I’m not going into this primer with a defeatist attitude. I won’t sit here and tell you that despite a likely first round defeat, this was an extremely successful season. I’m not going to tell you that, with his performance in the series, Russell Westbrook probably eased the doubts of some of the people who hesitantly voted for him as MVP. I’m not going into it like the Oklahoma City Thunder have already lost Game 5.
With the Thunder down 3-1 in their first round series against the Houston Rockets, the chances of them advancing do look bleak. But here’s where hope comes into play. Outside of the second half of Game 1, the Thunder have pretty much kept pace with the Rockets. Save for a couple fourth quarter collapses (and I wouldn’t really call them collapses), the series could actually be 3-1, Oklahoma City. But the Rockets have been the better team in the series, and that has shown in the fourth quarter of games.
For the most part, the Thunder have been able to hang with one of the best offenses in the league. Not only that, but they’ve also imposed their will on the Rockets from time to time and have had them scrambling to make adjustments. The major difference between the two teams, though, is the fact Houston has more veteran depth than does Oklahoma City. If Clint Capela is being manhandled by Steven Adams, Houston can quickly counter with Nene, as we saw in Game 4. If Ryan Anderson is having issues containing Taj Gibson, then Mike D’Antoni can go small with one of his expert marksmen off the bench and switch Trevor Ariza over to the power forward position.
It’s this versatility that has allowed Houston to not only claw their way back into games, but also overwhelm the Thunder when Russell Westbrook is not in the game. While this subject came to a head with Russell Westbrook and Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman, the proof is in numbers. The Thunder have been a minus every time Westbrook heads to the bench in this series.
- Game 1: -4
- Game 2: -15
- Game 3: -1
- Game 4: -18
It should come as no coincidence that the game where Westbrook’s on/off changed the least was the game the Thunder were able to hold on to win. The Thunder have to do a better job of maintaining when Westbrook is out of the game.
- Oklahoma City – None
- Houston – Sam Dekker (hand)
3 Big Things
1. Russell Westbrook
I know he’s Russell. And I know he’s the heart of this team. But if the Thunder are going to make it to a Game 6, Westbrook has to be great in both halves. And by great, I mean as efficient as Russell Westbrook can be. The Rockets aren’t a team that crumbles under a double-digit deficit. Most teams that do that aren’t currently playing anymore.
In Game 4, Westbrook was something else in the first half, registering a triple-double by halftime. In the second half though, his assist and rebounding numbers went down by more than half and his FG percentage dropped precipitously. While the defense does ratchet up a bit in the second half of games, the Thunder also have a bad habit of eschewing what worked so well for them in the first half and going off script.
Where the first half involved a lot of motion and ball movement in the offense, the second half offense is usually more iso-centric with the ball in Westbrook’s hands most of the time. The result: usually a shot by Westbrook that isn’t very high on the efficiency scale. It’s the double-edged sword that is Westbrook’s life: if the motion stops on offense, he has to make something happen. If he doesn’t make something happen, the offense grinds to a stand-still. It’s not Westbrook’s fault, but he has to find someway to play efficiently in both halves.
2. Back-up Point Guard
I would be just fine if I looked at the official pregame report tonight and saw this:
Inactive: Semaj Christon, Norris Cole
Erik Horne of the Oklahoman asked Thunder head coach Billy Donovan after Game 4 if he had given any thought to staggering the line-ups with Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, so that Oladipo is able to play the back-up pg position. His answer was, ““Just because we’ve used Semaj and Norris. Those guys have been out back-up point guards. It’s kind of what we’ve done most of the year. So, just kind of went with that.”
I’m glad that Scott Brooks is doing well in Washington. But that’s about the most Brooksian quote I’ve ever heard Donovan say. I hear a quote like that and can’t help but hearken back to when Kendrick Perkins was starting Games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals. Even after it was quite apparent to everyone that Miami was targeting him constantly on both ends of the floor.
But even Brooks had his moment of clarity. In the 2014 playoffs, the Thunder found themselves on the brink of elimination against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was completely ineffective through the first 5 games of the series, and was killing the Thunder’s spacing, making it difficult for Westbrook and Kevin Durant to attack the paint. Facing elimination, Brooks conceded and started Caron Butler in place of Sefolosha. The Thunder went on to win the series and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
While this isn’t as big as replacing a starter, the back-up point guard position has been a thing in this series. In this elimination game, will Donovan be brave enough to try something new or will he just go with what he’s done all season long?
3. Closing Out Games
The Thunder have had the lead heading into the fourth quarter in each of the last three games. That’s one of the reasons I still think there is hope against the Rockets. Unfortunately, the Rockets have outscored the Thunder by 23 points in the fourth quarter over the last three games. The average winning margin over that three game span? 3.3 points. It’s that close. The Rockets have been closing out games and the Thunder haven’t. That’s been a big key in the series so far.