HOUSTON — By the time Kevin Durant’s back-breaking 3-pointer bounced three times off the rim and once off the backboard before dropping softly through the hoop, an enterprising person could have learned a second language or built a ship in a bottle. Or at least, that’s sure what it seemed like as the defining shot of this Thunder postseason so far took its sweet time to splash home.
If this is any indication of how Oklahoma City’s playoff run is going to go with Russell Westbrook, it’s time to heed the advice of the sage Ray Arnold. “Hold on to your butts.”
Who knows if it was a tribute or just the force of habit that led to Westbrook’s jersey being hung in his vacant locker in the Toyota Center before Saturday’s game, but it served as a poignant reminder, as if one was needed, that OKC was missing one of the sharpest arrows in its quiver. No one can truly fill those shoes, and he’s not going to be back in uniform until October.
But the Thunder’s 3-point, nail-biting victory Saturday night in Houston proved a microcosm of what the rest of this playoff run is going to be like for Oklahoma City. Durant is going to have to play downright spectacularly for long stretches, Westbrook’s fill-ins are going to have to provide well-rounded efforts and be cool under intense pressure, every player on the roster is going to have to play at or near his full potential, and a little (or a lot) of luck is going to be needed even when all of the rest of that goes right.
Jackson, Fisher step up
At first, it looked like Thunder fans’ fears would be realized as the Rockets actually got off to a hot start. But even though Durant was largely responsible on his own for the commanding 26-point lead the Thunder built during the first half, the contributions of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher were certainly encouraging.
Jackson was as calm as can be before his first career NBA start — coming on the road, in the playoffs and replacing an All-Star. He insisted he slept “like a baby” the night before the game, and he looked like he wasn’t lying. And even though he got off to a slightly rocky start with two quick fouls and spent a big chunk of the second half’s important minutes planted firmly on the bench, Jackson filled his role in team defense about as well as can be expected, and the box score revealed his efficient offensive play — 14 points on six shots in 25 minutes.
But none of that seemed as important at the end of the night as the two free-throws Jackson calmly nailed in the game’s final seconds. Ice cold.
“I’m proud of the way he played,” Scott Brooks said after the game. “He kept his composure during some tough moments in the game. His last five minutes, you would think he was playing for six or seven years. It’s a great testament to his character.”
And despite legions of nonbelievers — myself included — Derek Fisher gave absolutely everything anyone could expect in his 24 minutes: zero turnovers, nine points on 50 percent shooting, two clutch free throws and lightning-quick hands to produce a block and a steal. He even brought the ball up the court against pesky pressure from Houston’s waterbug guards, something that he hadn’t been asked to do so far during his two stints in Oklahoma City.
Combined, the Thunder’s backup point guards did exactly what they had to do. Not only did they not hurt their team, but they gave Oklahoma City a chance to win. You can’t ask for more.
KD, point guard
Of course, Durant ended up bringing the ball up the court and initiating Oklahoma City’s offense for much of the game as well, as expected. And he looked good doing it, as expected.
It’s still unknown how much the added pressure of the long stretches as the Thunder’s primary ball handler will affect KD as the playoffs progress. It’s asking a lot, even if he’s still at an age where he can probably handle the added workload for a while. Still, not only was he able to produce results by relying on his transcendent talent alone, but the same improving sense of how to affect a game in multiple ways translated to making smart plays at the point.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale pointed out after the game that, despite some terrific pressure defense from Francisco Garcia, KD was ultimately able to counter every punch Houston threw at him. When the Rockets sent an extra player as a help defender, Durant simply dribbled away from him, giving himself and his team multiple options.
“And then we’re screwed, because we’re running an extra guy at him and he’s beating his (own) guy,” McHale said. “It’s essentially a 5-on-3. Everything was open after that.”
Now, 47+ minutes could still be hard to sustain over a lengthy playoff run, if OKC has one, despite Durant’s youth and fitness. Brooks joked after the game that taking KD out even for 45 seconds showed mental toughness on his part — “I didn’t want to do that,” he deadpanned — but he and the coaching staff have barely had time to plan for how to proceed without Westbrook, and they’ll have more time to refine their ideas. Durant handled the load with supreme poise, recovering from an ugly third quarter to be Kevin Durant again down the stretch and lead his team.
“At the end of the season, you’ve got to just give it your all,” Durant said. “So I’ve got to just keep playing. Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to do.”
Ibaka, et al. do their jobs
It also wasn’t just the Thunder’s new point guard rotation that stepped into the void left by Westbrook’s injury. The rest of the roster, and Serge Ibaka in particular, answered the bell.
Kevin Martin suffered through a rough shooting night in general, but dropped in two of his four 3-pointers and added two heady steals to boot. Nick Collison had a tough time finishing, but he was still Nick Collison, like he has to be for the Thunder to be successful. Thabo Sefolosha managed to sink only one of his seven shots, but he was largely responsible for forcing James Harden into yet another spotty shooting night for most of the game.
Ibaka, though, left Thunder fans hoping he can stay focused and foul-free long enough to be on the court for about 40 minutes per night. His offensive rebounding, especially against the Rockets’ super-small lineups, contributed heavily to stopping Houston runs and building that huge early lead. And he showed some more of that tantalizing offensive talent with a few downright gorgeous turnaround mid-range jumpers.
His defensive presence is always a weapon, but if he can add the varied offensive game he displayed yet again Saturday on a more consistent basis, the Thunder might not be as limited without Westbrook as some Western Conference teams are hoping for.
Still Thunder U
As much as what happened on the court showed that the Thunder still have the potential to be a cohesive unit that will make some serious noise in the playoffs, it was a few smaller moments that confirmed this team is not exactly ready to pack it in and prepare for next season just because Westbrook is laid up.
Yes, it’s scary to think what a drive-and-kick team like Miami can do when drive-and-kick Houston played well for long stretches against the Thunder while having inferior players when compared to the Heat (and Thunder). Yes, OKC’s offense is going to go stagnant at bad times. Yes, the Thunder miss Westbrook’s explosive talent.
But this is a team that still is uniquely close-knit in the NBA. It showed that with Westbrook’s jersey hanging in his locker, even though he was in another time zone. It showed that when Durant looked directly into the camera during his halftime interview and said, “I love you, Russ.” It showed, too, when Westbrook tweeted “#MVP” during the game, and apparently text messaged KD during halftime and after the game.
Durant and the team tried to distance themselves from the Thunder U moniker almost as soon as they themselves made it famous, choosing to attempt to forge a new identity as a veteran team with championship aspirations, not the college-aged bunch too young to know how big the pressure really is. Despite those efforts, this is still Thunder U. It’s still the team that is openly grieving for a guy with a knee injury. It’s still the team that features a star player who goes out of his way to bring a little boy from McAllen, Texas, onto the podium with him — wearing a KD backpack and a shy-but-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening smile — after an intense playoff game fraught with emotion and drame.
“There’s no way around it,” Brooks said. “It’s been an emotional 48 hours.”
This team remains fun to watch. It remains fun to love. And it remains hard to beat.