup. The Thunder came up with a stop, then Westbrook beautifully set up Serge Ibaka for an and-1 finish. Crawford came back to make two free throws and with 26 seconds left, set up by a perfect pass by Durant, Westbrook splashed a baseline jumper to basically seal the deal.
The last 4:58 of the game, Durant didn’t attempt a single shot (he did make four free throws though). This was basically the exact opposite crunchtime approach than what OKC used against Denver. Here are the last five minutes:
- 4:37: Durant makes two of two free throws (91-87)
- 4:07: Westbrook makes two of two free throws (93-90)
- 3:38: Kevin Martin (who?!?!) makes a driving layup (95-90)
- 3:15: Westbrook finishes a steal with a dunk (97-90)
- 2:23: Ibaka makes a dunk (99-93)
- 1:24: Westbrook makes a driving layup (101-100)
- 0:59: Ibaka makes an and-1 layup and hits the free throw (104-100)
- 0:26: Westbrook nails a 15-foot baseline jumper (106-102)
- 0:01: Durant makes two of two free throws (108-104)
Just like Denver, nine possessions. Unlike Denver, four different players scored. Westbrook did the bulk of it, but Martin made a terrific slashing layup, Ibaka finished a great pick-and-roll and Durant knocked his free throws. There was diversity in the offense, but still a focus. Instead of simply handing it off to Durant on first, second, third and fourth down, the Thunder ran… offense?
Look, nobody wants the ball in Durant’s hands late than me. Pound for pound, I don’t know if there’s really anyone I trust more in the NBA to take a team home than KD. He’s proven it time and again, on the biggest of stages. But I do think that mentally, the weight of carrying such a crunchtime burden has to be extremely exhausting. Without James Harden, the Thunder’s late-game focus has mostly been KD and KD only, which again, is great, but for that to happen every single instance that means a) Durant has the game on his neck every single time which again, is a massive thing to carry and b) opposing teams know what’s coming.
And KD is the kind of guy that can crush you while telling you exactly what he’s going to do. But to expect him to come through every single time just isn’t fair. Leading up to crunchtime today, he’d missed his last six shots. He wasn’t fading or anything, but he certainly wasn’t cooking either. So the Thunder finally employed their other superstar to make big plays. I’ve put it this way before: If Colin Kaepernick was your quarterback and he had Adrian Peterson in his backfield and you’re down six on first and goal with a minute left, would you tell him to turn around and hand it to AD four straight times? You don’t want to neuter the talent you have just because you’ve directed so much of the focus at the most talented of the bunch. If that makes sense.
So it was Russell Westbrook who took the Thunder home. And he did a tremendous job of it. Next time, it might be Durant again. But building that crunchtime trust between Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and even Martin is a very encouraging thing.
This is the first close game the Thunder have won since Jan. 18 against the Mavericks. Their last 18 games were either a blowout win, or a loss. Close losses against the Cavs, the Heat, the Nuggets, the Lakers, the Nuggets (again) and the Rockets. A trend was appearing, a somewhat concerning one. The Thunder can dominate you, but without Harden, could they beat you close?
I don’t think today’s win is necessarily a definitive answer to the question. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
- OK, so overshadowing the Thunder’s big win is Nutpunchgate 2013. Here’s a GIF of it. It certainly looks real bad. I’ll say two things about it: 1) Nobody, except Serge Ibaka, knows exactly what his intention was. You can say what it looked like and make your own determinations, but you can’t genuinely know what he was trying to do. So it’s a pretty substantial assumption to make to say Ibaka was intentionally nailing Griffin in the nads. Because that’s as dirty a play as you can make pretty much. 2) Obviously I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think Ibaka tried to hit Griffin in the boys. Griffin was holding him off, grabbing his jersey and Ibaka swung down. It looked to me like he was trying to karate chop Griffin’s arm but whiffed and nailed him right in the sack. The three officials reviewed it and apparently saw it the way I did. We’ll see how Stu Jackson sees it though.
- A third thought: I’m not sure there are many people that have seen Blake Griffin play more basketball than me, maybe other than Tommy and Gail Griffin. He’s easily the most dramatic player I’ve sever watched. He exaggerates contact so much, he flails and flops. He thinks he’s got a target on his back and that everyone is out to cheapshot him. He always overpowerd opponents in middle school and high school, so a lot of teams tried to rough him up. So he learned to exaggerate to draw attention and get calls. And it has stuck with him. He’s also one of the most physical guys in the world and for some reason doesn’t understand that when he dishes it out, he’s going to get it back at him.
- Ibaka on the play via J.A. Adande: “It’s not anything [where] I want to try to hurt him. I’m not that kind of person. I just try to play … He grabbed my jersey first. I wanted to try to defend myself…but not to hurt him.”
- In two games, the Thunder have done a pretty good job of defending CP3. He’s just 10-35 for 35 points, with 17 assists and seven turnovers. He went for 26 on 8-21 today, with eight assists and three turnovers.
- The Clippers turned it over 21 times, 16 coming in the first half.
- The Thunder struggled — for them — at the line again. Nine misses (25-34).
- KD missed three free throws (12-15), which made this only the second time this season he’s missed more than two in a game. (He missed four against Portland the second game of the season.)
- I’m definitely concerned about Kevin Martin. He made a very big play in crunchtime with that layup and hit a nice 3, but he started 0-6 and went just 3-12 for 10 points. I actually really liked his more aggressive style today, but at the same time, it’s not hard to envision him not showing up in a few playoff games.
- Ibaka made his 14th 3 this season. He’s now 14-37 (37.8 percent).
- You know what the Thunder haven’t pulled off in a while? The little backcut lob play between Durant and Westbrook. What happened to that?
- Hey, Derek Fisher played zero minutes today. But I just want to credit his Veteran Leadership for today’s win.
- (Seriously though, that’s very encouraging that Scott Brooks isn’t just playing Fisher carte blanche. I honestly can’t think of many circumstances where Brooks should say, “Hey, this is a great time for Fish!” but at least he’s willing to at least play it all by ear some.)
- I saw a lot of people tweet and say the “West is up for grabs” now that Tony Parker is out for a few weeks. When wasn’t it before? Obviously Parker’s injury could potentially swing things in favor of OKC, but the Thunder were just two games back in the loss column of the Spurs, with two games to go against them.
- KD’s line: 45 minutes, 35 points (10-25), nine rebounds, four assists, two steals.
- Westbrook’s: 40 minutes, 29 points (11-20), 10 assists, six rebounds.
- Brooks tried to sneak Westbrook a little shot of rest early-ish in the fourth quarter, but it didn’t work out well at all. Reggie Jackson subbed in and the Thunder had obvious problems solving the Clippers’ zone without Westbrook’s dynamic playmaking and athleticism. Westbrook subbed in and promptly dropped an 18-footer.
- That Clipper zone was really clever. They went with a 3-2, which eliminated the opportunity to isolate Durant at the high post. So OKC had to basically just shoot the Clippers out of it, something they weren’t able to do. Once Brooks came back with two bigs, it forced their hand because it’s hard to defend two interior players in a 3-2.
- Perk picked up his 11th tech this season. #PerkIsDefinitelyNotNice
- Jamal Crawford or Kevin Martin: Who would you rather have as your sixth man? I’m not asking that to make a statement saying I’d choose Crawford. I’m genuinely curious.
- That block from Ibaka with seven seconds left.
- Nick Collison, -10 in a win. My world is shaken.
- Second quarter, the Clippers went ultra-small with Griffin playing center and Grant Hill at power forward. And the Thunder stayed big with Thabeet and Collison. Same thing happened in the third quarter. DeAndre Jordan only played a total of 16 minutes, all of it coming at the beginning of the first and third quarters. Like the Nugget game though, Brooks went small for most of the fourth, but did choose to go with two bigs the last 3:35, subbing in Perk for Martin. The Clippers had Lamar Odom out there who is the definition of a stretch 4.
- I feel like the last time I saw Chauncey Billups make a 3 was 2005.
- KD falls for a lot of pump fakes. One of the biggest ways he finds himself in foul trouble.
- Underrated skill of Perk: Bench towel-waving after a good play. He’s excellent at it.
Next up: Home against the Lakers on Tuesday.