After all of that, back to the Western Conference finals.
After all the struggles against Memphis, after all the offensive issues, after all the frustrations, after all the problems and gripes and complains and overreactions, the Thunder are headed to the Western Conference finals to play the team they’ve seemed destined to meet this season.
We’ll talk plenty about the Spurs in the next couple days, but let’s pay plenty of attention to what the Thunder accomplished tonight.
The slow start brought discomfort as the Thunder slogged through an ugly, sloppy first quarter, falling in a 14-point hole after 12 minutes. But what we all thought was a lack of urgency and possible contentment to come back to OKC for Game 7 might’ve in reality been a quiet, calm confidence. The Thunder were actually just making it a point to not panic, to not press, but instead just remain steady in their own gameplan. Yeah, the offensive execution was a filthy mess at times, but man, it can look so pretty when those rainbows from No. 35 start splashing through.
What really turned the game was three defensive breakdowns by the Clippers in the second quarter, letting Durant loose on three consecutive 3s for an individual 9-0 run. It snapped KD out of his 1-7 start, and immediately trimmed the Clippers’ 14-point lead to five in the matter of 90 seconds. The Clippers responded with their own run, but Durant was now engaged and the Thunder had settled. A strong second quarter had the Thunder down eight headed to halftime, but it seemed as if they weathered the early emotional storm from the Clippers.
Durant opened the third scoring OKC’s first seven points, and while the Thunder trailed until Nick Collison tied it at 72-72 with 1.4 seconds left, it was clear they were coming for the series. Durant was in kill mode, and despite struggling to score, Russell Westbrook was oddly measured in the way he was orchestrating the game.
But things took a turn when Serge Ibaka was forced to leave midway through the third because of a calf injury. Collison, who appeared headed for a DNP-CD came cold off the bench and did the kinds of things that’s made him such an institution in Oklahoma City. He couldn’t handle Blake Griffin, but he sure made him work for his points. And on the offensive end, Collison used his ridiculous basketball intellect and feel for the game to get Westbrook his first bucket on a slick baseline backcut. The severity of Ibaka’s injury is unknown, but had he been unavailable for Sunday’s Game 7, not closing here could have been something the Thunder paid dearly for.
The Thunder rolled on into the fourth quarter, taking their first lead since 1-0 with a seven-foot Westbrook banker with 10:41 left. And at that point, it seemed as if the stay-the-course mentality was going to pay off. Durant was feeling it as the Slim Reaper made an appearance with a vicious straightaway 3 with 6:46 left to put the Thunder up 87-80. Reggie Jackson nailed another 3 to put OKC up 10, and at that point, it was about not falling victim to another ridiculous comeback. Leads in this series haven’t been safe, so naturally the Clippers made one last push out of desperation.
With 4:09 left, the Clippers cut it to seven, and after a charge on Westbrook, things were starting to feel dicey once again. The Clippers appeared to pull it to five with a DeAndre Jordan dunk, but Chris Paul was called for a fairly ridiculous foul for undercutting Collison after he dished off. Another big sequence: After a Durant turnover, Griffin was hammering down the lane, but Durant lined up the Clipper forward perfectly to draw a critical charge. The Thunder bumbled through a few empty possessions, but unlike Game 4, the Thunder weren’t letting the Clippers score. Stop after stop, the Thunder were just draining the game, relying on swarming defense and quality rebounding to get by without points of their own.
The Clippers did get it to four with 49 seconds left, but Westbrook drew a foul and knocked in his free throws. A stop and two more free throws by Durant put the lid on it, snuffing out what little chance the Clippers had remaining. The Thunder were the ones making the winning plays, remaining poised in crunchtime.
After Durant’s 1-7 start, he wrapped the game with 39 points on 12-23 (5-8 from 3) with 16 rebounds and five assists. MVP? MVP. He hit his last 11 of 16, canning daggerish shots rapid fire, basically putting the Clippers on notice that they didn’t have anything left to hope for because the Reaper was in the house. His first quarter was an awkward, disengaged display, but in retrospect, it was just KD slow-cooking. He saw that first 3 drop on a major blunder by J.J. Redick, and from then on, it was on.
Just an emphatic performance from the league’s MVP, as well as from the Thunder, a team is a constant spotlight for their apparent ineptitude. But on the road with a chance to close, the Thunder remained true to form, and just relied on themselves and their pure talent to persevere. It’s a risky plan at times, but when it’s good, it’s really good. Durant can hide pretty much any blemish himself, and despite it all, the Thunder finished those pesky Clippers in six.
This is the Thunder’s third trip in four years to the Western Finals, the one failure of course being last season that was ended with Westbrook’s meniscus. And consider this fact: The core of the team is still 25 years old and under. There has been some frustrations let out about this team, from the coaching staff to the front office to ownership, but that’s an incredibly impressive thing. Presti preaches sustained success. Well, you’re looking at it.
Now, it’s on to the next one where there will be more gripes, more anger, more frustration and more emotion. But the Thunder are one of four teams left, and four wins away from playing again for the crown jewel. It’s not always ideal, it’s not always pretty and it could certainly be better at times. But it doesn’t matter, either. Because the Thunder are right where they’re supposed to be.
- Steven Freaking Adams. What a performance from a 20-year-old rookie. He played a career-high 40 minutes and recorded a career-high 11 rebounds along with his second career double-double. He played quality defense on Griffin and provided the Thunder with a catch-and-finish big to find coming off those attacking dribble penetrations. He was strong on the glass and intimidating in the paint. He got his minutes largely because of foul trouble for Perk, but also because he earned the right to stay on the floor. We’re watching a guy explode in front of us.
- With Westbrook, I think some of us we’re a little jarred by the maturation he showed. Struggling through a tough scoring night, we’re used to see him to and assert himself even more almost forcing his way through the problems. Instead, he managed the game well, ran the offense and resisted just wildly attacking without purpose. He had a few slip-ups, but Westbrook just looked different. Two years ago, he finishes tonight’s game 5-23 from the floor for 20 points with five assists and six turnovers.
- Instead, Westbrook scored 19 on 4-15 shooting with 12 assists. He had five turnovers, all in the second half, mostly as a result of trying to force the pass a bit too much. But he controlled and ran the game for the most part.
- Nick Collison played 17 minutes, all in the second half, and was a +16. Just doing Nick Collison things.
- I don’t think it was all that coincidental that the Thunder’s offense opened up with Collison on the floor. Amazing what having an unselfish player with a gift of passing on the floor can do. I’d love to see what the Thunder could accomplish running their offense through Collison in the high post like the Clippers do with Griffin or how the Bulls do with Noah. When things get bad, why not default to a few sets of that? It’s simple offense that is likely to produce a decent look.
- How stressful were those final two minutes? That’s playoff pain right there. We all thought the Thunder were blowing that thing.
- Scott Brooks says he doesn’t have an update on Serge Ibaka’s calf yet. “I think he’ll be alright but we won’t know until tomorrow.”
- J.J. Redick does so much for an offense other than just knock down shots. I wanted the Thunder to sign him badly last offseason, because having someone like him constantly running off screens and chugging the baseline the way he does creates movement and spacing within an offense basically all by himself. Defenses have to chase and help, and it opens pockets in other places. The Thunder desperately could use a player like him, someone that’s a threat to make perimeter shots, but is a non-stop moving offensive weapon.
- Collison was 1-9 during the regular season from that left corner 3 spot. But he’s Nick Collison, so he naturally knocked it down.
- If you read me much, you know I leave officiating out of recaps for the most part. But there were some ugly calls late in this one. The one on Paul pushing Collison was laughable, then Westbrook’s push-off on Darren Collison with 90 seconds left was outrageous.
- Update: So this GIF kind of changes the perspective on the CP3 foul. You can see him hook Collison’s leg after making contact. Don’t know if the ref saw it, because I had to watch it like four times to catch it, but it’s pretty obvious.
- Just want to shout myself out for saying Adams was going to be OKC’s X-factor this series.
- Seriously though, how are you supposed to focus and play with Rihanna sitting over there like that?
- The Thunder can just be so weak with the ball. They have serious issues just valuing possession. They ended up turning it over just 15 times, but so many of their turnovers feel so avoidable.
- The Thunder ended up with 25 assists, which is really great for them.
- Reggie Jackson with his best game of the series scoring 14 on 4-8. A perfect lead-in to the Spurs, a team he’s absolutely murdered this season.
- Other than a bit too much first half Derek Fisher, Brooks managed the game really well. He rode the hot hands of Adams and Collison, and basically benched Butler (seven minutes). The Clippers couldn’t find any lineup to matchup, primarily because Adams and Collison were making things so problematic. Having two bigs on the floor that are threats to finish makes the Thunder hard to guard.
- Just want to shout out Blake Griffin for the development of his game. That guy has come so far with his jumper and on the free throw line. He was never as one-dimensional as people made him out to be, but he’s such a load and an incredibly difficult player to cover.
- Jamal Crawford: four points on 2-5. Big.
- Thunder and Spurs. Oh boy oh boy.
Next up: Game 1 in San Antonio on Monday