Well, that’s over with.
The Thunder have the No. 2 seed, as they should. But woo boy, the way they achieved it was not exactly ideal.
Down as many as eight to the Pistons in the fourth quarter, including five with 1:30 to go, the Thunder made a few plays, finally got a few stops and Kevin Durant won another game. But that’s not really the way you want to be going in to the playoffs, scrapping to win your final game against a 29-win team. And not just that, losing to the Pacers, then dropping the ugliest game of the season to the Pelicans, and need a near miracle to pull one out against Detroit.
Durant, though, is brightsiding it.
“Tonight kind of prepared us for [the playoffs],” he said. “To be honest, we wanted to win this game of course, and I’m glad we didn’t win by a lot. Just getting us ready for that. And having to make good plays and being down 10 points with five minutes to go and figuring it out and trying to win. Hopefully we go into the playoffs and play well.”
That’s one way to look at it. The other way is that the Thunder spent the last month and a half playing some wildly inconsistent basketball, going from looking spectacular against the league’s best teams, to looking sloppy and average against others. It doesn’t exactly leave you feeling high amounts of confidence as the Grizzlies roll in to town on Saturday.
“If we’d have just dominated these three games going in to the playoffs, we couldn’t hang our hats on that and say it’s going to be the same way once the playoffs start,” Durant said. “It’s a new season, we’ve got to put this behind us. We can’t dwell on the regular season, even if we played well. We can’t think go into that series thinking, ‘Man we played well these last three now we’re going to have a great series.’ We’ve got to let it go and move past it no matter what.”
I know I’m overstating things, but it kind of felt like more was at stake than the No. 2, didn’t it though? The way the Thunder had played, and the fact something was actually on the line, there was a real, palpable tension in the air at Chesapeake Energy Arena. By the time the Thunder made their fourth quarter run, the crowd was on its feet roaring as if a must-stop possession against the Spurs in Game 4 was coming up.
And when the Thunder needed those plays, they made them. They had absolutely no answer for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, and things turned when Drummond fouled out. A couple stops, a couple Durant buckets, a Derek Fisher block at the rim — seriously — and it was finally a one-point game with 30 seconds left. Russell Westbrook drove hard, missed his lefty layup, Durant rebounded, and somehow couldn’t get a point blank putback to fall. The Thunder had to find another stop, to which the Pistons aided them, throwing the ball out of bounds. Timeout Thunder, and Scott Brooks drew up a great play that had Durant curling off a screen, catching the ball on the move and overpowering Detroit’s defense. He wasn’t missing that one.
It was all oddly emotional and intense. I never would’ve thought that the final two minutes in the 82nd game of the season against the freaking Pistons might’ve been the most important all year for OKC. But it was clear the two-seed was important to them, and they were selling out to get it.
We all walked in to the arena fully expecting a playoff tune-up for the Thunder, a game where they washed that Pelicans disaster away with a three-quarter domination. In fact, I left my laptop charger at home thinking I’d have most of this recap written mid-fourth quarter. I think the Thunder expected the same, almost as if they were waiting for that explosive 16-2 run that blew the game open. Instead, yet another player went for a career-high on them — rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope topped his old one 17 in the first half — and it was obvious well into the third quarter this game was serious business.
So that’s why postgame the message was pretty standard, with the players and Scott Brooks maintaining that this season is over and the next one is what’s important. Brooks has said all season the top goals going in to the playoffs is to be healthy and be playing their best basketball. The first, check. The second, ehhhh.
“What we did in the regular season has no bearing going forward now,” Brooks said. “We played that first season to get ready for the second season. Now the matchups are there. Any team can beat any team in this league and we just have to win four games.”
That is the beauty of the playoffs. Style points and stats no longer matter. Final scores do. So in that regard, Wednesday’s game really was a pretty good warmup I guess.
- Bonus to this game being such a struggle: Durant played 45 minutes (wait maybe that’s a bad thing), scoring 42 points, which raised his scoring average to 32.01 a game. That places him back in elite company as one of only four players to finish a season averaging 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists (Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor).
- Durant’s 42 gave him his 14th 40-point game of the season, the most in a season since Kobe in 2005-06.
- Durant started the game just 1-5 shooting, and was very obviously frustrated. During a timeout, Fisher had a long, serious talk with him and Durant was listening, but just sort of staring forward. When play started up again, he went and dunked all over Drummond.
- This was the third straight game KD struggled with his perimeter touch. He finished 14-30 from the field, but just 1-5 from 3 and did almost all his damage in the paint and at the rim. He had 21 in the fourth, but again, most of that was in transition, at the free throw line or inside eight feet.
- Durant’s month of April (nine games) he shot just 16-64 from 3 (25 percent).
- Detroit played an incredibly good game, but this illustrated nicely why the Pistons finished the season 29-53. Jennings missed a free throw, Monroe threw a bad backdoor pass out of bounds, Derek Fisher blocked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the rim wait what and Detroit just didn’t finish the game in general. Again, Drummond fouling out changed things, but they should’ve won the game.
- Brooks on Fisher’s block: “I don’t how he did it. You guys were probably just as in awe as I was.”
- Fisher on his block: “Whenever (coach Brooks) trusts me to put me in those situations, I just try to impact the game in a positive way,” Fisher said. “Sometimes it’ll be a big shot. Other times it’s just making a play to help us win. I never would have guessed it would have been a blocked shot at the rim. For sure not that. But it was just me trying to do what I could to help us win.”
- Look, again, the Thunder played awful and should be embarrassed. But if I was a Pistons player, front office member, coach, fan, I’d be pissed at that team. They were capable of this kind of performance way more often than they produced it. Monroe and Drummond should’ve been dominating people. Again, the Thunder stunk. But the Pistons should’ve had a much, much better season than they did.
- Serge Ibaka had a quietly huge game, with 10 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. He struggled with Monroe and Drummond, but both those guys can be a load. The Thunder tried playing small, tried playing big, tried playing middle and every lineup, Ibaka was critical. He got in foul trouble in the fourth and it really hurt OKC badly.
- Thabo Sefolosha, 0-4 from 3. That’s 0-8 from deep his last two games and just 1-13 since he’s returned.
- Not surprising, but Scott Brooks said Westbrook’s minute restriction will be lifted this weekend. On that, Westbrook said, “It just says that we’re being cautious, that you want to have a long career. It also says I want to be the best player [I can be] come April, May, June.”
- It’s pretty fitting the Thunder get to play the Grizzlies, this time with Russell Westbrook back, isn’t it?
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished his career night with 30. But couldn’t dunk on Derek Fisher. I can’t even.
- One thing Westbrook hasn’t never done well: say “my bad.” Watch a game closely and see how many times he taps his chest and say that pass was on him, or that he missed a defensive assignment. There was a play in the fourth where he and Ibaka miscommunicated a switch and Westbrook fouled Jennings on a 3. And Westbrook immediately went after Ibaka. Another play earlier in the game, Westbrook tried to thread the needle to Thabo to which he mishandled. Westbrook shook his head and muttered a lot of something as Thabo said my bad. Just seems weird to me.
- Perk went at Tony Brothers and picked up a technical, then looked at Brooks and said “Tell ‘em Scotty!” Brooks said something, and then sat down. You told ‘em!
- The Thunder won this game exclusively by attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. They hit just 5-23 from 3 — a big concern — but went 31-41 from the free throw line. Westbrook went just 5-15, but 12-15 from the line. Durant missed 16 shots, but hit 13-15 from the line.
- Standing three feet away, I definitely had to Google “Who is the Pistons’ coach?” It’s John Loyer. That’s the Pistons’ coach.
- Also: Wasn’t he Parker Posey’s husband in “Best in Show”?
- Caron Butler addressed the crowd pregame and finished it by saying, “It’s our time.” Everyone ate it up, but when the Thunder were down nine to the Pistons, it felt kind of dumb all of a sudden.
- Brooks asked about MVP: “I just can’t wait to see the voter’s votes. I’m looking forward to the transparency.”
- Best question I’ve heard Scott Brooks asked this season came pregame where someone asked him how important is is for the Thunder to win a championship. I was surprised that Brooks didn’t say, “Eh, don’t really care to be honest.”
- Before Caron Butler left the locker room, he hollered over at Russell Westbrook. “Hey Russ, follow me on Twitter.” Yeah, come on Russ.
Next up: Game 1 against the Grizzlies on Saturday