Trust me: Tomorrow morning after you wake up, and the sting of blowing Game 4 starts to wear off and your emotions begin to settle, at some point during the day you’re going to say to yourself, “Hey, getting a split was really all they needed to do, right?”
I think how you handle Game 4’s loss says a lot about what kind of fan you are. And I’m not saying either way is more correct than the other. But the same people that thought everything was over after the Game 1 blowout loss is probably looking at today’s proceedings as a devastating choke-job that the Thunder will rue forever. And the people that kept their heads steady and were able to maintain the long view that the series is a race to four are seeing this as a serious disappointment, but not destructive.
Look: There’s no doubt that the Thunder completely deuced one away today. They had a prime opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead, and put the Clippers in a severely compromised position. A 7-7 start from the field that led to an opening 29-7 lead spotted the Thunder a big advantage that we all knew they were going to have to hang on to for dear life. The Clippers were always coming, and it was going to be a matter of making plays and getting stops at some point.
The Clippers chipped away at various points, but the Thunder either always had an answer, or were somehow able to dodge a bullet. With 8:44 left, the Thunder led 82-68, a 14-point lead that in some ways felt like a 40-point lead and others, felt like a four-point one. The Clippers weren’t making anything and while the Thunder were missing opportunities for the killshot, there was a level of control in place.
But the Clippers were digging away, cutting it to 10, then eight, then five, then three, then finally one with 2:58 left after a Darren Collison runout layup. It was a slow burn collapse, like watching a football team trying to run the ball and complete third-and-six passes to drain the clock with a three-point lead. Even after they built the early lead, the Thunder lost all their pace, playing possessions routinely with less than eight on the shot clock. The offense stalled by virtue of intent, it seemed. The Thunder were taking knees too early.
The Clippers tried this in Game 2 as well, but went with Chris Paul on Durant, trying to eliminate KD’s ability to use his dribble. The one time Durant attempted to isolate and attack, Paul picked his pocket. So the Thunder went to iso-posting Durant, but like Tony Allen, Paul made Durant’s catches difficult, and the Clippers sent an immediate double to try and force the ball out of his hands. OKC’s spacing was awful, and Durant’s passes out were deflected. Three possessions were lost in the fourth precisely because of it.
Off instinct, I’m inclined to blame this on the failings of the halfcourt offense, but when you look at the numbers, it’s hard not to tilt more on pointing the finger defensively. The Clippers scored 38 points in the fourth, and here’s the killer: They took 16 of their 22 attempts in the restricted area. They scored on 18 of 19 possessions at one point. That’s awful defense. And combine that with the fact the Thunder weren’t consistently finding good looks on their end, it was eventually going to catch up to them. That’s a pretty tried and true thing in basketball — the team getting the better looks typically wins. And throughout the fourth quarter, the Clippers were getting far better looks than the Thunder were. So the breakdown goes hand in hand. The defense was bad, and the offense couldn’t save them.
I’m not going to sit here and try and act like this loss wasn’t horrible. Because it was. The Thunder had their chance to put a choke-hold on the series, and instead they just did some choking. Playoff games get viewed in a vacuum, especially right after they happen. Within only today, the loss feels potentially catastrophic, like something that may cause a summer of regret. But the series takes place on a bigger scale than just today. It’s more than one game. The bigger picture paints a nicer image, one in which the Thunder earned their road split and now have homecourt advantage in a best of three.
This may be a game to reflect upon and lose sleep over. But we’re not going to know that for a few more days. The Thunder tried to get greedy, going for a two-game sweep in Staples to have a chance to put this to bed in OKC in Game 5. Instead, they’re back in the same spot they were against the Grizzlies. The difference here is, the Thunder are back to being the desperate team, coming off a loss with legions of doubters and gripers piping up. And that’s really when the Thunder tend to play their best.
This was a disaster in a bottle, but a success in the large scale. The key is letting go the what-ifs and disappointment of missing a substantial opportunity to refocus on the next game up. The Thunder had this one and let it get away. How much they pay for the sins of today is yet to be known.
- Down two with no timeouts and a three-second clock differential, the Thunder seemed to choose to play out the possession, which was unbelievably dumb. Brooks used the same strategy in Game 5 against Memphis and was saved by a Westbrook steal. This time, he was saved by Blake Griffin’s own stupidity, throwing a shot up with six seconds left. The Thunder rebounded and nearly stole the game. I can’t decide who made a worse decision, Griffin or Brooks.
- I think Doc Rivers used some subversive mindgame voodoo stuff on Scott Brooks by going with CP3 on Durant. The Thunder have this horrible habit of seeing a mismatch and trying to expose it simply by isolation. They did it earlier with Caron Butler on Jamal Crawford. So when the Clippers threw Paul on Durant, it was like a lightbulb went off and the Thunder said, “We gotta give it to Durant! He has a small person on him!” The Thunder lost all their spacing and movement, and just did the stand around thing where they hope to everything KD can be awesome for them.
- Durant wouldn’t give CP3 credit for his fourth quarter defense, and for good reason. It’s something people are making an assumption with, but in reality, it was mostly about how the Thunder found themselves as a unit disrupted by it, not because of CP3 putting locks on KD, but because the double-teams caused confusion. Like I said, using CP3 took away Durant’s dribble attacks, so they went into the post with him. And when you post, you’re easy to double. Again, assuming CP3 shut down Durant isn’t correct. It was more about what that caused OKC to counter with, which was Durant posting a smaller defender, which allowed the Clippers to double, which the Thunder didn’t solve well enough.
- Durant’s fourth quarter: 4-5 shooting, 10 points.
- I’ve seen some mild gripes about Westbrook, pinning blame on him. This is that same old discussion we’ve been going over time and time again. Westbrook was 4-10 in the fourth for 10 points with just one assist, but how can you really point at him here? He was backed into a corner produced by Brooks and the simplistic offense, forced into playmaking with the shot clock winding down. If anything, be thankful for Westbrook’s ability, otherwise some of those circus possessions would’ve been empty, rather than ending in two points that he manufactured completely on his own.
- The Clippers elected to go small down the stretch, playing three guards. And I thought the Thunder missed a big opportunity to expose an actual mismatch when Darren Collison on Westbrook. Why not hammer the post with Westbrook? Collison is tiny and Westbrook can easily back him down. The one time OKC figured this out, the Clippers sent the double and Westbrook passed easily out of it to Ibaka who got two free throws.
- What was Darren Collison doing picking Westbrook up fullcourt?
- I’m so tired of the constant Thunder narrative being “This is all Scott Brooks’ fault he’s the worst!” after every loss and “Durant and Westbrook are amazing and meshing beautifully!” after wins.
- A few people have asked if Ibaka could be suspended for hitting Griffin in the Griffins early in the game. The play was pretty obviously unintentional, with Ibaka’s arm being redirected by running into Perk. Ibaka’s fist wasn’t closed, he wasn’t looking where he made contact, and didn’t follow through. I wouldn’t worry much about it.
- What if Westbrook’s 3 had dropped? That sure would’ve been something, huh?
- This was a problem from Blake Griffin in college and remains one he hasn’t solved: He often plays for the whistle, rather than playing through it. On a post-up, he’s routinely trying to contort himself for a call, instead of just going up strong for a finish and letting the foul come naturally.
- After his excellent 20-point game, Ibaka scored only eight on 2-5 shooting today. And the two makes were 3-pointers. How did this happen?
- Derek Fisher with just five minutes, all in the first half, I think.
- The Clippers were killing OKC with a high CP3 screen-and-roll where he attacked the rim aggressively downhill after the pick. The Thunder’s initial adjustment was to put Durant on Paul, then switch the screen. The Clippers picked that out easily, accepting the switch and just posting Griffin on Durant. So OKC changed again, inserting Thabo to chase Paul around the picks. Which was the right move, but came five or six possessions too late.
- OKC’s bench: 19 points, 10 via Reggie Jackson. The Clippers’ produced 40.
- Sometimes sports aren’t very fun, are they? Why do we care about these stupid things so much?
- Back to the Clippers’ double-team strategy: I think this is something the Thunder are going to solve pretty easily for Game 5 after looking at the tape. It’s just that they were a bit caught off guard by it and didn’t fix it on the fly. A problem, obviously, but this isn’t all that complicated.
- For the first time in the series, the Clippers hurt the Thunder on the glass, pulling in 15 offensive rebounds.
- I’ll say this again: It was never going to be that easy. The Clippers are good. The Thunder blew a chance, but I didn’t see very many people predict Thunder in five. If you had this thing going six or seven, then the Clippers had to win this game. The Thunder may regret the collapse, but as of now, they’re in control of the series and have a monumental Game 5 at home.
Next up: Game 5 in OKC on Tuesday