“What do I even write about this game?”
That is a question I asked myself 200 times after watching the Lakers stun the Thunder 114-110. A second straight game the Thunder have allowed a non-star player to go for at least 40 points, both times watching him go for a new career high. This time, it was Jodie Meeks, who followed in the steps of Gerald Green, lighting OKC for 42.
There’s no justification, no excuse, no rationalization for the Thunder’s performance Sunday. They were playing a glorified version of the Bakersfield Jam, and let an 18-point lead slip in the second quarter exclusively due to horrible, stupid basketball. Turnovers led to Laker runouts and 3s, and by halftime, the Thunder led by just five.
Then it devolved into full-on debacle territory. A 34-5 Laker run dropped the Thunder behind as many as 18 points in the second half. We all knew a Thunder push was coming, because that’s what they do. Kevin Durant started it by knocking in a 3 immediately after checking back in early in the fourth, and OKC chipped away, getting it to a two possession game with four minutes left as Derek Fisher splashed a pair of 3s. And after Russell Westbrook exploded to the rim for an absurd dunk to cut it to three with a minute left, there was a very good chance that they were going to salvage this thing and take it from “horrific loss” to “bad win.”
Alas. So much alas. A stop gave the Thunder the ball back with 45 seconds left, down three, but alas, what Westbrook giveth, he also taketh away-eth. Not needing a 3, Westbrook over-dribbled, eventually backing out to the 3-point line to hoist a horrible shot, airballing away the Thunder’s chances.
While I will defend Westbrook’s two iffy shot attempts from Thursday against the Suns to the death, there’s no defense for this one. It was a terrible shot. Just a bad, bad decision. It came far too early in the shot clock, and the ball never touched No. 35’s hands, something that’s plain inexcusable. Because difference between here and Thursday is, Westbrook was only 7-23 with eight turnovers. Against the Suns, he’d more than earned those shots with the way he’d played. In this situation, he should’ve known better than to force the issue on a night where he didn’t have it going. But come on, Russell Westbrook know better? Who am I kidding.
But again, the focus really shouldn’t be on an isolated shot attempt. It should be on the 17 turnovers (11 in the first half) and the shoddy defense that allowed Meeks to go for 42, and the Lakers to hit 13 3s. It sure seems like we’re watching a significant issue blossom, but if you are looking for something to feel better about, consider: The Heat have now lost three straight, as have the Pacers, who have been blown out in two of their three, with major defensive issues showing. Maybe a March malaise for three contenders is popping up at the wrong time?
In OKC’s case though, there’s the unavoidable fact that the Thunder are now 3-5 since Russell Westbrook’s return. We all want to say that’s merely coincidental, but the losses speak for themselves. Against the Heat and Clippers, good teams, tough losses. Against the Cavs, horrible second half defense. Against the Suns, the same. And against the Lakers, the same the same. Westbrook’s re-integration has not caused an offensive dip — OKC’s scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions in the eight games back with Westbrook — which is a good thing. Because defense should be correctable, especially considering the Thunder’s quality track record with it.
But we keep saying that. Scott Brooks called this stretch of bad play a “defensive valley,” which is a nice way to say “we suck hard on defense right now.” You can’t ignore the fact the Thunder are missing two starters — both defensive-minded players. And even if they’re two of the more unpopular players on the team, not having your full complement hurts. Especially when one of them is a high caliber perimeter stopper in Thabo Sefolosha, who would’ve had the bulk of the assignments on players like Green and Meeks.
Still: You can’t lose this game. You can’t play this way. You just… can’t. You have Kevin Durant, you have Russell Westbrook, you have Serge Ibaka. They have… Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall half of Pau Gasol. The sense of urgency the Thunder showed in making their fourth quarter comeback was nice, but it’s something that was missing to start the second half. Durant scored 10 points in the first quarter, then went 20 minutes scoring just four. He finished with a triple-double — 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists — and made some key shots in the fourth. But as the Lakers increased the lead, OKC needed more from KD.
What can you say? This was bad. The excuses are starting to run thin, and while I’m never inclined to panic until the Thunder lose a fourth game in the postseason, I’m not going to blame those that are. Like Brooks said, the Thunder are in a valley. And with the Rockets coming to town on Tuesday, if things don’t change, they could find themselves in a canyon pretty soon.
- A major culprit: The Thunder went 14-21 from the free throw line. Durant missed four (7-11). What’s the deal with this lately?
- Westbrook: 20 points on 7-23 shooting, seven rebounds and eight assists, but eight turnovers. He was bad, then good, then bad, then good, then bad. One thing you have to say: He competed his tail off. That’s the thing that will always endear Westbrook to people — he never stops trying. And like Doug Collins said, sometimes that’s his greatest flaw. He messes up, so he desperately wants to right his wrong as quickly as possible. When he’s at his best, he stays level, and just plays the game, leaving the bad plays behind him. He didn’t do that today. He tried to do way too much, and didn’t trust his teammates.
- I thought Durant played a really smart game, mostly. Some might feel his was stat-hunting a triple-double, but it looked to me like the Lakers were doubling him and he was just making good passes. Though the third quarter when things started to slip, the Thunder needed him to attack more. I said this during the Reaper stretch and I’m saying it again now: The way he played there is a bit dangerous, because I worried it would give everyone an idea that that kind of stuff was sustainable and smart. The dagger 3s were awesome, but there were a couple possessions late where KD was going for that hero Reaper shot, when really a strong drive to the bucket would’ve accomplished more.
- Caron Butler wasn’t very good. He went 2-6 for four points in 24 minutes, and was a game-worst -15.
- Bright side: Reggie Jackson did things! He had 14 on 6-12 shooting with nine rebounds and couple of steals. That’s good.
- The Thunder took only three free throws in the first half. Which means they took 18 in the second, which was good, but that aggression could’ve been useful earlier. And really, I don’t even know if I should give OKC too much credit for it, since KD produced nine of those free throws on three 3-point fouls.
- Serge Ibaka played a really good game. In 34 minutes, 21 points on 9-18 shooting, 15 rebounds and two blocks. He was really key late in the game too in leading the comeback charge.
- The Lakers went with Ryan Kelly starting at power forward, which meant Ibaka covered him, with Steven Adams on Pau Gasol. I know Brooks loves sticking with his starters, but man, that wasn’t wise. Adams clearly had trouble with Gasol’s first step on the block. Why not just match up? WHY?!? Adams isn’t such of a plus player that you feel like you’re gaining all that much with him. It’s not like he’s creating a mismatch on the other end that you feel like you can exploit.
- An example of why starting Adams was nonsensical: He only played 10 minutes, all coming to start the first and third quarters. Basically Brooks acknowledged the mismatch, and subbed him out. So really, he was only starting for the sake of starting, because he has a “C” next to his name on the roster. Damn, this drives me crazy.
- Problem: The Thunder took 35 3-pointers today. That is most definitely not their offensive identity. I realize a lot were chucked during the comeback attempt, but this is a slashing, aggressive, driving team. Not one that relies that heavily on 3-pointers.
- The Thunder have always been susceptible to this, but they really get sucked into playing their opponent’s style. Which is probably an explanation for all the 3-point attempts. The Suns played fast and loose, so the Thunder did too. The Lakers gunned, and so the Thunder did too. Sometimes, I wonder what the Thunder’s identity truly is, because they’re too much of an offensive chameleon.
- Nick Collison should’ve played more than 12 minutes.
- The Lakers had one offensive rebound! One!
- The Thunder won the boards 59-36. And lost. That doesn’t make sense to me.
- Derek Fisher in a four-point loss was a +18 today. The big reason for it? He was on the floor when the lead was built in the first half, then on the floor in the fourth during the comeback. Coincidental? Or was he making that much of a difference?
- Why do referees all say “BAM!” when calling a technical? Just seems so obnoxious. I’m looking forward to the first ref that calls one, yells “BAM!” and then does the 3-holsters.
- Starting Perry Jones was probably a mistake, in hindsight. He wasn’t a good match to chase Meeks off all those screens, and that might’ve contributed to Meeks getting in a good rhythm early. I would’ve liked to have seen Roberson for a change. Remember the last game in LA, right before the All-Star break? The Thunder were sleepwalking through the game, then Roberson checked in and changed the energy. Don’t know why Brooks didn’t try that again today.
- Thabeet checked in during the first quarter and picked up three fouls in four minutes. That guy sure can foul.
- Fun fact Facebook status for you tonight: LeBron has scored fewer than 25 points in each of his last three games. It’s been 64 days since Durant scored fewer than 25.
Next up: Home against the Rockets on Tuesday