When the final buzzer sounded on Game 4 which left Serge Ibaka crumpled on the floor, hands on head in disbelief, I just kept repeating the same thing over and over.
What a shame.
Building off a spectacular Game 3, Kevin Durant one-upped himself in his mission to carry the Thunder to a higher place by going for 38 points on 12-16 shooting, eight eight rebounds and six assists. His step-back 3 that cut Houston’s lead to four was ruthless. His 1-on-4 dunk to take it to two was completely vicious.
Durant’s game was about to be one of those transcendent playoff games that you’d never, ever, ever forget. Playing in his more traditional manner as the cold-blooded efficient scoring terminator rather than super-aggressive point forward, KD was on the verge of an all-timer.
With two critical stops, the Thunder had the ball with 12 seconds left, and a chance to finish this thing. With KD cooking — and saddled with five fouls — it was obvious: Go for the win. Let one fly, swish it through, pray for a Bounce Of God, clang it long, whatever. Try and end it right then and there, with one swoop.
And that was clearly the plan. Durant was trying to find space for another step-back from the exact spot he just hit one, but sort of fumbled the handle and was forced to kick out. A scramble for the ball ensued with Reggie Jackson collecting the ball at midcourt as time became a serious issue. Making his second start ever and playing his first real crunchtime minutes, Jackson was pressed into the most important play of his young career. He drove hard, split the defense and found himself in the paint, forced to make another split second decision. He attacked Omer Asik, absorbed contact, and flipped a shot at the rim.
It fell short and Ibaka found himself in that more-difficult-than-it-looks position of trying to hurry a shot back up while not rushing it. The clock was ticking in Ibaka’s head and as soon as that ball hit his hands, it had to feel like it was a 15-pound bowling ball. He left it excruciatingly short, and the Rockets survived a sweep.
But man, what a shame. What a shame that Durant’s performance was wasted in a loss, what a shame that he didn’t have the opportunity to do what it seemed he was destined to do tonight. I wanted to watch him let a game-winning 3 fly. Make or miss, he was meant to take that shot tonight. It had to end that way.
Instead, it finished with Ibaka, entirely distraught under the basket and the Thunder flying back to OKC for a Game 5.
There’s going to be a lot of focus on how this game ended for the Thunder, whether Jackson made the right move, whether it was a foul, how Ibaka missed, if the play was good. But to me, this game was lost in the first six minutes of the third quarter. The Thunder carried a 60-53 lead to the third quarter, but came out of the locker room without much purpose and watched the Rockets immediately rip off a 10-0 run to put OKC in a hole.
It was a painful flashback to the Finals where Scott Brooks devotedly stuck with his starting five for two minutes too long as the lack of offensive structure and inability to matchup really caught up. Kendrick Perkins played a completely terrible game — truly, one of the worst I’ve ever seen from anyone — and while Brooks has proven that he’s sticking with his lineups regardless of anything, it got to the point where you had to hope Perk would set another couple illegal screens just to force Brooks’ hand to get him out.
Those first six minutes of the third are the types of lapses we’ve seen this Thunder team weather and overcome time and time again this season. But that was when they had the walking 8-0 run that is Russell Westbrook out there. Without that explosive bailout option, the Thunder simply can’t afford those types of lulls. They almost got away with it, and if KD had the chance to let his shot fly, it wouldn’t have mattered. But in the postseason, every bucket matters, every possession counts, and every point adds up. You can’t give away a minute of a game, much less six, or this case 12, counting the first quarter.
Not that I would expect anything to change, because come on, we know it won’t, and the Thunder are still obviously in prime position to advance. The Rockets have to beat the Thunder four straight times still, two of those having to come in OKC. Letting a team hang around is a mistake though, because the Thunder really shouldn’t be playing on Wednesday. They should be practicing and figuring out how to eliminate the issues that have plagued them at times in these last two post-Westbrook games.
Instead, they’ve got to close out at home. The Rockets are feeling good knowing they’ve finally broken the seal. They beat the Thunder, they didn’t collapse in crunchtime, they survived Kevin Durant. OKC can’t expect to cruise to a win in Game 5, either. The Thunder will have to play well, and can’t rely on KD to put up another near perfect 42 minutes.
At the same time, despite the loss, I was mildly encouraged. The Rockets are a bad defensive team, but the Thunder produced a high quality offensive game, and were within an eyelash of sweeping the series.
If only KD had gotten off that 3.
- OK, let’s address this: Did Omer Asik foul Reggie Jackson? To me, it’s pretty clear cut that Asik was occupying his own space while jumping mostly vertical as Jackson’s momentum carried him into Asik. Honestly, I thought it was an easy no-call. And a very good one. I agree, it’s a call that James Harden gets to an infuriating degree, but you didn’t see any Thunder player argue the call. The NBA’s rule of verticality protects a defender from exactly this kind of play.
- Besides, it really worked out better for the Thunder in the end anyway. Would you rather have had a point-blank look for Ibaka to tie, or Jackson headed to the free throw line having to make both to tie? The no-call almost was a blessing in disguise for the Thunder if Ibaka could’ve just finished.
- If you watch closely on Ibaka’s putback, he didn’t catch it cleanly. And not having time to regather it, he rushed it up basically shooting it with his wrists. Hard to blame him too much for missing. It wasn’t at easy at it looked.
- Speaking of Ibaka, he turned in a real stinker tonight. In 34 minutes, eight points, five rebounds and three blocks. He only took eight shots, making three. He has to be better. Has to. Otherwise, the Thunder are sunk.
- The most frustrating development of the game was Ibaka not being able to completely expose and take advantage of Harden defending him. That’s pathetic. Pathetic on Ibaka for not demanding the ball and overpowering Harden on the block, pathetic on the Thunder for not recognizing this and exploiting it constantly. Ibaka doesn’t really have a polished back-to-the-basket game to rely on, but he does have six inches and 75 pounds to that should allow him to physically dominate Harden.
- Perk’s line is bad, but it doesn’t really even begin to describe how much of a non-factor he was. He was super bad.
- The starting five in nine minutes was a -17.
- The Rockets attacked OKC’s two big lineup in an extremely smart way of having guys run soft curling cuts and hitting them on the run. Chandler Parsons was the primary guy and he basically just made sure he caught the ball on the run headed at the basket.
- I thought Reggie Jackson played an excellent game. I loved the fact he took 18 shots. He’s got to step up if the Thunder are going to win. He played 36 minutes and while I would’ve liked to have seen more in terms of a creating/distribution, the fact he was so confident in his shot and so aggressive attacking is a great sign. There was only one shot he took where I didn’t think it was a good idea (transition 3).
- One area the Thunder missed Westbrook: They couldn’t dribble. Houston ramped up the on-ball pressure and a couple of times the Thunder just completely caved.
- Related: KD turned it over seven times tonight, five coming in the first half.
- Pretty sure I like King Joffrey more than Francisco Garcia.
- The Thunder’s offensive rating tonight was 107.0. Good, not great. Problem was more the defense than anything else. Really, I thought the Thunder did a good job adjusting in game two without Westbrook, in not just hoping KD could do everything. They ran a lot more sets and spaced the floor much better. It was similar to the sort of offense OKC got by with in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Sometimes it flames out and when it does, it looks BAD. But there are times the screens and pindowns and other stuff works well.
- Nick Collison hasn’t been very good in this series. He has serious trouble keeping Asik off the glass and while his defense has been OK, it hasn’t been noticeably good.
- Kevin McHale is one constant state of disheveled. When he comes walking into the postgame interview with his tie all loose, he looks like a dad coming home from his soul-sucking 9-to-5.
- DeAndre Liggins played 14 very effective minutes.
- I don’t know what the problem is, but Kevin Martin has to show up for two halves. He scored 14 in the first half and appeared to be a real X-Factor. Then he only scores two in the second half. Is this a Thunder problem, or a Kevin Martin one?
- Derek Fisher might’ve played his best game ever in a Thunder uniform. I’m not afraid to say it: He was almost a difference-maker tonight. His shot-making was timely, and his defense was scrappy and good. Not once did I think, “What is Fisher doing out there!!??!” It’s a new world without Russ and we all have to face the facts: The Thunder need Derek Fisher right now. I will now take a hammer to my groin.
- James Harden was straight up awful tonight. It feels like the Thunder missed an opportunity because while he’s quietly had a kind of terrible series, he’s not likely to play this bad again. He had 15 points on 4-12 shooting with 10 turnovers.
- Both sides are upset with the officiating, but honestly, I kind of feel for them. You’ve got Harden who is a master at creating contact and tricking officials into thinking he was bumped. Then you’ve got KD who is incredibly aggressive at initiating and looking for contact himself. It’s not easy to pick what’s a foul and what’s not.
Next up: Game 5 in OKC on Wednesday.