New Year’s resolution for the Thunder: Stop doing that.
For the first time in the Oklahoma City era, the Thunder lost on Dec. 31. And the way this one happened puts quite the downer on closing out 2013.
Russell Westbrook or not, there’s really no other way to paint the picture on tonight’s 98-94 loss than to say it was really bad. That’s in isolation, though. In the grand scheme, the Thunder just wrapped a December where they went 14-3 and have won 20 of their last 23. But in terms of a game that should’ve been a win, this qualifies strongly.
It was almost a carbon copy of the Thunder’s only other home loss this season. Apparently en route to cruise to a soft landing at home — up 16 in the second half — the Thunder couldn’t make anything in the fourth quarter, going just 4-20 in the final frame from the field. Didn’t matter the shot — wide open, contested, at the rim, from 3 — the Thunder couldn’t make anything. The four makes, two of them came in the first two minutes of the fourth, and the other two were from Reggie Jackson in the final five minutes. They missed three critical free throws and they failed on the defensive glass. Basically all the things you’re supposed to do when you’re good, they didn’t do.
It even felt similar to some of the postseason losses sans Westbrook. Kevin Durant, rolling along through three quarters, fell flat in the fourth scoring only one point while going 0-5 from the field. Did he get tired, did he run out of gas? KD says no way. But it’s hard not to wonder.
Especially when you look at the way the game finished. The Blazers, up three with 8.2 seconds left, decided to foul. Durant went to the line, swished his first free throw, but his second rolled off the rim. The ball got batted around a little but found it’s way back to KD, wide open from about eight feet. I refuse to believe fatigue got him in that moment, but maybe the mental weight of carrying his team team, because he clearly feathered the shot too much, leaving it well short on the front of the iron. You could see the indecisiveness on his face. He was stunned he was that open and couldn’t decide whether to shoot it, try and dunk it or bring it back out.
“My teammates told me if someone was contesting I probably would’ve hit that shot,” KD said. “I wish I could replay that. I’m sure I’m going to replay back in my mind the rest of the night. I wish I could’ve hit it for my team. We’d probably be in overtime right now. But it is what it is. We move on. We played so hard, we did things we wanted to do on the defensive end.”
But while this loss felt a little like that series against the Grizzlies, there’s no doubting this team is better than that one. The fourth quarter was atrocious, but the shots were mostly there. It wasn’t Iso KD for eight minutes, giving him the ball and hoping on hope he could do something amazing.
“I put that in the playoffs on me. I was trying to do too much. Handling the ball too much, play point guard, just do everything when I didn’t have to do that. I needed to rely on my teammates more then. So now I’m just playing my regular game as if Russ was out there.”
Everything that happens without Westbrook on the floor, especially bad, is granted pardon because of the circumstance. The Thunder probably win this one with him. But he’s not here right now and these are the types of real struggles the Thunder will have to overcome if they intend to maintain their winning ways without him. They’re going to have to make shots, make free throws, grab defensive rebounds. The margin for error is infinitely slimmer.
“We’re not going to panic,” Brooks said. “This is a great start to the year. I told the guys, 14-3 for the month of December, that’s quite a month. This game will be looked at and we’ll try and improve on it, then we’ll go into the next game against the Nets.”
I intended this to be my hook for this recap before the Thunder went and lost, but I still want to say it: Five years ago on New Year’s Eve, the Thunder walked onto the floor sitting at 3-29. I can’t stress it enough: They were horrible. It wasn’t even about wondering where the next win would come from; I often wondered where the next basket would come from. That night serves kind of as the touchstone for the organization. It was the bottom of the barrel, the lowest they could go. But they squeaked out a win against the Warriors and clearly approached the new year with a different mindset. They were ready to start turning the corner, to start moving ahead, to start trying to fulfill the promise of Presti’s vision.
And here they are five years later sitting 25-6 on Dec. 31. A lot has happened since then, both wonderful and heartbreaking. The team, the players, the fans and the city have come a long way. I think back to that night in 2008, leaving the arena watching people high five and honk horns and hug strangers like a championship banner was about to hang, ignoring the fact their team had only improved to 4-29. It just felt really, really good to win that night, to taste what it could feel like to maybe be good one day.
Tonight, it’s the opposite. It’s about frustration, about questions, about what went wrong in a game the Thunder shouldn’t have lost.
How far we’ve come.
- The Thunder on New Year’s Eve with Russell Westbrook: 5-0. The Thunder on New Year’s Eve without Russell Westbrook: 0-1.
- There’s no doubt that Scott Brooks mangled this game up pretty good. Start with Derek Fisher playing an inexplicable 19 minutes to Jackson’s 29. As the Thunder’s lead evaporated in the fourth quarter, Fisher remained on the floor as the Thunder clearly searched for some kind of spark. Or take the failure to substitute situationally down the stretch, leaving Jeremy Lamb on the bench when points were hard to come by. The offense wasn’t even over-reliant on Durant in the fourth — it was just bad.
- Before I walked into the Thunder’s postgame availability, I had the words typed “this was a really, really, really bad loss.” At home, with a double-digit second half lead, playing a team on a back-to-back, the Thunder fell apart once against in the fourth quarter to watch a team snatch away a win. But after hearing from Brooks and Durant and seeing how unfazed by the game the Thunder were, it more just feels like a game they shouldn’t have lost. So I downgraded it to just one “really.”
- Weird play late in the fourth. The Thunder appeared to have drawn up a 3-point play for Durant, and he was open for a second on it, but Jackson seemed to completely look him off. Then with Durant calling for the ball, Jackson wouldn’t give it to him. Durant came to get the ball, Jackson still didn’t give it to him. Jackson ended up drawing two free throws on a foul — and split them — but it was pretty awkward.
- Durant on New Year’s Eve: 28.0 points on 47.9 percent shooting.
- Durant: “I looked at the statsheet and I think we beat them on everything, as far as rebounding, field goal percentage, defense was good. They had more assists than us, but still our field goal percentage was good. We didn’t turn the ball over a lot. Man, so they made tough shots all night.”
- The Blazers only turned it over six times tonight.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was really good once again, scoring 25 on 10-23 shooting. I swear, it felt more like 85 on 30-32 shooting, though.
- Fun fact: Aldridge is widely known as the master of the midrange among big men. Coming into tonight though, Aldridge had hit 45.9 percent from 15-19 feet while Serge Ibaka had hit 47.5 percent from that range. Last season, Aldridge hit 42.5 percent from 15-19 feet; Ibaka hit 51.5 percent. Now, Aldridge attempts almost double from that spot than Ibaka (433 to 237 last season), but still.
- Portland’s bench had only four baskets.
- The Blazers took 33 3-pointers. OKC took 14.
- Brooks came as close to complaining about officiating as he ever will postgame, saying the Blazers were “really physical” with KD. “We have to figure out better ways to get guys off of him,” he said. “That’s on me. I will continue to look at film and figure out ways that we can get him free and not allow guys to hold on to him as much as they did tonight.” That’s Scotty’s passive aggressive complain mode.
- A lot of people were praising Terry Stotts for fouling up three, but I thought it was an incredibly stupid move by the Blazers. Fouling up three with five seconds left? That’s good. But there were 8.2 seconds on the clock which meant all KD needed to do was make both free throws and the Thunder would have another possession either down one, two or three with seven seconds left, and a timeout.
- Steven Adams had the softest two-hand poster I’ve ever seen. He definitely dunked all over Joel Freeland, but it was lacking any kind of emphasis.
- Nick Collison set a screen and threw a no-look between the legs bounce pass all in one play. The flashiest fundamental play you’ll ever see.
- I watched Derek Fisher try a eurostep tonight. New Year’s resolution: Never see that again.
- Jumbroton proposal tonight during the Kiss Cam. She said yes. Question: Has there ever been a jumbotron proposal in Loud City? Because I want that to happen.
- Interesting point from Dean Blevins tonight: If this Thunder team without Westbrook play last postseason’s one without Westbrook, who’d win and by how much? Even with how tonight turned out, I’d say this one by 8-12 points.
- The guitarist from Hinder played the national anthem tonight, so yeah, I’m pretty ready for 2013 to be over with now.
- Another poor rebounding effort from Ibaka (just four).
- Durant’s game in the statsheet looks great — 37 on 12-26 shooting with 14 rebounds and three assists — but it’s probably the worst 37-14-3 game of his career.
- Russell Westbrook was in the Thunder’s locker room pregame walking around with one crutch. (On Sunday, he had two crutches.) He had a few band-aids on his knee, but was looking and moving well. He wasn’t really using the crutch much for support.
- A reporter asked Scott Brooks pregame if Robin Lopez would be a decent NBA comparison for Steven Adams. Talk about setting the bar low. (Brooks refused to compare, by the way.)
- Joey Crawford’s just a complete insane person. He called a horrible goaltending on Adams in the fourth quarter, and OKC’s scorekeepers were confused as to what the call was. So he turns and yells at them, “SCORE. THE. FREAKING. GOAL.” Dude has issues. I feel sorry for his grandchildren when he does finally retire. Somebody’s gonna have to feel the wrath.
Next up: Home against the Nets on Thursday