The Thunder lost 91-89 at New Orleans on Monday night for many reasons.
* A horrid second quarter in which the B team was awful.
* Bad luck or bad shooting down the stretch — in the last four minutes, the Thunder missed eight of nine shots, many of them solid looks, and scored only on Russell Westbrook’s putback.
* An inbounds disaster with 14 seconds left. Frankly, inbounding the ball at midcourt has been a Thunder bugaboo for two seasons. It’s to the point where unless we’re in the final five seconds of a game, the Thunder is better off just inbounding the ball on the baseline.
* David West’s clutch jumper with .5 seconds left. Live by the buzzer-beater (Kevin Durant vs. the Knickerbockers), die by the buzzer-beater.
We probably could come up with two dozen more.
But here’s the one I want to focus on. Westbrook vs. Chris Paul. I think CP3 is getting into Westbrook’s head. Paul tries to play an intimidating game against most opponents. He pushes and flops and talks. It’s charming when he’s on your team; it’s annoying when he’s in opposing colors.
And I think Paul has agitated Westbrook into playing outside his game. In all three Thunder-Hornet games this season, Westbrook has been drawn into macho situations that don’t do anything but hurt the Thunder. Here are two examples that led to huge plays for New Orleans.
1. Late first half, game tied 45-45, the Hornets inbound the ball. To preserve time, Paul let the ball roll before picking it up. Westbrook decided not to let Paul play that little game, which is OK, then Westbrook got greedy. He lunged to make a steal. CP3 has some shortcomings, but let me assure, no one is stealing the ball from him while it’s rolling on the ground.
Paul scooped up the ball and immediately was past Westbrook, who trailed Paul across the midcourt line. Paul went straight into the paint and tossed up a contested layup. It missed, but the unguarded D.J. Mbenga, freed because the Thunder interior players had to collapse on Paul, put the rebound in the basket and was fouled. Three-point play with 27.6 seconds left.
Then the Thunder wound down the clock, and Westbrook drove in wildly with 5.8 seconds left. Whistle. Offensive foul. Hornet ball.
And at the buzzer, Paul hit a 20-foot jumper. Hornets led 50-45 at halftime.
New Orleans had gotten two possessions starting with 33 seconds left in the half, a Thunder sin, because Westbrook was overly-aggressive.
2. With the Thunder in solid shape, leading 83-78 with six minutes left in a defensive game that was about to get even more defensive, Westbrook got overly-aggressive again. Not too far past midcourt, guarded by Paul, Westbrook tried a fancy dribble move to get past Paul, lost the ball and it rolled away. CP3 grabbed it and had an uncontested layup.
The Thunder had a shot at seven-point lead. Instead, the lead was three with the free basket given New Orleans. At that point, 83-80 with 6:04 left in the game, it was anybody’s game.
Westbrook is a wonderful player, and it’s not clear at all if he or Paul will be the better point guard two years from now. If I was the Thunder, I don’t think I would trade them even up. Westbrook is bigger, stronger, younger and healthier.
But Paul is more savvy. He’s tough and he’s sharp. And he’s plenty good, too.
Westbrook can’t get caught up in Paul’s mind games. Westbrook is an emotional player, but he can’t let his emotions go wild. It cost the Thunder two huge sequences Monday night. It cost the Thunder the game.