4 min read

Thunder searching for answers and living dangerously

Thunder searching for answers and living dangerously
Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 1.45.32 PM

Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

HOUSTON — When the Thunder needed a basket the most Monday night in Houston, the best they could do is get Kevin Durant the ball a few feet from the half court line.

As thrilling as Oklahoma City’s emotional Game 3 win was on Saturday night, the Thunder have revealed just how lost they are without Russell Westbrook through two games. OKC’s reliance on Durant has already veered into the territory of over-reliance, and the Thunder would be headed back to the Peake tied 2-2 if it weren’t from some horrific play in the clutch from James Harden that gave them a chance to win two games late in the first place.

Scott Brooks argued after Game 4 that it isn’t as simple as looking at the last play of the game, which unfolded in brutal fashion for Oklahoma City. “It’s easy to point to a play or two down the stretch, but there’s so many plays that we probably could have done much better,” Brooks said. But while that’s certainly true, not only can that be a troubling statement in and of itself, it also ignores the simple truth that the playoffs are going to come down to a play or two down the stretch plenty often, and the Thunder aren’t getting it done on the offensive end in those scenarios, and they aren’t doing what it takes to avoid them in the first place.

Stagnant offense

It seems weird to look at the box score and see that the Thunder shot 49 percent from the field and 44 percent on 3-pointers while scoring 103 points and be absolutely convinced that OKC’s offense struggled for most of the game. Twenty turnovers helps. But it’s also worthwhile to remember how the Thunder got their buckets.

Durant shot a sizzling 12-16 from the field Monday, but a lot of sweat equity on his part alone led to most of those shots, along with the attempts that sent him to the line for 15 free-throws. Durant spent much of the night having to create his own shot and fight off multiple Rockets defenders, and his six assists were offset by five turnovers when trying to find the open man.

Take away KD’s shooting numbers and the Thunder are at a much more pedestrian 41 percent from the field. To boot, the Thunder managed two fewer assists as a team than turnovers.

For much of the game, OKC looked lost. That’s all there is to it.

Hero ball

It’s just as disconcerting that the Thunder got exactly what they needed from Durant — a cold-blooded shooting performance and a well-rounded effort in other statistical categories — and still needed some horrendous plays by the West’s bottom seed to have a chance to win at the end.

Two games in a row.

Look right across the court at the Rockets to see yet another example of the live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword aspect of just clearing out and letting your best player go to work. When the Rockets beat OKC during the regular season, it featured possession after possession of Harden isolating against Thabo Sefolosha or another Thunder defender. The defense was about as good as it could be, but Harden rained in just about every shot and Houston came out on top. But the last two games, Harden was downright atrocious. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after the game that he didn’t want jump shots, but that’s what Harden produced in Game 4 (missing them, badly, down the stretch) after some poor turnovers in Game 3.

The only difference between atrocious and legendary with the hero ball approach is whether the shots go in or not. Averages are going to catch up with you, one way or another. Hero ball was a little bit more acceptable with another transcendent player on the court for Oklahoma City in Russell Westbrook. But what happens when KD is off for a while, and there’s no one around to rescue him?

Back to sharing

There have certainly been spurts of the kind of ball-sharing, crisp offense that Oklahoma City is going to need more of if the Thunder are planning on finishing off the Rockets and continuing to be competitive in the Western Conference playoffs. KD’s pass near the end of Game 3 to an open Sefolosha comes to mind. But it’s time the Thunder dedicated themselves to doing more than standing around and waiting for Durant to make a play.

If you think OKC is incapable of such a thing, then the instant and devastating turnaround in the Western Conference finals last year has apparently escaped your memory. After digging the 0-2 hole against the Spurs, the Thunder suddenly found themselves giving up good shots for great shots, playing pressure defense and generally running circles around the Spurs. Yes, Game 5 featured one of the greatest hero ball shots in recent memory from a guy who is on another team, and was fueled in part by the relentless athleticism of the now-injured Westbrook, but the only reason OKC was in position to finish off the Spurs in the first place was because of the effort to play smarter basketball for long stretches.

It’s going to start with the coaching staff. They’ve barely had time to figure out how to adjust to losing Westbrook, but it’s not going to get any easier with only one game off between games for the rest of the series. And it’s going to take fewer coaching boners — like the inexplicable decision to take a timeout and give the Rockets a chance to tailor their defense before the final shot when OKC had made its comeback by playing within the flow of the game, a notion that Brooks ignored when asked about it after the game Monday.

But it’s going to end with the players. There is simply too much ball-watching and standing around waiting for KD to bail them out, which is all the more frustrating when there have been tantalizing stretches in both Westbrook-less games of the Thunder playing to get the best shot. There’s no better time to get that done until Wednesday, when a surely rabid Peake crowd will be waiting.