Kevin Durant doesn’t have a problem playing the role of decoy.
I know because I asked him following Wednesday night’s 109-108 overtime loss to San Antonio. I asked because too many times now I’ve seen the Thunder walk off the court, heads humbly hung, following a defeat that played out like much like this one did inside the Ford Center.
Durant is the franchise, the team’s star player, its go-to guy. But once again the Thunder searched and scrambled for a secondary last-second option when its money man was bottled up. And more and more, it’s becoming evident that much of Oklahoma City’s late-game execution troubles stem from the team’s failure to tinker with a Plan B. It’s a tremendously tight spot for coach Scott Brooks to be in.
On one hand, Brooks’ role, like every coach’s, is to win games. On the other, Brooks is in charge of player development. He’s the caretaker for these young careers, the porter employed to pick up their production. For as dominant as Durant can be at times, he has yet to arrive as a truly elite player. He has one game-winning buzzer-beater under his belt in 2 1/2 seasons, and before he earns his closer label he must continue to be placed in positions to win games.
But Durant’s youthful flaws have foiled countless crunch-time possessions. The third-year forward is too frail to post up, too tall with too high a dribble to cleanly beat his man to the bucket. And his turnover trouble down the stretch at times somewhat tarnishes his terrific talents. But these are all blemishes that someday soon will become a distant memory. For now, Durant is working his way through the growing pains and learning how to come through even when defenses are doubling him down the stretch.
In the meantime, when does Brooks begin molding and developing a consistent counter? And who might that alternate be? Jeff Green hit a game-winning buzzer-beater at Golden State last year. Russell Westbrook is the team’s most athletic playmaker and has shown he won’t shy away from a big shot. James Harden is proving to be as accurate as advertised from beyond the arc.
“Kevin’s our guy,” Green insisted, and rightfully so. “We’re going to try to get him the ball. And if it doesn’t happen we got guys who can step up.”
Brooks drew up the Thunder’s final possession for Durant because his star had the hot hand. Durant had scored 14 points on 7 of 12 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “He almost beat us single-handedly.” But the Spurs’ smothering defense on Durant with 4.7 seconds remaining nearly removed the potential for every sound out-of-bounds set the Thunder could run. Thabo Sefolosha appeared dead set on delivering Durant the ball, even after Durant retreated to halfcourt to escape the pressure. Fortunately, Westbrook improvised and came calling for the ball, turning a busted play into a brilliant possibility. Only his 19-footer bounced off the back-iron.
But the airtight attention being paid to Durant lately brings up the question of whether Brooks should deploy him as a decoy? It’s a question that has nothing to do with Durant’s ability and the need to develop this roster and everything to do with one wrinkle that possibly could win this team more ballgames.
“I think that’s what happened in the fourth quarter to go to overtime. And Russ made a big shot,” Durant said.
“I’m just trying to make the winning basketball play like we always preach here.”
- It’s been said. It’s clichéd. I don’t care. DeJuan Blair is a beast. If anyone listened to the game on The Sports Animal, you might have heard Craig Humphreys mention that I said to him as I sat down to start the game that the Thunder had no answer for Blair. I didn’t know Blair would erupt for 28 points, 21 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 31 minutes. Halfway through the first quarter, Blair was on pace to score 20 points with 12 rebounds in the period alone. Judging by that, I guess you can say the Thunder did a decent job on him.
- A lot of Thunder fans don’t understand why the Thunder didn’t draft him. The knee issues seem like non-issues now. But ask yourselves what Blair’s ceiling is? How much better is Blair going to become? On a championship-minded team like the Spurs, that question doesn’t matter. He’s cheap production off the bench for now. On a building team like the Thunder, you have to wonder where he’s going to be in five years. I’m not saying the Thunder made the right call in passing up Blair. Only time will tell. But looking at it from a long-term point of view, I can certainly see why OKC might have took a pass.
- I hope no one takes the above analysis as a knock on Kevin Durant. It’s not. I point out his flaws only to make a point about a larger issue. Besides, Durant’s current flaws are issues all young players deal with. He’ll get over them. Unfortunately, at this level it hardly matters what you do if you don’t win the game. Remember Durant’s two shots in the fourth quarter last week? Well, he was incredible late against the Spurs and tried his best to take over. His efforts likely will be an afterthought because of the outcome. They shouldn’t be.
- Russell Westbrook took another step tonight, and in case you haven’t noticed Westbrook is blossoming into something special. Westbrook had 25 points, 13 assists, six rebounds and only three turnovers. When the Thunder went down 35-18 in the first period, Westbrook tried to take over the game in the second quarter. The most encouraging thing was that he didn’t get carried away in his attempt.
- For as good as Westbrook was offensively, this game did nothing to calm my concerns about his defense. Tony Parker ate Westbrook up in the first half, scoring 22 points with six assists and only one turnover. The Thunder didn’t put a lid on Parker until Thabo Sefolosha switched onto him to start the second half. From there, Parker scored six points with two assists and three turnovers. Parker went 2-for-10 in the second half and overtime.
- George Hill reminds me of a more athletic Eric Maynor.
- Manu Ginobili’s late play was not a travel. And it was not out of bounds. It was a great hustle play that won the game for the Spurs. Scott Brooks walked over to the scorer’s table to ask Grant Long whether it was out of bounds. Long even said no. The replays show the ball bouncing in bounds and before that taking a different path than the direction in which Ginobili threw it, indicating it hit Antonio McDyess. Good work by the officials.
- Dean Blevins, Mike Baldwin and I were talking about 15 minutes before tip-off, debating whether this would be a bad loss if the Thunder dropped the game. I said yes, figuring the Spurs were without Tim Duncan, Michael Finley and Matt Bonner, and they were coming in on the second night of a back-to-back. Upon further review, these are the Spurs. They’re hitting their stride. And it’s no shame in losing to this bunch.
- A question I have brewing for coach Scott Brooks: at what point do you make a team play your style instead of matching up with what they do? I’m wondering what this game would have looked like had Brooks played Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka more. What would the Spurs have done? Would either team have been able to defend the other? All questions that I don’t have the answers to.
- Brooks bent so much that he started Collison for the second half instead of Krstic.
- There was some post-game chatter among a few media members about whether Brooks should have played Etan Thomas to help control Blair. I said it wouldn’t have mattered. And that has everything to do with Blair and nothing to do with Thomas.
- Make that 0-3 in overtime games. Imagine this. The Thunder would be 24-14 if it won those three. Crazy, right?
- Unsung storyline in this ballgame: the Thunder’s defense does it again. OKC limited San Antonio to 35.9 percent shooting in the second half after surrendering 55.1 percent in the first half. The Spurs had just 46 points in the second half and overtime, 11 more than they scored in the first quarter.
THEY SAID IT
- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: “It was a great game. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the basketball gods for allowing us to win.”
- Popovich on DeJuan Blair: “He has a good future ahead of him just as long as we don’t screw him up and teach him some moves. Then he won’t do any of the stuff you saw tonight. He’ll be trying to do stupid moves that we taught him.”
- Popovich on Kevin Durant: “Kevin Durant put the whole team on his shoulders down the stretch in overtime. He was brilliant. We couldn’t stop him…He almost beat us single-handedly. He is a great player.”
- Thunder coach Scott Brooks on Blair: “I don’t even know if (Tim) Duncan could have done this tonight…He’s a player. The kid is a player. He’s won. He was a winner at Pittsburgh and he’s a winner with the Spurs.”
- Blair on his rookie year: “Nobody has given me anything in this world or in this game. I am just trying to earn my respect on the team and also on the court.”
- Jeff Green: “That’s one of those NBA games where you don’t want to see a winner. It’s two great teams battling.”
- Green on what the Thunder learned: “We got to get stops and we got to rebound. That was the biggest thing that stood out in this game. Offensive rebounds, they got like three in the last three minutes of that fourth quarter. And then we got to finish the play off. We almost had it when Ginobili almost turned it over but he made a great hustle play. So we just got to learn how to finish our games.”
- Popovich on the rebounding: “They were tough bounces. It is not like they didn’t block out and they didn’t have effort. Both teams really busted their noodles out there tonight. The ball bounced our way down the stretch, honestly. It just did. It bounced our way and we made a shot.”
- Russell Westbrook on his missed game-winner: “I worked on that shot every day in the summertime and I still work on now. And that’s become a shot that I’ve been working on and been using. When the game is close, that’s what I go to, what I’ve been working on.”
- Brooks on Manu Ginobili’s save: “He was 0-for-10 and he made the biggest play of the game. He basically won the game for them because that ball was basically out of bounds. And his effort and determination to get the ball and save it to his team, that’s winning. That’s huge.”
BY THE NUMBERS
0: Wins by the Thunder in three overtime games.
5: Ties and five lead changes in the fourth quarter and overtime.
19: Biggest lead by the Spurs.
21: Rebounds by DeJuan Blair, a career-high.
28: Points by Blair, a career-high.
31: Field-goal attempts by Kevin Durant, a career-high.
35: Spurs points in the first period, tying an opponent season-high for the Thunder.
17,886: Announced attendance at the Ford Center.