With 3:45 left in the third quarter, the Thunder were keeping the pesky Suns at arm’s length, holding off an explosive, talented team as the game headed towards winning time.
But everything changed in that 3:45. The Suns outscored the Thunder 21-2 as Gerald Green erupted, turning what appeared to probably be a comfortable win into a scrap to the finish. The Suns hit 12 of their 15 3s in the second half, dropping 67 on OKC in the final 24 minutes, which led to a 128-122 win for Phoenix.
Two potential culprits, depending on viewpoint:
1) The Thunder’s perimeter defense was an embarrassment, giving up clean looks to capable shooters all over, to which they paid dearly for. Perimeter defense has become an issue throughout the season, with the Thunder allowing 8.2 3s per game, and ranking dead last in contested shot percentage.
“We’ve got to get back — we’ve talked about it for about 10 days now — we’ve got to get back to our defensive disposition,” Scott Brooks said. “I’m concerned, but we’ve got a lot of time to get it in the right place.”
2) The Suns were ridiculously hot, making a bunch of shots. Maybe the Thunder’s defense wasn’t great, but it takes two parts for it to be bad, the second being the most important — the offensive guy has to make the shot. Yeah, these are NBA players, but sometimes you catch a team on a hot night, and they make you pay.
“They got hot,” Durant told reporters. “They hit like six or seven 3s in a row. I think defensively, we were controlling the paint, making them shoot tough ones, but they hit some shots, you’ve got to give them credit. They got hot at the right time.”
Oh, or there’s a third thing: It’s all Russell Westbrook’s fault because he took two bad jumpers late. That’s probably what the real problem was.
Look, we should be completely past this type of stuff with Westbrook, but it’s inevitable. We’ve seen this story written before: Westbrook plays a brilliant game, taking and making a bunch of critical shots while playing with his trademark hyper-enthusiasm, then continues taking shots, but misses one or two. And in a game where OKC allowed 128 points and 15-27 from 3-point range, the focus somehow centers on two freaking shot attempts.
This has always been my feeling on Westbrook’s shot selection: Don’t clap for the makes if you can’t handle the misses. With 9:33 left, the Thunder had fallen behind by seven, 108-101, when Westbrook checked back in. He immediately made a tough lefty driving layup, then popped a deep 3. Two minutes later, he drilled another deep 3 to cut the lead to two. Two minutes later, another pull-up 3 to tie it up 116-116. Were those bad shots? Should he have not taken those? Or are they more acceptable by virtue of what’s on the clock? His two misses came with the score 118-118 with 2:06 left, and the Thunder down 120-118 with 1:24 left. Good shots? Hell no. They were terrible. But they weren’t all that different from the ones he was nailing a few minutes earlier.
Things get so complicated for Westbrook and his shot selection because of the guy he plays alongside. With Kevin Durant on the floor, the general feeling is, any shot Westbrook takes is one that KD does not. In those critical spots, yep, I would’ve preferred a little better offensive set. I would’ve favored Durant getting a look. Because KD taking a shot is rarely ever a bad shot. But, then again, let’s say Durant teed up two attempts Westbrook did? You’re fine with it, probably even happy he took them, right? So why don’t you give Westbrook the same license, especially after what you saw him do?
How many times have we seen the Thunder offense stall out completely in crunchtime as Westbrook devotedly feeds Durant in isolation? The best Thunder crunchtime offense is either Westbrook or Durant with a live dribble, creating with movement and weakside cutting. In hindsight, since his two shots didn’t fall, the better choice would’ve been running some high pick-and-roll action. The last two buckets for OKC came from some better action, with Westbrook hitting a curling Durant on one, then Durant getting a high screen on the next. Better offense, better results.
Still: Why are we talking so much about that when the reality centered around the Suns embarrassing the Thunder’s defense? Since the All-Star break, the Thunder’s defensive shell has been painfully soft as opposing teams have lit them consistently. Tonight, it was the Suns getting free and handing out the punishment. Gerald Green had 25 points in the third quarter and hit 8-13 from 3. Markieff Morris had 24 as the Suns’ smallball gave OKC fits. Scott Brooks couldn’t find a lineup answer to what Jeff Hornacek was throwing out.
But I wouldn’t fret too much over this loss. Mainly because, and this might be news to some, the Suns are pretty good. And they were completely desperate to win this game. They are in a white knuckle battle for the playoffs, and their schedule is daunting ahead. They needed this one. Their crowd was in it, and their players responded. The Thunder did the egg-laying though, and didn’t get the stops needed to win the game. Kind of simple as that.
- Hey, Thabo? How you feeling man? Better? I hope better.
- Westbrook’s game: 36 points on 13-22 shooting, nine rebounds, nine assists and four steals. And in a six-point loss, he was a +16 while playing 30 minutes. Really, the problem was Westbrook. In that he didn’t play enough.
- Durant’s game: 34 points on 12-24 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists. Westbrook’s game was louder, but man, KD is just a super basketball player.
- That 3 Westbrook put up inside of 10 seconds. All the way down, then it somehow spun out. Excruciating.
- Caron Butler looked mostly good. He had 14 off the bench in 29 minutes on 4-11 shooting. But he started 4-5 from 3, and missed his last six shots. He had a couple clean looks late and wasn’t able to put them down. Regardless, I think he’s going to be a good fit.
- I think so much of this game really was just that Brooks couldn’t find a way to get completely matched up. He just didn’t want to go all-in against Phoenix’s super small lineup and sit down Serge Ibaka. I can understand that, but really, playing Perry Jones probably would’ve been the wiser choice. Ibaka was clearly uncomfortable in the midpost against whichever Morris twin it was he was guarding. Brooks never wanted to commit and go with Durant as his center, as he played at least one big all night. Probably should’ve.
- Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are 3-4, and have allowed 111.0 points per game, and 108.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s bad, all around.
- Tonight, the Thunder allowed 127.8 points per 100.
- Gotta give Gerald Green a ton of credit, though. Dude got way hot and carried the Suns. Because I’m imprisoning myself completely in the moment, he’s my Most Improved player this season. (But seriously, he should probably win Most Improved. He was out of the NBA two years ago for crying out loud.)
- The box score tells me P.J. Tucker played 43 minutes tonight, but I genuinely never noticed him, outside of thinking, “He kind of looks like the Phoenix version of Caron Butler.”
- Jeremy Lamb: 13 minutes, 3-6 shooting, seven points. Now seven straight in single-digits.
- Reggie Jackson got just 18 minutes, and wasn’t good. He had four points on just 2-8 shooting, with three assists.
- I don’t who he was or why he was doing it, but the guy yelling “LeBron!!!” when Durant had the ball was killing me.
- One thing I noticed in the first half, before the conversation turned into a shot selection debate, was Westbrook’s ridiculous vision. He’s always been an underrated passer, but you can really see how he’s, uh, seeing things better than ever. This play sticks out to me most. Westbrook from a few years ago would’ve definitely tried to force the ball to Ibaka, whether through a lob or a wrap-around, either from not seeing Dragic helping down, or not caring. But this time, Westbrook read where the help came from perfectly, and dished to a wide open Lamb in the corner. For shame he didn’t pay it off.
- The Thunder turned it over only nine times. And had 21 assists. And lost. That doesn’t happen often.
- With that sleeved jersey, Goran Dragic looks like he should be playing pickup basketball with you this Saturday.
- Ibaka’s favorite thing to do on the court is to calm down teammates who are griping at a referee. Actually second favorite. Behind twirling his finger to ask for a review after every play.
- Shavlik Randolph is back in the NBA?!?!
- Durant’s now scored at least 25 points in 27 straight games. The longest streak doing that of his career is 29. Last time KD didn’t have at least 25 was Jan. 5 against the Celtics.
- Fun fact: With the current starting five, the Thunder are the only team in the league starting five players that they drafted right now. (A hat tip to Thunder PR for that one.)
- Let me save you the time so you can copy and paste this to your Facebook status: LeBron went just 6-18 tonight for 19 points eight rebounds and seven assists, but five turnovers in a 24-point loss to the Spurs.
Next up: At the Lakers on Sunday