A season with so much promise, so much hope, so much belief, potentially decided by a fingertip.
With 2.9 seconds left and the Thunder down a point in the fourth straight overtime game of this series, Kevin Durant launched a 3, for some reason. It bounced high and Serge Ibaka snared it. He threw the ball at the rim as the lights turned red and the buzzer sounded, and it somehow dropped. The Thunder dogpiled on Ibaka, feeling the euphoria of surviving Game 5, only to have it all crushed a second later as the officials waved off the basket.
That whole sequence is probably a perfect metaphor for this whole stupid series, but I’m too tired to really think much harder about it. Coming off the emotionally destructive Game 4, it really felt like maybe the Thunder had finally weathered the storm. Durant hit his first shot of the night, then hit his first 3. Russell Westbrook came out hot as well, and after going 11-45 in Game 4, the two Thunder stars were finally breaking out — 21 points combined on 8-13 shooting after a quarter.
But the duo combined to miss 12 straight shots in the second quarter and by the middle of the third quarter, the Grizzlies had built a 20-point lead. The Thunder looked flat, they looked tired, they look uninterested. Typically, you can bank on a run to get back in the game, but this team, it almost seemed like they didn’t care to.
Of course, they did though. Caron Butler pried the cover off the basket and the Thunder were off to an 18-4 spurt that ballooned to a 27-6 run capped by a Durant 3 with 6:46 left gave them the lead, 79-78. It was all finally happening. The guy wearing No. 35 in white looked like Kevin Durant, and the Thunder had the home crowd roaring.
Over the Thunder’s next 12 possessions, though, Durant didn’t take a single shot. In fact, by my count, he touched the ball a total of three times during those 12 possessions, which spanned exactly six minutes and 13 seconds. After hitting that 3, the next shot Durant took was with 33 seconds left, a rushed transition 3 that came up woefully short. And to stress the point, that was his first shot for more than six minutes, a stretch in which the Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 12-9.
“We had some plays where he has to space the floor,” Brooks said. “We were giving Reggie some opportunities. We did that the game before and we were able to get into the paint and create easy opportunities.”
I don’t need to recite Durant’s credentials, and what he’s accomplished and what he’s meant to this team. But evidently Scott Brooks needs this memo: Kevin F******* Durant is not a “floor spacer.” He’s not Kyle Korver or Troy Daniels or J.J. Redick. He’s the most devastating scorer in the world. He’s KEVIN DURANT. And he just gave you your first lead of the game, yet you stick him on the weakside of the floor, literally in the corner, as you run side screen-and-roll action with Jackson, who had six points on 2-7 shooting.
Durant was diplomatic when asked about it.
“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t involved,” he said. “We seen something in the pick-and-roll and Reggie and Russ did a great job of attacking. And if they were to come off of me, I would’ve been aggressive myself. Sometimes you’ve got to be a decoy out there and I’m fine with that. Once the ball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive when I touch it. If I want the ball, I’ve got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break. I trust my teammates, whatever decisions they make and I’ve just got to be better for them.”
Hold on, hold on. If I want the ball, I’ve got to go rebound it and bring it up on the break. If Kevin Durant wants the ball, he gets the ball.
That stretch was just indefensible coaching. And it was a prime example of how the Thunder can easily lose their way within the flow of a game. I keep trying to write sentences about this, but I can’t even figure out how I want to say it. Would all caps work? Can I just write the next three paragraphs with the caps lock on? The idea that Durant drilled a monumental game-changing 3, and then the Thunder proceeded to run the offense through Reggie Jackson while Durant played “decoy,” is pretty much the most staggering, stunning bit of decision-making I have ever seen. It’s incomprehensible. It’s ineptitude at its highest level.
But here’s the thing: As the Thunder tend to do, they still had a wonderful chance to win the game. Westbrook picked Mike Conley’s pocket with OKC down two and finished a dunk with four seconds left, and it was off to another overtime. The extra frame seemed to be dominated by Memphis, until the Thunder had a chance to tie the game at the free throw line with 27 seconds left. Durant squeezed his first one in, and as he prepared to take his second, noted defensive stopper Joey Crawford stepped in for a steal. Apparently, he was unhappy with the scoreboard not showing both teams were in the bonus, so he halted the game to yell at a scorekeeper as Durant waited on the free throw line.
Crawford’s icing worked, and Durant’s second attempt rolled off the rim.
“I was just trying to stay focused and knock the free throw down and unfortunately I didn’t,” Durant said. “I don’t know what happened, but I’ve got to make that free throw.”
The Thunder got a stop and with 2.9 seconds left, had their chance to survive. After a timeout, the Thunder’s play was Durant from 25 feet shooting on the catch, down one. His 3 hit back iron, Ibaka’s tip was late, and the Grizzlies won Game 5.
“He has opportunities to catch and drive,” Brooks said. “He had three seconds. I give KD that decision to make a play. Tough shot, no question it was a tough shot.”
In a lot of ways, that final play and the quote that came with it is what’s proving to be inherently wrong with Brooks’ philosophy. He’s handed the keys entirely to his players, trusting that his stars will consistently make the right choices. Often times, it works, because those two guys are that damn good. But against a team like Memphis, who seems to be a step ahead of every set and every play, that improvisational offense just comes off as if Brooks doesn’t have a handle on his team. You want Durant taking that last shot, but you also want to make sure he’s taking the right shot. And the fact this isn’t the first time Durant has settled for a 3 in an unnecessary situation — remember Game 3? — illustrates that the message isn’t getting through, or this team simply has no discipline.
Brooks has given these guys a long, long leash, and hitched his wagon entirely to them being effing awesome players. If Durant drains that 3, we celebrate his clutch ability and the fact he’s going to be the MVP for a reason. If Ibaka gets that putback off a split-second earlier, it’s 3-2 Thunder. But this is a running theme of ifs for the Thunder, and each game that has come down to a couple critical plays, haven’t gone their way. Maybe there’s a bigger reason for it all. Maybe something is indeed wrong.
I have no idea what happens next. I’m not sure I even completely care at this point. The Thunder could very well go win Game 6 and have a Game 7 at home. Or they could go lay down in Game 6. All I know is it shouldn’t have been this hard. The Grizzlies are a very good team that play with a ton of heart and effort. But the Thunder have the best player, the league’s likely MVP. Heck, they have the second best player in he series. And yet, they aren’t able to execute in the most simple ways. How does Durant disappear from the offense in the most critical stretch? Why do the Thunder consistently launch 3s when they’re tied or only down one?
- Russell Westbrook had a triple-double (30-10-13), but he was 10-31 from the floor with four turnovers.
- Westbrook went 1-7 from 3 tonight and was 3-17 outside of the restricted area. Asked about his shot selection he said, “I can get better ones. But sometimes, you’ve just got to attack regardless of what’s going on or the time in the game. You’ve just got to stay in attack mode. If they’re giving you a 15-footer, I’ll make that nine times out of 10, so I’m going to shoot it.”
- To recap, Russell Westbrook thinks he shoots 90 percent on 15-foot jumpers. I feel like someone just explained the meaning of life to me and have been enlightened to everything in the world.
- The Thunder had another four-point play, this one coming from Caron Butler in a huge spot late in the fourth quarter. But they’re now 0-3 in games with four-point plays, and 2-0 in games without them. I’m sure that stat is fool-proof.
- At the end of regulation, I thought the Thunder were making a massive mistake by playing out the possession and not fouling. They were down two with a four second differential on the shot clock, but they didn’t have a timeout. So if they would’ve gotten their stop, they would’ve had to secure a rebound and get the ball up the floor to get a look all in four seconds. But Westbrook bailed them out. This is what I mean. Strategically speaking, it seems like the Thunder are prone to really curious things, but their great players are able to overrule them.
- Real talk: How nervous were you guys Westbrook was going to try and tomahawk that breakaway and fire it off the back iron?
- Apparently there was a blackout during the third quarter for Cox Cable users, which is coincidentally when the Thunder played their worst. I’m just assuming the Thunder quit playing to be polite so that everyone didn’t miss anything good.
- On Ibaka’s putback, I had a number of people tell me that the clock probably should’ve had more time on it, like 3.0 or 3.1 seconds. That extra tenth of a second would’ve, ahem, proven to be big.
- Tony Allen isn’t just in the head of Kevin Durant, he’s in the head of the officials too. In overtime, he was literally hugging Ibaka’s arm on a rebound with Bill Spooner standing feet away, and there was no call. It’s amazing that a guy can play defense the way he does all night and end up with only three fouls.
- It’s not surprising, because Westbrook rushes everything, but for some reason he REALLY rushes wide open 3s. Feet not set, out of rhythm.
- There’s just something about Mike Miller, the Thunder, and Game 5. He went 5-8 from 3 tonight and had 21 points. (He had 26 in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals.)
- Durant went 3-6 from the free throw line tonight. That’s a problem. He’s not getting there, and he’s not making them when he does. Something is up.
- The Thunder wore black shoes and socks tonight.
- It wouldn’t surprise me if a Thunder fan started taping every conversation they have with Joey Crawford from here on out.
- Seriously though, I don’t know if you can blame Crawford any. The scorekeeper is the one that messed up first, and while Crawford didn’t have to halt the game the way he did, Durant shouldn’t have missed the free throw.
- Mike Conley: “I looked at KD and we were just like ‘What is Joey doing?’ But hey, I guess it worked at the end of night.”
- The message from the players and Brooks was that they just won in Memphis and they can do it again. Sure they can. But after watching the way these games have gone, I don’t have high hopes.
- What does the future hold for Scott Brooks if the series ends on Thursday? I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
- Here’s the thing: I don’t have any problem with the lineups and rotations Brooks used tonight. Really, I thought he handled all of that spot on. The smallball was exactly what OKC needed and he used the players that were effective. People say he’s stubborn, which he has been, but I think he’s been very flexible in this series. The problem we can all see is that the bad habits this team has gotten away with all season long, are killing them right now. And that falls at the feet of Brooks first and foremost.
- Since Game 1 where he had seven, Durant hasn’t had more than four assists in the last four games.
- In case you’re wondering: The last MVP to lose in the first round of the playoffs? Dirk in 2007.
Next up: Game 6 in Memphis on Thursday