Rockets 104, Thunder 103
Nuggets from my notebook from Tuesday’s loss to the Rockets.
- These guys are bored with the process. It’s that simple. There’s no other way to explain what we’ve seen since the All-Star break. And we’ve seen it all. Inconsistency. Sluggishness. Sloppiness. Settling. Bad defense. Worse offense. Blown leads. Big deficits. You name it. That’s why the Thunder is 5-3 since the break and a couple of close calls away from being 2-6. The Thunder is on cruise control. OKC is showing up and going through the motions expecting to win on talent alone. And we’re now seeing that lackadaisical approach backfiring and leading to some lackluster losses and some embarrassing performances.
- I’ll remind you of what Kendrick Perkins said at media day in December. “Even if we have a little success where we win five games in a row, we can’t get comfortable,” Perkins said. “I think that’s when teams tend to slack up and take losses that you’re not supposed to take. So we can’t get bored with the process, and every day we move forward we got to look toward the bigger picture; toward the postseason, toward the Western Conference Finals again and trying to get to the Finals and trying to hang a banner in this gym.”
- It’s a hard thing to do, not get bored with the process. Even in a shortened season, a 66-game schedule is as much of a five-month test of mental fortitude as it is physical. Coming out and competing with the same consistency, no matter the circumstances, whether at home or on the road, against Chicago or Charlotte, takes maturity. Some teams have it. Most don’t. The Thunder simply isn’t showing that maturity. Not right now at least. And it’s not just costing this team wins in the short term. It’s slowing the critical developmental phase that ultimately will make it successful in the long term.
- I asked Kevin Durant if this team is getting bored with the process. He asked me to clarify the question and then proceeded to take exception to the notion altogether. “I think that’s a bad question, man,” Durant said. “We all love playing the game. We all love winning. I don’t think anybody is getting bored with winning basketball games.”
- Bored with winning? No. Bored with building good habits? You betcha. The Thunder is not a finished product. That’s what so many seem to forget. Everyone who has this team waltzing through the West and into the Finals fails to realize, or conveniently forgets, how many facets of the game still need shoring up. Establishing and maintaining a certain level of attention to detail is critical to this team’s continued success. And right now, the Thunder is ignoring those principles. They’re all the small things we hear about time and time again. Things like boxing out and taking care of the ball and rotating and communicating and transition D and making the extra pass and setting solid screens and on and on and on. These final 20-plus games are supposed to be precious tune-ups for the postseason. Yet, thus far, the Thunder has wasted them. At some point, some point soon, OKC has to snap out of it and get back to the basics before it’s too late. Because this team is good but not nearly good enough to just show up and win in the playoffs.
- James Harden had rescued the Thunder. He single handedly brought his team back from the dead. After three dismal quarters, Harden pumped life into OKC’s offense with perfect playmaking at the start of the fourth. Finally, the Thunder went with the guy seemingly everyone wants to see with the ball in his hands down the stretch. And it was working wonderfully. Harden scored or assisted on 16 of the Thunder’s first 18 points of the fourth quarter. And then he assisted or had hockey assists on three of the next four. He was carrying his team to the finish line, flipping a four-point deficit at the start of the final period into an eight-point lead with 4:13 left to play. That’s when the All-Stars had to get their touches.
- Wanna know how many times Harden touched the ball in the final three minutes? Two. Two measly times. And get this. One of them was as he inbounded the ball to Russell Westbrook with 15 seconds remaining. The other time literally was for one second, as he caught a pass from Westbrook only to make an entry pass into KD at the high post before running to spot up in the corner.
- Here were the other Thunder possessions in the final three minutes.
- An isolation for Durant at the high post that ended in a missed reverse layup but a putback by Serge Ibaka.
- An isolation for Westbrook that ended in an air-balled fadeaway.
- An isolation for Durant at the high post then ended in an air-balled jumper. (This was Harden’s entry pass.)
- Westbrook turnover while trying to get it to Harden at the high post.
- Westbrook fouled on a drive.
- Westbrook turnover while attacking the paint.
- I asked Thunder coach Scott Brooks why he went away from Harden. “They did a good job of changing it up,” Brooks explained. “They were switching and putting a smaller guy on him and closing up all the lanes and forcing him to make plays. And then we decided to go to Kevin and some of our late-game plays that we’ve had success all year with.”
- I understand Brooks’ desire to go put the ball in his two All-Stars’ hands and let them close out games. I really do. On most nights, you want those guys to have the ball in their hands and be the special players they are. But just not tonight. Harden was destroying the Rockets. I mean just annihilating them — said Rockets coach Kevin McHale: “We couldn’t slow down Harden all night.” — This wasn’t the game to go away from what was clearly working. And as far as I could tell, the Rockets didn’t switch up much of anything on Harden in the final three minutes. But it’s hard to tell because, by then, he had become so much of an afterthought that Houston no longer had to key on him.
- Harden took the high road with having the ball and the game essentially taken out of his hands. “You got to be patient and wait,” Harden said. “Whenever coach calls your number you got to be ready to go. Tonight, I had it going and (the coaches) kept running the play for me.”
- Here’s an idea. Let Harden bring the ball up. Stop fooling around with schemes to get him the ball (which led to that first turnover by Russ) and let Harden operate from the start. And it’s not just Harden. The Thunder habitually wastes the first 14 seconds of the shot clock running sets just to get someone free to catch the ball. I’m sure Brooks and every other coach has a counter for why that wouldn’t work. At this point, I’d take my chances.
- Brooks: “There’s no doubt we did a lot of good things to get back into the game and take the lead. But our late-game execution on both ends of the floor wasn’t up to the level that we’ve been all season.”
- Durant came close to a very serious injury when he hit the deck hard with 3:39 remaining and appeared to land slightly on his head. But Durant said he was OK. “I’m all right,” Durant said. “It’s just a fall.”
- Westbrook’s two turnovers, coupled with his technical foul for running up on Goran Dragic, were extremely costly. Those three things didn’t cost the Thunder the game. But they made getting a win super tough.
- Westbrook didn’t respond to a question about the incident with Dragic. He chose to just ignored a reporter’s question about the dust-up. But it’s Westbrook’s ninth tech this season, putting him one behind Perk and four away from an automatic one-game suspension.
- Some things are just a given in a Thunder game. Like Westbrook not getting back on D. If he misses a shot, falls to the floor or thinks he got fouled on a play, Westbrook is guaranteed to gripe to the officials and lollygag back down on D. He did it late in the first quarter after a missed 15-footer in which he thought he got fouled. And as he pleaded his case, the Rockets were off and running, playing 5-on-4. Courtney Lee ultimately got a corner 3 in transition.
- For as bad as Westbrook’s two late turnovers, technical foul and miss at the stripe all were in the final minute, his defense on Dragic with 2 1/2 minutes remaining was as bad if not worse. Ibaka had just finished putting the Thunder ahead by 11 on a putback dunk. And in five seconds, Dragic had a layup at the other end, blowing by Westbrook on the right wing. It was one of three layups the Rockets got in the final 2 1/2 minutes to keep them in this thing.
- Kind of stinks that Westbrook’s only two turnovers came in the final minute. Basketball can be a brutal, brutal game at times.
- Complete and utter sloppiness at the start of this one. Some of the sloppiest ball we’ve seen out of the Thunder. There was KD stepping out of bounds with nobody around, KD throwing the ball at the back of Perk’s head, KD throwing the ball into the paint while Ibaka just stood and watched it sail to no one instead of cutting to catching it, Harden losing the ball out of bounds on a dribble, Ibaka traveling and Perk picking up an offensive foul.
- Brooks on the lackadaisical play: “We didn’t have our rhythm early in the game. But we scrapped and kept clawing and gave ourselves a chance to stay in the game and then we made a nice run.” Brooks continued. “If you play hard and give yourself a chance to win, you can never be embarrassed about losing a game in this league.”
- This wasn’t Brooks’ best game. Not by a long shot. I have no idea why Perk and Ibaka were in the game together for so long at the end of the first half. After Luis Scola picked up his third foul with 2:59 remaining, the Rockets went small with Dragic, Lee, Chase Budinger, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson. The Thunder had Ibaka and Perk with Russ, KD and Royal Ivey. That meant Ibaka had to guard Parsons. And Parsons promptly lit up Ibaka, taking the Thunder’s big man outside and canning two 3s. Harden finally came in for Perk with 52.7 seconds left in the half. Amazingly, the Thunder weathered that mismatch and went into the half tied.
- It wasn’t like KD was doing any better on Parsons, though. Without fail, Parsons again looked like a doggone All-Star against Durant. I just don’t get it. It’s like Durant has no answer for Parsons’ energy. Even if Parsons’ numbers haven’t been overly impressive against KD, his impact has been. It’s to the point where if you didn’t know their respective names and accomplishments, there would be times when you’d watch KD against Parsons and think Parsons was the better player. It was that bad in all four meetings.
- At one point in the third quarter, Parsons had 21 points and KD had 23. Kind of told you all you needed to know about this one. Parsons finished with 21, a career high. But he had 19 in the first half!
- Terrible loss. No way the Thunder should have dropped a game against a Rockets team playing without its starting backcourt in Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, that had lost six of its previous seven, was on the last game of a five-game road trip and came in just 7-14 on the road.
- Four words I’d use to describe Dragic: good, gritty, deceptive and dangerous. Lovely, lovely player. Sure, he likes to flop. But can we stop hating on players for doing that? These days, who doesn’t?
- Brooks on Dragic: “Their backup is probably as good as any backup in the league. He basically can start on a lot of teams.”
- Another coaching move I didn’t care for. Nazr Mohammed had it going in the first half. He was hitting the glass hard, especially on the offensive end, protecting the rim, even blocking one shot and finishing plays offensively with his mid-range jumper. But of course, he became a victim to the set rotation. Perk came back in midway through the second for no reason other than that’s what the substitution pattern calls for. It didn’t matter that Naz was hot.
- Why the Thunder took so many 3s in this one is beyond me. OKC attempted 23 and had gotten up 20 through three quarters. The season high is 28. The Rockets have one guy who can protect the paint and that’s Samuel Dalembert. But he’s not that good to where the Thunder shouldn’t have been attacking the rim all night.
- Hey, KD. Stop passing to Ibaka! We all know he can’t catch. At some point it becomes your fault if you keep passing it to him. And I think that after tonight we’ve reached that point. Three of Durant’s four turnovers came on attempted passes to Ibaka. The first was on the pick-and-roll that Ibaka didn’t roll on. The second was on a full-speed bounce pass from half court to Ibaka at the foul line. The third was early in the third when KD tried to thread the needle out of a post up to a cutting Ibaka. Take away two of those three turnovers and the Thunder wins this game, because the Rockets scored off the last two.
- Between Dragic, Budinger and Parsons, I can’t tell who is who among them sometimes.
- Early in the first quarter, a girl seated in Section 107 held up a sign asking Durant if he would marry her. During a stoppage in play, Durant appeared to look over at the girl and nod yes. Of course, she immediately became giddy and had to cool herself off with her hand as the Thunder went down court.
- Best small victory of the night: the Thunder didn’t allow a single offensive rebound in the fourth quarter.
- Up next. At Denver on Thursday.
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