Four days ago, the Thunder were snapping the Spurs’ 19-game winning streak with an impressive 12-point win, reaffirming to everyone what we’ve pretty much known all year, despite some bumps and hiccups — the Western Conference runs through a healthy Oklahoma City, until further notice.
But a close loss on the second night of a back-to-back without three starters and another tight road loss to a desperate team scrapping for a playoff spot have the fickle side of the fanbase agitated. I’ve said this before, so apologies for the repetition, but that’s the curse of being an elite team. There’s an expectation to win every game, so when that does happen, there’s amplification of the negatives. When you reflect on the Thunder’s 2012-13 regular season, one that was absolutely terrific and earned them the No. 1 seed in the West, you’ll notice they lost 22 times. With six games remaining this season, they’ve lost 21 times. And spent almost half of it without Russell Westbrook.
Forget that stuff though. They lost the last game I just watched and did some frustrating things so we should all be worried. Right?
Actually, yes. At least a little. Because amazingly, the Suns could make a push for the No. 7 seed and after watching essentially a repeat of last month’s loss in Phoenix, it’s pretty clear they could present a matchup problem for the Thunder. The Suns shot 58.4 percent from the field and hit 11 more 3s, with Goran Dragic scoring 26, Gerald Green scoring 24 and P.J. Tucker tying his career-high with 22. Their super smallball lineups gave the Thunder fits, and Scott Brooks was clearly searching for answers the entire second half.
“They’re a very good team. Offensively, they give you trouble,” Brooks said. “Because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they make 3s and they’re desperate right now.”
Even that little admission is telling. It’s not a coincidence the Suns shredded the Thunder a second straight time. The last meeting, it was mostly dismissed because it was in the midst of a defensive downturn, but the Thunder have returned to defending at a high level the last few weeks. But the Suns still picked them apart with basic drive and kick principles. The Thunder have a simple defensive scheme that’s to pressure the ball, which often allows dribble penetration. If that happens, they hope that Serge Ibaka bails them out, or should the driver kick to a shooter, their length and athleticism allows them to recover enough to get a decent contest. It works against a lot of teams, though sometimes they get burned when the shots start falling.
The Suns are the kind of team that scheme can backfire against. Because while they’re a streaky perimeter shooting team, they have two ball-handling guards that get in the paint with regularity, and enough shooters that can heat up. Gerald Green did it to the tune of eight 3s in the last meeting, and hit 5-7 tonight. Tucker hit 4-5 from deep. Those corners were opened and exposed.
So it was evident early into the second half the Thunder’s hope was to simply outgun the Suns. It’s a solid plan most times, because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are pretty decent basketball players. But as the game grew more stretched and improvisational, the Thunder’s stars got a bit carried away. The Thunder attempted 32 3-pointers as a team, with Westbrook and Durant combined for 24 themselves (and making just six).
In fact, Westbrook and Durant just completely dominated the Thunder’s offense, particularly the final 24 minutes. They combined for 71 of OKC’s 115 (38 for KD, 33 for Westbrook), but 54 of the team’s 84 shot attempts. Serge Ibaka, quietly one of the Thunder’s most reliable and efficient offensive players, got five shots. Reggie Jackson took eight. Caron Butler took six. There was no balance within OKC’s offense tonight and as things tightened in crunchtime, the plan was to basically just hope Durant or Westbrook could knock something down.
With 2:11 left, it was 111-111. The Suns called timeout. The next possession, Markieff Morris beat Ibaka off the dribble for a layup. Westbrook responded by missing a 28-foot pull-up 3. A bad pass from Bledsoe gave OKC the ball back, and Westbrook got caught in between, finger-rolling a four foot shot just three feet. Ibaka pulled in a tough offensive rebound, found Westbrook, who got it back to Ibaka on a slick pocket pass. Ibaka was in between shots a bit and left a 15-footer short. With 55 seconds left, Westbrook was caught in a switch and fouled Morris in the post. Two free throws, and the Thunder were down 115-112. Durant then lost the ball off the dribble with 50 seconds left, and P.J. Tucker was fouled and made both free throws — 117-112 with 43 seconds left. Durant took an ill-advised straight-on 3 (why not go get two and play defense?) and at that point, the Suns just had to make free throws.
Point is with all that, the Thunder’s crunchtime execution was bad, bad, bad. But what else could be expected, considering they played the previous 46 minutes exactly like that. When you rely that heavily on two guys, you’re going to rely on them even more when the game matters.
What this sets up is a more-critical-than-previously-expected showdown with the Clippers on Wednesday, who have inconspicuously closed to within a game (two in the loss column) of the Thunder. There has been some light slippage here by the Thunder, but remember: These were two close, winnable games that got away in the final minutes on the road against good teams. The Thunder don’t qualify for excuses because when you’re as good as they are, you don’t get the benefit of those. To me, the game against the Spurs was a playoff preview of how the Thunder expect to perform in the postseason. High energy, attacking offense, disruptive defense and smart basketball in general. That’s what this team is capable of and as long as they trend more that direction than this one, I’m not all that worried.
Unless they draw the Suns in the first round.
- Durant took a career-high 15 3-pointers tonight. What was the deal with that? A lot of them were pretty good looks and telling KD not to take a clean look at 3 is like turning down free dessert. Maybe there’s something better for you available, but why would you want that? Still, Durant settled a bit. He was at his best tonight driving the ball at the basket.
- That said, Durant topped Michael Jordan’s streak, scoring at least 25 in his 41st straight game, the longest run since 1986-87. Next on the list is Oscar Robertson at 46 games.
- I’ve seen a few folks tweet gripes about such a deal being made about catching Jordan when the real record is Wilt Chamberlain with 80 in 1963. First off, any time you top Michael Jordan in something, it’s a big freaking deal. Second, there seems to be a large misunderstanding of the differing eras in professional basketball. Grant Long even apparently doesn’t understand what the “modern era” of the NBA is. Basically, the league changed drastically in 1976 when the ABA merged with the NBA. You can’t deny what Chamberlain accomplished, but citing his records are pretty much unfair. Because the era he dominated was completely different than the present game. He was essentially playing against amateurs — except for Bill Russell — the pace of the game was ridiculous, stat-padding was extremely common and the style of basketball was totally different. So cite Chamberlain all you want, but there are essentially two records here, and Durant topping MJ is, to me at least, the one that really counts.
- The Thunder’s defense gets really bad, particularly on the perimeter, when someone attacks it in a straight line. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic go straight at it, and Thunder defenders have this terrible habit of helping in limbo, just taking a step in and reaching a meaningless hand out, leaving a shooter open. Drives me nuts. DON’T LEAVE YOUR MAN WHEN HE CAN SHOOT IT’S A SIMPLE DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLE.
- No Steven Adams for the first time this season, meaning every Thunder player has missed at least one game.
- With the Suns playing a bundle of guards, Jeremy Lamb got regular minutes in a game Westbrook played, which is different than what’s been happening lately. Lamb played just eight minutes, and picked up five fouls. Four of them came in 14 seconds when he was trying to guard Tucker in the post. It was a pretty perfect example of Brooks not really have a good plan on how to handle the Suns’ odd lineups.
- Here’s what I think would’ve worked best: Westbrook on Dragic, Jackson on Bledsoe, Durant on Green, Butler on Tucker and Ibaka on Morris. Instead, Butler chased Green around and Durant was on Tucker. Then Brooks did the most predictable thing in the world subbing in Fisher as a “stopper” late to guard Dragic. None of it worked particularly well.
- I don’t know why this kind of blew my mind, but everyone was saluting P.J. Tucker — for good reason — for setting a new career-high of 22. Kevin Durant has scored at least 25 in 41 straight games.
- Perk’s clap game was on point tonight. A quality combination of standing up, half-frowning and raising his elbows high.
- Ibaka sometimes trusts his shot-blocking too much, allowing penetration with the idea to try get a trailing block. The perfect example was Morris’ driving layup late in the fourth. Ibaka offered little resistance, almost baiting him into it. That works against little guards sometimes. Not against a 6-9 guy.
- There was a point in the game tonight where Grant Long was talking about Perk getting “back into the rhythm he was in” before he got hurt. Okay.
- Nobody enjoys a 2-for-1 opportunity quite like Russell Westbrook. It’s his excuse to take an absurd, insane shot without repercussion.
- Would Perry Jones have possibly been helpful tonight? Either on P.J. Tucker or Gerald Green?
- The Thunder turned it over just 12 times. That’s an example of why I think sometimes people make too much of Thunder turnovers. They can play really sloppy and disjointed and not turn the ball over.
- Just Ibaka’s fifth game this season he didn’t record a block.
- Another big reason for the Thunder to avoid the Suns: It would probably be six games of heavy Perk/Scott Brooks griping. I think the Thunder would prevail, but it would be challenging, and frustrating.
- Any time Brian Davis starts a sentence with, “Hey G…” I scramble for my remote to hit mute.
- At one point tonight though, Grant Long started talking about how the ball stayed on the strong side of the floor for the entire possession and how the Thunder needed to swing it to the weakside to create some movement. Hey! Basketball analysis! What is this???
- In Thunder wins, they attempt 21.1 3s a game. In Thunder losses, they attempt 25.5 3s a game. I don’t think this is a coincidental stat.
- How was Game of Thrones tonight? WAIT, don’t tell me.
- Brian Davis Line of the Night: “Collison is starting this stretch like he’s got a bee in his shorts.”
Next up: At the Kings on Tuesday