The Thunder are lucky. Very lucky.
Up 15 with 9:23 left in the game, the Thunder were in position for a Perry Jones/Ronnie Brewer closeout kind of game. Kevin Martin canned a 3 that appeared to be a final dagger to snuff out whatever was left for the Rockets.
But the Rockets started chipping. They went to a zone, and the Thunder looked like someone was trying to explain the plot of Donnie Darko to them. They were confused, befuddled, confounded, baffled — you get it. Turnovers, bad shots, terrible possessions. And the Rockets were consistently putting the ball in the basket on the other end. A Patrick Beverley 3. An Asik dunk, a Russell Westbrook layup. Harden hit free throws, Delfino 3, Asik dunk, Beverley runner, an Asik free throw, a Harden runner, a Harden free throw and a Delfino 3. What do you notice in there? Just one Thunder bucket. Boom, a 21-2 run and with 3:27 left, the Thunder were down four.
“I think we got a little complacent with the way we were playing,” said Thabo Sefolosha. “I think looking back on last game, I think we maybe thought it was going to be easier than it was. We have to take this team very seriously and do what we’re supposed to.”
Whatever the excuse was, the Thunder were on the verge of an incredible collapse, one that was going to open the door for the Rockets, as well as one that was bound to set off sirens all over. Looky here at the Thunder everyone, choking in crunchtime as James Harden played for another team. It kind of was the perfect storm for panic and rabble rabble-ing.
But really, maybe a necessary storm. One that allowed the Thunder to exorcise some crunchtime demons, to make plays with No. 13 on the other side, to figure out a way to close in the biggest of moments.
It started with a Serge Ibaka dunk thing, then a fabulous defensive play from KD erasing an easy Chandler Parsons layup that turned around for two Westbrook free throws in the blink of an eye. Harden responded with a layup, but KD had his own answer, walking into a 3 to put OKC up one, 98-97, with 2:28 left.
But taking a page out of the Miami playbook, the Thunder didn’t just hammer Durant and Westbrook every possession. In a couple of the best sequences I’ve seen from Durant, he perfectly drove the paint and kicked to an open Thabo for 3. Now, understand this: Thabo had just missed three straight 3s, including an airball. But KD had the trust to make the pass, and Thabo paid it off for him.
“His trust tonight was critical. He kept trusting his teammates and they made shots for him at the end,” said Scott Brooks. “Just stay composed. We’ve been on both sides of those runs. And the only way you can get through it is by sticking together. And I thought our guys did. I got to give our guys credit for sticking together and continuing to trust the pass. KD got a nice 3, Thabo hit a big 3, Serge hit a jumpshot. But it’s the trust that makes us a good team on both ends of the floor.”
Said KD: “I trusted Thabo, K-Mart and Russ. I trusted everybody. No matter if they miss it. If I see them wide open, they will make those shots. [If they don’t] we got to live with it.”
That’s a championship mindset from Durant right there. That’s the LeBron/Miami way. Trust your teammates, believe that they’ll make the shots, make the play. You can’t win it all on your own. You have to play together. It’s hard to do, to take the ball out of your own hands, but sometimes, you have to just make the right play, the one that’s there.
All told, the Thunder got 17 of their 27 fourth quarter points from players not named Russell or Kevin (Durant, that is). The Rockets had the Thunder rattled with the zone look, but the final five minutes, OKC didn’t turn it over a single time and executed high quality offense. And it started because there wasn’t a hero look to the way OKC played.
“I think all season long we’ve been doing a great job of closing out big games and trying to prepare ourselves for moments like this,” Westbrook said. “I thought tonight we all stuck together. They made a run and made shots, but I thought everybody had a big role toward the end of the game, and we came out with the win.”
You can look at this one of two ways: Frustrated it even came to the late-game execution, or encouraged by the way the Thunder found a way. Because there’s no avoiding the fact that at home, the Thunder nearly gave away a 15-point fourth quarter lead. But then again, responding to close out the game had a very 2011-12 playoffs look, didn’t it?
“We know, we know. We’ve been in a lot of close games,” Brooks said. “Maybe not this year, but you don’t forget how you play.”
You might not forget how you play, but you might be missing one of the players that helped you play that way. That’s the thing, like Brooks said, “maybe not this year.” The Thunder haven’t been tested a lot on close games this season. In a lot of situations against very good teams, the Thunder have failed. And when the Rockets found their way back and eventually had the game tied with five minutes left, it was impossible not to feel the anxiety.
“It’s a five-minute game,” Perk said, talking about when the Rockets tied it up. “You just got to grind it out. These are the moments you live for. You don’t really want to play in the playoffs playing blowouts. You want to live for it. It’s going to determine or not whose got the guts or not, so you just go out there and compete.”
Aside from the fact I’d happily take 14 more blowout wins, Perk’s got a good point. The Thunder know this isn’t going to be easy. It’s the postseason and there are critical moments where you’re tested. Moments where you either rise, or fall. Moments where you step up, or step down. And the Thunder found their way. Granted, it’s the opening round, and it’s against a Rockets team they’re better than. But they could’ve given this one away. We’ve seen them fail in these moments during the regular season. This though, looked like a moment of true growth. It’s this kind of trust that can make the difference. The Thunder saw it in action tonight, and saw it work.
You can’t deny though the opportunities spoiled by the Rockets. I can think of three open 3s that rimmed out late in the game. Those drop, and who knows. Or if Perk gets called for a clever little grab on Parsons when Thabo sank his 3. You need those things to go your way. Those are the fine margins between winning and losing close games. More often than not, winning a tight game is more about luck than anything else.
And the Thunder are most definitely lucky. But they’re also up 2-0.
- The Rockets made a very obvious and key adjustment, almost right before tipoff actually, to start Parsons at power forward. It was essentially giving the Thunder the Miami treatment. And while it definitely opened the game a bit more for Houston, I think drawing a conclusion on Scott Brooks sticking big is plain silly. Because while aesthetically, the Thunder weren’t nearly as effective with their two big lineup, you can’t ignore that it was OKC’s best unit tonight. I heard and saw the grumbles about Brooks, but here are the facts: The Thunder were small when they blew a 15-point lead. Brooks inserted Perk for Martin for the final five minutes, and the Thunder finished +3, and won. The starters played 21 minutes tonight and were a +6, the best lineup for OKC.
- The Thunder played 10 smallball combinations tonight. Six were minuses, four pluses. The Thunder played two big lineups: Both were pluses.
- Patrick Beverley was a major difference maker. He challenged Westbrook all night, attacking the glass and getting in his face. No backdown from Beverley at all. Said Westbrook if he likes that kind of challenge: “It’s fun. During this time of the year, we got one goal and can’t let nobody get in our way. That’s how I feel and that’s how I want my team to respond as well.”
- Beverley had an interesting play in the first half where he tried to steal the ball from Westbrook well after Westbrook signaled for a timeout. Beverley’s knee seemed to crash into Westbrook’s hip, to which Russ both did not appreciate, and did not feel good about. Westbrook slapped the scoretable and was visibly hobbled as he tried to walk it off. He stayed in the game though — because of course — and immediately picked Beverley’s pocket and sprinted to the other end for a layup.
- Westbrook was brilliant in sparking multiple runs from OKC. That dude it tough. Nails don’t even describe him well enough. He’s tough as railroad spikes.
- There was some real chippy play out there, and some serious jawing between the teams. Francisco Garica and Westbrook barked at each other for a while, Perk gave Harden a good elbow, there were some hard fouls. Harden was asked what the deal with that was: “It’s the playoffs,” he said. I feel like you can give that answer for anything right now and it works.
- Beverley is basically Westbrook but smaller and with less talent. He’s pesky, tough and plays insanely hard. He beat Perk, Durant and Thabo for an offensive rebound all by himself once.
- Harden scored 36 on 9-24 shooting. But he went 17-20 from the free throw line.
- I honestly don’t know how much true dislike there was for Harden before the series. But the longer this goes on, the more it’s going to build. The flopping is going to grind Thunder fans into a world of Harden hate they never thought possible.
- Ibaka wasn’t nearly as impactful on the offensive boards tonight, which is a shame considering the smaller defenders on him, but he went 12-11-6 in 34 minutes. And hit some kind of a big shot.
- Durant and Westbrook went a combined 20-51 tonight.
- The Rockets shot 35 3s tonight, making 10. The Thunder also shot 35, making 11. Not the Thunder’s game there.
- One thing to recognize: Perk’s screening in the zone was critical. It took the Thunder a lot of possessions to understand they needed to screen the top of the zone, which was a way to open driving and passing lanes. Nick Collison would’ve been fine for it too, but Perk was almost out there as much to screen the zone as he was to defend.
- Houston didn’t put two bigs on the floor once. Not for the entire 48 minutes. Obviously the biggest change the Rockets made.
- Brooks on Houston’s adjustments: “That was their major adjustment, that they played much better tonight.” Oh.
- The Rockets somehow crushed OKC on the boards (57-40, 18 offensive rebounds), despite playing small the entire game. Brooks on that: “It doesn’t add up, other than it did add up.” Deep. More: “We can’t be the bigger team and give up the team that gives up 19 offensive rebounds.”
- Jeremy Lin didn’t play any in the second half with a chest contusion/pull. McHale said he’s not sure of his status.
- Who else was terrified with Martin at the line to ice? He’s never experienced this kind of moment really. He needed to make one, and he did. But came up way short on the second.
- The Thunder somehow had a lane violation on the first of two free throws. How does that even happen?
- Weird thought: Kevin McHale talks a lot like Dennis Nedry. Especially in that scene where he’s talking about debugging the phones.
- Super small lineups early in the second: Westbrook, Jackson, Fisher, Martin, Collison. That was weird.
- Beverley should get hit with the $5,000 flopping fine for the one he pulled on Westbrook in the second quarter. Westbrook raised an elbow, but Beverley definitely oversold it.
- The flag thing was neat.
- How does Parsons ever make a shot? It looks like a line drive to centerfield every time. I don’t know how it gets over the rim.
- No Derek Fisher in the second half.
Next up: Game 3 in Houston on Saturday.