It’s like that scene in Jurassic Park when Hammond is telling Ellie how to turn the power on.
“There’s a round green button that says push to panic.”
Push to panic?
Some wanted to poosh it after a heartbreaking Game 4 loss in Houston, but you can definitely poosh it now. It’s just Game 5 and the Thunder still lead 3-2, with two opportunities to close the series and move on. But these 48 minutes tonight exposed a whole lot that’s wrong with the post-Westbrook Thunder.
Those details, I’ll get into later. But let’s look at went horribly wrong tonight. Start with the painfully stupid decision to not just Hack-a-Turk, as Kevin McHale dubbed it, but to stick with it despite cutting the Rocket lead to six with 4:16 left. Asik made nine of his 14 free throw attempts in the fourth, giving the Rockets nine free points. After OKC had it to two possessions with four minutes left, the Thunder continued with the strategy, and gave the Rockets three added free points.
For a team that preaches defense, calls it their backbone, and was pretty damn good at it in the regular season (top five in defensive efficiency), the Thunder sure as hell didn’t trust it tonight. Yes, James Harden and the Rockets were scorching the Thunder on that end of the floor. And yes, Omer Asik isn’t a very good foul shooter (56 percent). But instead of forcing the youngest team in the postseason to execute in the halfcourt in an elimination game, on the road, with 18,000 rabid blue-shirted people screaming their faces off, Scott Brooks sucked the life out of the arena and put the Asik at the line four more times.
We’ve seen the Rockets fail in crunchtime already when the game was tight. In Game 3, they had three critical giveaway turnovers in the final three minutes. Game 2, bad shots. Game 4, Harden isolated in Hero Ball heaven and couldn’t knock anything down. But instead of forcing their hand to make a play themselves, the Thunder trotted Asik to the line for some freebies.
“He stepped up, give him credit. He stepped up and made his free throws,” Brooks said. “If we would’ve hit maybe one more shot, we would’ve gotten out of it. I think we had a chance to cut it to seven with four minutes to go.”
Now, I don’t know if Brooks misspoke, or just got his times mixed up, but again, the Thunder had it to six with four minutes to go. Is is possible that Brooks wasn’t aware of time and score here as his team fouled Asik? To initially go to the strategy wasn’t a terrible idea. It broke up the rhythm the Rockets had, and gave the Thunder a chance to pick up one or two points at a time, to cut into Houston’s lead. In terms of getting back in the game, it worked, and worked extremely well. But the Thunder stuck with it too long, and it would appear at the unawareness of their coach.
But there’s no doubt it probably shouldn’t have even come to that. The Thunder dug themselves a 16-point second half hole and while the focus is squarely on the Thunder playing without Russell Westbrook, the issue in Game 5 was often about horrifically bad defense. The Rockets made 14 3s, and diced OKC’s perimeter up at ease. They also made a bunch of tough shots, but let a team into a rhythm, and they’ll do that to you.
Also a problem: The Thunder didn’t make any shots themselves. Kevin Durant was terrific again, but he was doubled, tripled and sometimes quadrupled. So he had to pass, and as a team, the Thunder hit just 8-33 from 3-point range for the game.
“They don’t really care about everybody else on the team,” KD said. “So when I had the ball, there was like four guys guarding me at times. I got to make the pass. Tonight, we didn’t make some shots. But I trust we’re going to make those wide open ones. I have faith that we’re going to make those shots.”
Because really, that’s all Durant can do. He can score, he can take over, but he can’t put up 110 on his own. He has to count on Kevin Martin (1-10), Thabo Sefolosha (3-8), Reggie Jackson (7-15) and Derek Fisher (2-6) to make shots. That’s all he can do.
So here’s where things stand: The Thunder have dropped two straight, one in the last second in Houston, one in flameout fashion at home. The Rockets still have to win two more games, including once more in OKC. Tonight, the Rockets shot the ball incredibly well, while the Thunder didn’t. The Rockets need to duplicate this game two more times. They have to knock down everything, and hope the Thunder don’t hit anything.
And after seeing the way things went in Game 5, that definitely doesn’t feel impossible. In some ways, it feels likely.
- Eventually, James Harden was going to play well. He’s just too good not to. He scored 31 tonight on 10-16 shooting, and started the game 7-7 from 3. He supposedly was sick during shootaround, but sure didn’t look it tonight. He just had it going. He was outstanding, and the Thunder had no answer for him.
- The two-for-one Harden perfectly executed at the end of the third was backbreaking. The Thunder had it to 80-73, but Harden let the ball roll all the way up the court and drilled a 3 right in Liggins face, then Aaron Brooks hit a runner to finish the quarter. From seven to 12, just like that.
- KD seemed incredibly confident and relaxed postgame. It honestly surprised me how chill he seemed. Durant’s growing into an outstanding leader and took almost all the responsibility for OKC’s poor performance, and even shouldered Kevin Martin’s terrible shooting night, saying he’s got to do a better job getting him going.
- Martin, who I evidently wasted my time writing about today, completely stunk. He started the game 0-9, and finished 1-10 for three points. He was so bad that I wanted more Derek Fisher, and less Martin. He’s not as bad as he played, but there’s no doubt that Martin has been rather small in this series mostly.
- I wanted to get Martin’s thoughts on his struggles, but he stayed in the showers for an inordinate amount of time. Martin typically is one of the quicker guys to get dressed and talk postgame, but at 12:30, there was still no sight of him. I’m not saying he was avoiding the media, but I’m not saying he wasn’t either.
- In a lot of ways, the Thunder’s ball movement and spacing was indeed better tonight, but they didn’t make anything. Sometimes, basketball is just that painfully simple. OKC had 20 assists, and as Brooks noted postgame, the shot distributions were spread out pretty well. Problem was, nobody made anything outside of the paint.
- Nick Collison is by far the Thunder’s best pick-and-roll defending big. He played seven minutes, zero in the second half. This, in so many ways, was confounding. Especially with the positive impact he had in the first half.
- To his credit, Brooks actually explained his reasoning with Collison pretty well postgame: “We had to go a little smaller than we normally do because they were playing four guards. I thought Perk gave us our best defense of Asik, just for the first six or seven minutes of the third quarter, and then Serge came in. We cut the lead, and you have to go with one guy … Nick’s a great player, but he’s not going to guard 3-point shooters and help us stop that.”
- So to recap that, with the Rockets staying small and Brooks wanting to matchup with his own smallball group, it was a choice between Ibaka, Perk and Collison as the lone big. Brooks started the usual five for the second half, but went early to Liggins for Ibaka, showing a rare moment of flex. The decision to play Perk over Collison is worth questioning, but really, you have to ask yourself, who do you want on the floor down the stretch in the second half: Ibaka or Collison?
- It was a weird feeling for the Thunder to be down 10, in OKC, with six minutes left, and the lead feel insurmountable. There have been games with OKC down nine with three minutes left and I still thought they could come back. I never really thought they had a chance tonight.
- Scott Brooks’ feet were put to the fire when Russell Westbrook got hurt. And he’s not stepping up. It’s easy to point blame at Brooks when things go wrong and just say things like “ADJUSTMENTS YO!” but here’s the main problem: There isn’t a clear plan. Russell Westbrook is incredible, and important, but to not be able to best use the remaining talent on the roster is pretty absurd. Serge Ibaka remains painfully uninvolved with no plan to exploit him on the block. Kevin Durant has to do too much. The defense is constantly scrambling. The Thunder look lost and hopeless right now, and I think that’s a reflection of their coach. All of that stuff gets solved though with a few dropping through.
- The silliness of small sample size plus/minus: Kevin Martin was a +2 tonight.
- As the self-appointed king of the Russell Westbrook Apologists, I won’t lie, there’s some satisfaction in this. It’s beyond obvious how valuable, important and impactful Westbrook is to the success of this team. Even the most fervent Westbrook critics can’t deny how much he means to the Thunder now.
- The Thunder only turned it over nine times tonight. I thought that would be a key to a win. Whoops.
- KD scored 36 tonight, but didn’t score in the fourth quarter. It’s obvious that the burden of Hodoring this team caught up to him. It’s the first time in KD’s postseason career where he’s played 10 or more minutes he didn’t score in the fourth.
- On a scale of one to Metta World Peace, Patrick Beverley received an 11 on the boo scale. He heard it all night long too. Every touch.
- Beverley picked up a technical in the first half after Reggie Jackson tried his move, swiping for the ball as Beverley called timeout. Beverley threw up an elbow and got tagged.
- Beverley said postgame the thought the momentum changed after Game 2. No sh–, bro.
- That double-flop by Fisher and Martin was fun.
- Selena Gomez was at the game tonight.
- Durant: “With the Hack-a-uh, uh, whatever his name is, it kind of slowed the rhythm down a little bit.” KD experienced the same moment of panic I have during every radio interview where I’m entirely entirely sure how to pronounce Omer Asik’s name.
- I asked Brooks pregame why the Thunder haven’t been able to exploit the mistmatch with Harden guarding Ibaka. Brooks acknowledged they should be trying to more, and said it was part of the plan. The Thunder’s first possession was a post-up for Ibaka on Harden. Ibaka had the ball knocked away. The Thunder didn’t go to Ibaka again in the post for the rest of the half. The first possession of the second half, a post-up for Ibaka on Harden. He missed a little jumphook. The Thunder didn’t go to Ibaka again in the post for the rest of the game.
- Westbrook was at the game, sitting in a suite. Why? I was told that he needs to be able to get up and move around a bit, and also, they didn’t want someone diving for a loose ball and landing on him because he couldn’t get out of the way. Westbrook was shown on the big screen, and got a ridiculously large ovation. Also, he was wearing the free t-shirt the crowd was. Russ, love you bro.
- Westboro “Baptist Church” protested the game tonight because of Jason Collins’ recent announcement. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed in them. They brought three total people. I expected more. They were singing their own remake of Green Day’s “American Idiot” (American Sodomite, it said), which I thought was incredibly appropriate. American idiot, indeed.
- On the spot, I think the Thunder still win this series. They’re going to take this game personally and while the Rockets still might win Game 6, I have a hard time really envisioning OKC losing a Game 7 at home. It could happen, and it’s not as hard to picture now as it was yesterday. But I still think the Thunder make it out of this round. What’s obvious though, is that they probably aren’t going anywhere after it.
Next up: Game 6 in Houston on Friday.