The Thunder lead 3-1 over the Rockets and have a potential series-clinching Game 5 in their own building.
But on TrueHoop TV today, David Thorpe says the Thunder could be vulnerable, that they could become the first team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead.
He lists a perfect storm of reasons: a) nobody has ever done, which means eventually there has to be a first; b) the Thunder don’t have their second best player; c) the Rockets are young, dumb and brash, meaning they don’t care about history; d) the Rockets’ style means they play loose, and if they get hot, they’re hard to stop; and finally e) the Thunder aren’t adapting to life post-Westbrook as well as they should be.
The main area of contention Thorpe lists is the Thunder’s new penchant for Hero Ball, or really, “Please do something awesome KD” ball. Spectators and analysts love ball movement and pretty basketball, but sometimes, it’s not always realistic. The Thunder want Durant operating their offense as the focal point, because come on, he just scored 38 on 12-16 shooting. It might look overly simple, but it’s also incredible effective.
Still, despite losing Westbrook, the Thunder can be better than this. Without Westbrook, the Thunder have posted solid overall offensive numbers, and the Game 4 loss really can be directed more as OKC’s problems on the defensive end than anything else. But those good offensive numbers have mostly been because Kevin Durant is freaking spectacular, and because of inflated first half stats where the Thunder scored 66 and 60 points in Games 3 and 4.
The Thunder are isolating Durant at the top of the key a lot, and letting him go to work on the defense. The idea is to trust Durant’s instincts and playmaking ability, and let him react to how the Rockets want to defend him. If they send a double, Durant has to adjust to that. If they don’t, he goes to work. If he beats his man, and draws help, he makes another choice. It’s a helluva lot of offensive responsibility to put on one guy, but KD is brilliant, so it’s a decent plan.
Problem is, other really talented players are getting frozen out. Thorpe’s criticism about centrally focusing too much on Durant brings up my biggest question: WHERE IS KEVIN MARTIN? Martin has been inconsistent all season, but that’s been when he’s been playing third or fourth banana in the offense. When OKC had Westbrook, it made sense for Martin to drift and fit in more. But without him, he HAS to be a significant offensive contributor. A lot of Thunder fans aren’t familiar with Martin outside of what they’ve seen this season, but this guy has been one of the league’s purest and most elite scorers in the world for the last six or seven seasons.
My biggest frustration stems from the logic behind the Thunder’s contrasting offensive styles in the first and second halves of Games 3 and 4. I don’t think there’s a coincidence in that Game 3, Martin scored 12 of the Thunder’s 66 first half points, and zero of 38 in the second half. Game 4, Martin scored 14 of 60, and two of 43 in the second. Or put it this way: Game 3, the Thunder had a first half offensive rating of 129.6, a second half rating of 80.4. Game 4, a first half offensive rating of 120.7, a second half rating of 92.9.
Obviously Durant is going to be on the floor almost at all times, but when he’s played with Martin, they posted an offensive rating of 122.7 in 27 minutes of Game 4. In Game 3, not as successful at 98.7 in 31 minutes, but that number got killed be the painfully anemic second half.
Or put it this way: The first halves of Games 3 and 4, Martin had a usage rate of 24.5 percent. In the second, 14.9. Again, I don’t think this is coincidental.
In the second half of Game 4, Martin took two shots: One at the end of the third quarter that Durant put back in, and another a nice pull-up jumper he made. I went back and counted: He had five TOTAL touches in the second half. How does this make any sense at all? Martin is a quality pick-and-roll player, he’s a better-than-you-think passer, and he’s one of the top five players at drawing fouls, and oh yeah, he’s one of the three best free throw shooters in the league. Why isn’t he actively involved in OKC’s second half offense?
I don’t think the Thunder are going to blow this. Even without Westbrook, the hill is too tall to climb for the Rockets. They have to win fourth straight, and have to beat OKC in OKC two of those times. In the playoffs where single games count for so much, the most recent result always looms large in everyone’s head. It’s not hard to start extrapolating with “If the Rockets win Game 5, then they have Game 6 at home to force a Game 7, and then anything could happen.” Doesn’t sound so tough when put like that, but it’s still three straight wins the Rockets have to pull off. And they just barely avoided a sweep as it was.
Still, the Thunder need to fix this second half offense issue. It can be hidden, if the Thunder were playing elite level defense. But they’re not, so they have to execute better. And if they advance past the Rockets and play the Grizzlies, life will be much, much, much more difficult in the halfcourt. And as brilliant as KD is, you can’t beat Memphis four times relying exclusively on one player.
Now, it has to be noted that when games get tight and tense, particularly in the postseason, things slow down and it’s just natural that that the ball movement tempers and there are fewer touches all around. It’s the way basketball has been played since forever. When those possessions are like gold in the fourth quarter, you want Durant touching it every trip, and for him to get as many good shots as possible. I get that completely, and even endorse it.
But when Westbrook was playing, there were plenty of touches mixed into those second halves for him too. While Reggie Jackson has the capability to playmake and do very good things, the slack of the crunchtime offense has to — HAS TO — be aided by Serge Ibaka and moreso, Kevin Martin. Other players have made shots (like Derek Fisher), but the Thunder can be better than they are.
And if they want to advance any further than this round — or really, maybe to just get through this round — they’re going to have to be.