Some losses you get over quickly. Some losses linger.
This is one of those losses that will linger.
What a game though. Back and forth, up and down, left and right, up and down again. It was like the Contra code. Lots of screaming, both positively and negatively. You know a game is great when your perspective of what happened was completely influenced by the final score. If Ty Lawson clangs his game-winner and OKC makes one in return, all the transgressions you felt were unforgivable the first 47 minutes, are now magically washed away. But since the Thunder finished on the short end, it’s about what went wrong, who messed up, who is to blame.
That, my friends, is the mark of a great freaking game.
Here’s what sticks out to me most: After a hot start by the Thunder, the first half was a Denver track meet. The Nuggets turned everything into a layup drill. It was like a race to the rim with the winner getting free queso. The Thunder somehow survived 40 first half points in the paint from Denver and got to the locker room down just nine.
OKC came out of the break extremely strong, attacking aggressively and slowing down the Denver rush. George Karl immediately adjusted, inserting Wilson Chandler for Kenneth Faried less than three minutes into the third. And for the entire quarter, the Thunder played two bigs. Denver got back to its ball movement, fast-track ways, extending back to a nine-point lead heading to the fourth quarter as OKC struggled to find anything consistent defensively.
Finally, with 9:44 left, Scott Brooks subbed Kevin Durant for Serge Ibaka, marking the first real long-term commitment to going small for the night (OKC played small for a spurt in the second quarter). With a lineup of Reggie Jackson (then Russell Westbrook), Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant and Nick Collison, the Thunder were a +7 in less than three minutes to cut the Denver lead to two. At that point, it was game on. Everything finally slowed down and it was about which team was going to execute and finish.
Obviously, the big question is, why wait so long to go small when it very clearly was the most effective lineup against what Karl was using? In Brooks’ defense, Durant is really his only legit stretch 4 and this wasn’t the type of game where you’re wise to commit him to playing 45 minutes. So Brooks was probably just trying to get by until he felt like he could go all in for the rest of the quarter.
And really, it damn near worked. The Lawson shot and the Wilson Chandler Shuffle aside, Westbrook missed five big free throws, Ibaka had a really dumb offensive foul that resulted in two Denver free throws, and KD went just 1-4 in the last two minutes. Those are the kind of transgressions I’m talking about — those go your way and Brooks is looking a whole lot better with his strategy.
I wrote about the feast or famine nature the Thunder have experienced as of late, and here was a big opportunity to cleanse a bit of that. The game got white-knuckle tight with 4:07 left and the score knotted at 96-96. Westbrook was ballin’ out in a big way, and OKC survived awful bench play to be right where it needed to be. And here’s how the Thunder executed the last four minutes:
- 4:00: Westbrook missed 17-foot jumper (96-96)
- 3:16: Westbrook makes one of two free throws (97-96)
- 2:49: Westbrook makes two of two free throws (99-96)
- 2:12: Westbrook misses seven-footer runner (99-97)
- 2:01: Durant misses 10-foot jumper (99-97)
- 1:40: Durant misses 12-foot jumper (99-99)
- 1:15: Durant makes two of two free throws (101-101)
- 0:33: Durant misses 17-foot jumper (101-101)
- 0:17: Durant makes five-foot runner (103-103)
In the last four minutes, that’s nine possessions, with four shots going to Westbrook, five to Durant. In that order. Now, I want Kevin Durant as my closer any place, any time, but this has become a bit of a trend lately for OKC. We saw it against Houston, against Golden State, against Cleveland, last time against Denver — the Thunder like to force-feed Durant in isolation. I get it; it’s hard to running any kind of ball movement set in those late few minutes. You didn’t see Denver doing it either and that’s what they live on.
But I do find it a bit curious for Westbrook, a guy who is having some kind of night, to go from 100 to zero just like that as he devotedly feeds KD like a good little trooper. Do I want Westbrook doing more? Eh, I don’t know. I definitely prefer Durant. I’ve seen KD sink too many of those gorgeous step-back iso jumpers to doubt him. But at the same time, the recent results do make you wonder if the Thunder are missing a little diversity. They had a little taste of that with Harden. Kevin Martin provides them none.
Again, is this a concern, or a blip on the radar? I’m not exactly sure. But I do know that this game tonight is precisely the kind of game the Thunder will be facing in the postseason. High intensity, hot atmosphere, big pressure, huge moments. The Thunder are definitely battle-tested and proven in those situations. At least last year’s Thunder were. Which I think is the cause for some concern.
- Starters: Thunder 94, Nuggets 34. Benches: Nuggets 71, Thunder 11. And that was actually somewhat of an improvement from earlier in the game when it was 60-4 in favor of Denver.
- A lot of that came from Wilson Chandler who inherited the Corey Brewer honorary Torch the Thunder badge. He went for a career-high 35 tonight, hitting 6-7 from 3.
- One thing about Brooks and lineups: It ‘s so clear that he only likes to go small when he’s either a) absolutely, entirely forced to or b) can dictate matchups with it. When he simply has the opportunity to just match up with the other side, he consistently stays big. Like he’s trying to fly in the face of common sense or something. Thinking outside of the box, but overthinking outside of the box. It’s weird.
- Another thing on big/small lineups: The most consistent gripe I got tonight was about Brooks, with Perk being a very close second. There seems to be some confusion for some about what exactly a “small” lineup entails. It isn’t just removing Perk. It’s about the combination of so-called “big” people. In that, Brooks often plays two of them, whether it’s Perk and Ibaka, Perk and Collison or Ibaka and Collison. It’s such a cop-out to say, “Perk should never play against Denver!” Because it’s not about Perk. It’s about who he’s playing with.
- Related: Perk was a +5 tonight.
- Oh, Derek Fisher. He played five minutes in the second quarter and was a -7 which is incredible, because I could’ve sworn it was a -70. He airballed a 3 by about 30 feet and didn’t really do anything. I don’t know why he played. On that topic…
- When it comes to the Thunder bench, honestly, what does Fisher add? I’m not trying to rip on him just to do it, but seriously, what does he bring extra to the table? If it’s spot-up shooting, doesn’t OKC have that with Martin already? If it’s guard play, don’t they have that with Jackson? If it’s defense, well, we know it’s not defense. Why would minutes go to him and not someone like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones or Ronnie Brewer, players that bring something different to the floor? I don’t get it.
- Related: Why no Ronnie Brewer? Wouldn’t he have helped in a few situations where Denver was playing Chandler/Iguodala at power forward?
- I’m just not sure what to think about Kevin Martin. I fear the postseason, I really do. He hit a big 3 in the fourth quarter, which was great, but those were his only three points of the game. The guy has the ability to carry an offense on his own. But sometimes, while trying to fit alongside two other great scorers, it’s just uncomfortable.
- Another thing I didn’t like, that sort of might contradict that previous statement: Martin played just 24 minutes, which is fewer than usual. Normally he gets about 30. Related: Fisher played five minutes. I think you get my point here.
- It’s pretty clear Brooks prefers Reggie Jackson over Fisher. So that’s kind of settled, I think. Jackson checked in alone tonight and played 16 minutes, some in the fourth quarter even. Fisher didn’t play at all in the second half.
- These are the kinds of games that illustrate why Thunder fans love Westbrook so stinking much. The way he competed reminded me some of Game 4 of the Finals. With the arena booing him on every touch, he came out scorching and never stopped coming. He had 38, six rebounds and five assists and just played his butt off. If you watch Westbrook and can open your mind and appreciate him for the competitor he is, it’s these types of games that make it hard to really be that critical of him. He just plays with so much effing heart.
- Thabo went for eight points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Weird. But he did miss two super simple layups in the fourth, which were important.
- The Thunder allowed 40 points in the paint and 14 fast break points in the first half. The second half, 20 points in the paint and six fast break points. Adjustment, or just the nature of the game?
- A game like this is precisely why I have my doubts about the Nuggets in the playoffs. Can they really rely on a step-up performance like they got from Chandler for four games in a series? They got one from Brewer last time, but who’s next? And can they get 12 of those step-up performances to reach the Finals? Just doesn’t seem likely to me.
- It’s a shame the Thunder lost this game, because I fully intended to write 1,500 words about how freaking spectacular KD’s up-and-under was. Feels like forever ago now. I loved Tirico’s call though. “COME ONNNNNNNNN!!!!’
- I’d have a hard time guarding Chandler too because I’d just be straight at that face in the middle of his neck. Hypnotizing.
- No fireworks between Westbrook and Rocky, though the Nuggets did a splendid job of having fun with it. Rocky spent pregame flexing at Westbrook, then when he came out for his halfcourt shot, he had security lining the paint. It was great.
- I know this isn’t true, but is Perk OKC’s best isolation defender? On a guard, on a forward, on whoever, he seems to consistently get stops. So basically I’m asking, should he have been guarding Ty Lawson on that last shot? I’ll show myself out.
- KD was hit with his 12th technical foul of the season. Somewhat of a weak one, depending on how intentional it was that he flung the ball into the stands.
- Thunder defenders are into this thing now of yelling “HELL NO” when a guy shoots a jumper that might not be expected to make it. Example: Faried takes an 18-footer, Perk yells “HELL NO.”
- The Thunder are now 4-5 in the alternate uniforms, and 2-5 on the road. Meaning 31 percent of OKC’s losses this season have come in those uniforms.
Next up: Clippers at Staples on Sunday.