Thunder Bound For An Early Exit?
In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s era of navigating through the postseason without Russell Westbrook, the picture of this team is still fuzzy. With him, of course, the Thunder had a terrific chance of making a repeat trip to the NBA Finals.
After Westbrook was ruled out following a Game 2 injury in the first round against the Houston Rockets, the rest of that series was all about learning how to play and win without him. It wasn’t always pretty, but in the end the Thunder captured the series win (4-2), as expected, with or without Westbrook.
Fears were allayed in Game 1 of the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies with the Thunder getting the win, 93-91, at home. It appeared certain roles were better understood, then carried out. Durant was his exceptional self (35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists), and Kevin Martin played to his potential (25 points, seven rebounds). Reggie Jackson (12 points) and Derek Fisher (eight points) made nice contributions. Serge Ibaka had a disappointing game (one-of-ten in field goals, five points and five rebounds) in keeping with his all-around disappointing postseason effort. Kendrick Perkins unwisely decided to attempt to contribute offensively (one-of-six in field goals). As a team, they logged ten turnovers, 22-of-25 in free throws (.880), seven offensive rebounds and 36 defensive rebounds.
With the exception of free throw shooting, Oklahoma City’s team stats were remarkably similar to Memphis’ team stats. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph had double-doubles, and three guards (Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter) recorded double-digit scoring. Durant was the difference down the stretch making two shots with .37 seconds on the clock.
For the Thunder, Game 2 was a different story entirely. Durant was again spectacular, close to a triple-double (36 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, along with 11-of-12 at the foul line), but he couldn’t save the game late this time. Martin disappeared (six points, two-of-11 in field goals, no three-pointers), Ibaka was mediocre (11 points, five rebounds) and Jackson had one of his worst post-Westbrook efforts (10 points, two assists, 0-of-3 in three-pointers). Nick Collison had a serious off-night. Besides Durant, Fisher was the lone stand-out (19 points, four-of-five in three-pointers, six-of-nine in field goals).
While the Thunder topped the Grizzlies in shooting efficiencies in all major categories, other team stats weren’t close. OKC had 19 turnovers, eight offensive rebounds, 27 defensive rebounds, 17 assists and three steals. Compare that to Memphis’ ten turnovers, 16 offensive rebounds, 27 defensive rebounds, 22 assists and 13 steals.
Westbrook wasn’t there to guard Conley, and he went off for a near-triple-double himself (26 points, ten rebounds and nine assists). The Grizzlies’ bigs came up big again and the guards did their thing, including crashing the boards.
Memphis outscored the Thunder in second-chance points (23 vs. 6), points off turnovers (29-10) fast-break points (18 vs. seven), and points in the paint (48 vs. 30); all of which led to Memphis departing Oklahoma City with a win, 99-93, and 1-1 series split. The Grizzlies are focused on keeping the Thunder out of the paint, and it’s working well.
The inconsistency of every Thunder player not named Kevin Durant, and the apparent inability of the coaching staff to make successful in-game adjustments may end up killing the Thunder’s chances. Having Durant bring the ball up the court in late situations looks good on paper, but the inevitable double–teaming thwarts the plan that usually works so well, i.e. Westbrook finding him in places where he can score.
It’s looking more and more likely that a Thunder team without their All-Star starting point guard could spell an early exit from the playoffs. They are struggling to compensate for the loss of an aggressive and dominant floor leader who averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals during the regular season. Coach Scott Brooks knows it’s not a matter of one player stepping up in his place (though sometimes it seems Durant could do just that – he’s been brilliant), but that everyone has to increase their playing level so that, collectively, they can somehow try to absorb Westbrook’s loss.
To the doubters, those who thought Westbrook too many shots, who thought he tried to do too much, who wanted to see what Durant could do alone…welcome to the reality and evidence of how important he is to this teams’ construction.
It runs so well because its two talented leaders are bona fide stars in this league who found chemistry with one another. They continue to build success (60-22 record in 2012-13) and earn marks by bringing intensity and effort every night. One is a scoring savant, and the other is a fearless slasher who creates his own shot. Together they averaged more scoring than any other duo in the league this season (51.3 points per game). They rank in the top five in Win Shares and in the top eight in PER (Player Efficiency Rating).
Durant represents the heart of the Thunder; Westbrook brings the fire. The pairing just works. They ignored unfounded cries of in-fighting and instead inked contract extensions to continue building something that puts them in contention for years. Take one of them away, and you have a team made up of one unbelievably talented player with a supporting cast that has moments of greatness.
Westbrook was second in Usage Percentage (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) throughout the league. That speaks volumes. Durant was ranked sixth.
Brooks and Durant know the biggest areas that need improvement – turnovers, second-chance points and rebounds – and they believe they can correct them by the time Game 3 take place. The inconsistent play must be rectified. All players have to come out with high energy and focus from the tip. This was never an issue with Westbrook on the floor.
Martin must step up as the now-second scorer for Oklahoma City. Six points in Game 2 of the Memphis series and three points in Game 5 of the Houston series at a combined .141 shooting aren’t going to cut it. Martin’s numbers noticeably plummeted on the road this season, which doesn’t bode well as the series shifts to Memphis for the next two games.
Defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha experienced an offensive surge this season averaging 7.6 points and 1.3 three-pointers with an offensive rating of 121; his postseason rating is 110. What baffles is his average 20.37 minutes in the past two games versus nearly 28 in the regular season.
As for the Thunder bigs, Ibaka’s game remains a mystery. In the six games since Westbrook was injured, Ibaka has averaged 10.8 points and 7.0 rebounds (8.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in the Memphis series). In the regular season, he logged 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. He doesn’t appear to value each possession as required in the playoffs. Collison is still the gritty clean-up guy, but playing nearly four minutes less per game in the playoffs is puzzling. The Memphis series seems custom-made for the physical Perkins. Knocks on his offensive game aren’t particularly fair since his job has never been tied to scoring points. He needs to just stop trying (two-of-ten in field goals in the second round). He bodies up well, but his hands and rebounding are disappointing for a starting center. Handling the league’s Defensive Player of the Year (Gasol) along with the reliable Randolph is a daunting task for any team, and the Thunder can’t forget the wing players as they did in Game 2.
How phenomenal has Durant been in the playoffs? His PER of 30.5 ranks the highest among all players. Since Westbrook went down, he has averaged 35.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 three-pointers, 6.3 assists, 9.8 in free throws (at .891 percentage) and 11.8 in field goals (at .527). Compare that to his season averages: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.7 threes, 4.6 assists, 8.4 free throws and 9.0 field goals.
Calling Durant a special player is an understatement of mass proportions. He’s elevated his game admirably in the past six games, and it’s going to take an improved effort on a consistent basis from all on-court players to score and rebound – a focus on the offensive boards and limiting turnovers would help immensely – to keep their postseason going past the second round.