Berry Tramel

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Oklahoma City Thunder: Loss came down to backup point guards

by Berry Tramel Modified: April 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm •  Published: April 22, 2014

Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson (15) tries to get around Memphis' Beno Udrih (19), Marc Gasol (33), and Ed Davis (32) during Game 2 in the first round of the NBA playoffs between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, April 21, 2014. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson (15) tries to get around Memphis' Beno Udrih (19), Marc Gasol (33), and Ed Davis (32) during Game 2 in the first round of the NBA playoffs between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Monday, April 21, 2014. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

The Grizzlies beat the Thunder 111-105 in overtime Monday night. What could have become one of the great Thunder victories ever instead was a discouraging defeat. Now the Thunder has to go to Memphis and win at least once. If you don’t want to feel even worse this fine spring morning, quit reading right here.

The Grizzlies have won 14 straight at home. Told you to stop reading.

Here’s what I saw and heard:

* There are dozens of factors that go into winning and losing a ballgame. The microscopes will migrate to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. But the game really came down to form except for one thing: backup point guard.

Reggie Jackson and Beno Udrih each played 14 minutes and change. Jackson is a constant contributor, with even occasional star power. Udrih was a late-season addition now playing only because Nick Calathes, no great shakes himself, was suspended for the playoffs.

Even better for our analysis, Jackson and Udrih usually shared the court. Didn’t always guard each other, but did a lot. And in those 14 minutes, Udrih dominated.

Udrih’s line: 14:03, 6-of-8 shooting, 14 points, two assists, two turnovers, three rebounds.

Jackson’s line: 14:22, 0-of-5 shooting, two points, two assists, two turnovers, three rebounds.

With Jackson on the court, the Thunder was outscored by six points. With Udrih on the court, the Thunder was outscored by five points. That’s your ballgame.

“I’m not concerned” with the bench, Scotty Brooks said. “I’ve believed in them all year and I’m not going to stop doing that. We had some tough moments tonight. Reggie had a great game last game. He didn’t make any shots tonight, but I believe in him. He’s going to get a great opportunity next game to play better. I thought their bench did a great job and we obviously have to do a better job next game.”

* “That was a great game to be a part of,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “The game was never over. A lot of great plays.  And not just the ball-going-in plays. Loose ball, passion, playoff basketball. Guys competing. Teams competing.  We made some big shots. They made some big shots.  Got some big stops.”

* Tony Allen is getting plaudits for his defense – and deservedly more. Heck, Allen ought to be praised for his all-around game. He also had eight rebounds, three assists, just one turnover and eight points on 3-of-4 shooting. Allen had the game-winning assist on the pass that led to Zach Randolph’s layup that broke a 105-105 tie. Plus that great defense on Durant.

But Durant’s game wasn’t awful. He had 36 points on 12-of-28 shooting, including 5-of-12 from 3-point range. With 11 rebounds, four assists and one turnover. I’ve got to tell you. Durant’s not going to have too many games better than that against Memphis. He’s just not going to. If the Thunder needs better games than that from Durant, OKC is doomed.

“He did a terrific job just kind of harassing him,” Joerger said of Allen’s defense on Durant. “Not letting him get a catch where he wants to get a catch. Tony was tremendous. Tayshaun did a good job on him early. Offensive players like to catch a rhythm.  As good a scorer as he is, we tried three-four different guys on him, but obviously Tony had him 85 percent of the time.”

* With that said, it’s time for Scotty Brooks to try some new things. How about Durant in the low post? Durant is sort of posting up Allen, but on the wing, 20 feet from the basket. Why not try Durant on the low post, where his turnaround jumper would be very hard to defend. Durant swished one of those turnarounds in the first quarter, from about eight feet. If Memphis is going to play Allen, five or six inches shorter, on Durant, make the Grizzlies pay.

* Like I wrote for the Tuesday Oklahoman, defense cost the Thunder. Not offense. The Thunder had 95 possessions and scored 105 points. That’s 1.10 points per possession. That’s solid offense in the playoffs. Against Memphis, that’s very good offense. The Grizzlies had 94.5 possessions (I counted the defensive three seconds as a half possession) and scored 111 points. That’s 1.17 points per possession.

For the season, OKC’s offensive/defensive efficiency (points per possession) were 1.081-1.010. Memphis’ was 1.033-1.021. The Thunder actually bested its own offensive efficiency and Memphis’ defensive efficiency. But the Grizzlies did the same, only moreso.

* Joerger on that go-ahead basket, when Allen dished to Randolph: “They were trying to sprint up into our middle pick and rolls and give support off of Tony. Tony made the right read. He made a great play and Zach made a great finish.”

* This series is getting good. I tried to tell everyone it was going to be a dogfight. The Grizzlies and Thunder now have played 14 playoff games over the last four post-seasons. Memphis is 8-6 in those games. Most have been close.

“We played a lot of meaningful games and we’ve played a lot of big games in here,” Joerger said. “And it’s always fun and it’s always a great competition and it always seems like it’s close. They hit us pretty hard in the first half of Game 1 – like to prove a point or something. They maybe had more urgency or more focus. I thought our urgency was there, but it was a steadiness. Especially on the road, you have to keep your head and keep your composure. You don’t get too high and you don’t get too low.”

* Memphis controlled the clock. By design.

“We played slower even though we got the ball up quick and we played deeper into the clock offensively to try to control the clock,” Joerger said.

* It’s the curse of Kendrick Perkins that even when he makes a game-winning play, the game is not won. Perk’s putback at the regulation buzzer sent the game into overtime. Gran Torino was in the right place at the right time.

Then the Thunder went squash early and late in overtime, and Perkins’ play didn’t matter. But there were three interesting elements about Perk’s putback, which came after OKC trailed 98-97, with Mike Conley at the foul line shooting two with 12 seconds left. Conley made one of two, and the Thunder was out of timeouts:

1. Perkins basically went unguarded on the possession. Russell Westbrook brought the ball upcourt, and the Grizzlies basically let Perk run free. Zach Randolph sort of played centerfield, shadowing himself on a triangle with Durant and Westbrook, at the elbow. A nifty pass to Perkins could have resulted in a free layup without the middle man of Westbrook’s shot. It also could have resulted in Perk fumbling the ball out of bounds.

2. Westbrook’s shot was horrible. Just horrible. I’m never one to get worked up over Westbrook’s amount of shots or even his shot selection. And he didn’t have a ton of options in the waning seconds, other than firing a pass to Perkins. But this was a particularly bad shot.

And it perfectly told the story of Westbrook. Westbrook brought the ball past midcourt and flipped it over to Kevin Durant five feet above the top of the key. Tony Allen shadowed Durant, of course, and Marc Gasol left Serge Ibaka to sort of double team Durant. So Durant threw a fairly lengthy pass to Ibaka on the left wing, just outside the 3-point circle. Randolph rushed up to contest Ibaka (and Perkins was wide open under the basket, with Mike Conley trying to dash over and get on Perk).

Ibaka played hot potato with the ball and gave it right back to Westbrook, who was rushing towards Serge, probably because he knew he was going to have to launch. Which Westbrook did, a deep 3-pointer surrounded by Courtney Lee and Randolph.

3. Perkins might have been fouled on the putback. Tony Allen hit Perk’s left arm as Perk scored the bucket with his right hand. Perkins shoots layups with one hand, which is sort of odd. He probably ought to change that. Maybe if you shoot with only one arm, the other arm is free game. But wouldn’t that have been drama? Perk at the line, no time on the clock, tie game, with a chance to end it?

* I don’t understand the criticism of Westbrook. Don’t understand it all. Charles Barkley was on Westbrook again after the game, and others have been, too. And yes, Westbrook took 28 shots. But so did Durant. Together they took 56 of the Thunder’s 93 shots. That seems fine distribution to me. Perk took one shot. Thabo Sefolosha three. Maybe my only quibble would be Ibaka taking just 12. But the shot sharing seemed just about right.

The cold hard truth is that against Memphis, the Thunder has an advantage with Westbrook that it really doesn’t have with Durant. Allen keeps Durant from penetrating the way he can against most foes.

* Of course, the Thunder tried to get the ball to Ibaka in a crucial part of the game. Down two, 30 seconds left in the game, the Thunder ran a pick-and-roll with the ball in Durant’s hands. He got double-teamed and tossed to Ibaka, who went to the hoop but unfortunately traveled.

“He took the two steps before he passed,” Brooks said of Ibaka. “That’s part of it. They had Zach on Kevin, double teaming him. He didn’t get a great catch. Serge has been great finishing around the basket. I’m happy with the catch, but I’m not thrilled with the result. That’s part of the game. You’ve got to live with it.”

Worst of all, the Memphis rotation weighed heavily to the right. Westbrook went to the basket and was open. If Durant had tossed the ball left, Westbrook was going to dunk.

* Man, Ibaka is playing great. Let’s see: 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots. And here’s the stat of the game. Ibaka played 46:37 in Game 2. Durant played 45:23. There haven’t been five close games in Thunder history when Ibaka has played more than has Durant.

* Caron Butler was ineffective. He played 22:35, which isn’t a small amount, but got up just four shots, making one. And Butler couldn’t play more because Sefolosha had to play. The Thunder’s awful defense containing the Memphis point guards finally prompted Brooks to move Thabo over onto Conley.

Look for that trend to continue. Heck, I might start out Sefolosha on Conley. Let Westbrook guard Courtney Lee. Or even Allen. Westbrook’s athletic ability or Durant’s height, whichever Brooks thinks is a good counter to Lee, who had a decent game – 6-of-9 shooting, 16 points. Lee did some penetrating himself.

* The Thunder made just two of first 12 shots before Westbrook ignited the offense with back-to-back whirling dervish drives to the basket. After that 2-of-12 start, the Thunder made 35 of 81 shots, which is decent offense against Memphis.

* The most frustrating offensive development is when the Thunder just stagnates to the point that Durant stands on the wing with his arm high in the air, asking for a lob pass. I call it the Thunder’s international distress signal. How about moving? How about running pick-and-roll? How about anything besides the Statue of Liberty?

* In the first quarter, the Thunder was outscored 8-0 in fast-break points. Go back and read that again. Against a team with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, OKC was blistered in transition. The rest of the game was much better; OKC outscored Memphis 16-2 in transition. But that first quarter was absurd.

* Brooks went with a small lineup in some stretches, until the defensive collapse forced him to go with his starting lineup in the final five minutes. Small Ball worked reasonably well:

1. First quarter, a lineup of Derek Fisher, Jackson, Durant, Nick Collison and Butler was outscored 6-4. That came with Conley and Randolph on the bench, but Memphis did use Ed Davis, so the Grizzlies weren’t small.

2. Second quarter, Brooks went with a lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Fisher and Butler. After three minutes, Sefolosha replaced Fisher. The Grizzlies had Randolph on the court but not Gasol. OKC outscored 7-6 those first three minutes, then Gasol came on to make Memphis really big. Brooks stayed small another 1:40 or so, during which the Thunder outscored Memphis 5-4. So for almost five minutes, that small lineup outscored the Grizzlies 12-10.

3. Third quarter, Brooks went small the last 1:02 – Westbrook, Durant, Jackson, Collison and Butler. A Durant 3-pointer was the only scoring of those 62 seconds.

4. Fourth quarter, Brooks started Westbrook, Collison, Jackson, Fisher and Butler. That group was outscored 6-4 through 2:08, then Durant replaced Fisher. That group played 1:16 and was outscored 3-1. The Grizzlies were going small themselves during that stretch, with Randolph on the bench. Then Ibaka replaced Collison and Fisher replaced Jackson. And that group outscored Memphis 5-4. Finally, Sefolosha replaced Butler, for defense, and that final small lineup outscored Memphis 4-2. Randolph came back in for the final 30 seconds of that rotation.

So seven minutes, the Thunder’s small lineup was outscored 15-14.

Brooks also went small for one more possession that worked out rather well – Durant’s four-point play with 13 seconds left. And one more possession that did not work out well – Randolph’s go-ahead layup in overtime, after Gasol had fouled out.

So all told, the Thunder small lineup went 37-37, counting four Memphis foul shots in the final 20 seconds.

* There are two major disappointments in the defeat. One, the defeat itself means the Thunder doesn’t control the series. But two, Durant’s magic shot was lost.

Durant’s falling-out-of-bounds – literally falling, he landed on his can – swisher from the corner, after being bumped by Gasol, was a shot for the ages. It might have won an ESPY, had the Thunder won in overtime.

What cracks me up is the description, which is somewhat adequate, as two miracles got the Thunder to overtime. That Durant shot, and Perkins’ putback. One is the most routine play a basketball player can make. A simple putback with no one really on you. Yet that layup is considered maybe more miraculous than Durant’s circus shot.

* Fisher was good in the second quarter: seven points and one of the few Boomers with some energy. He didn’t do much after that, but that second quarter was needed.

* What’s with the turnovers? Neither team even reached double digits. Memphis has had six turnovers in each game, in regulation. The Thunder has to turn up the pressure.

* Perkins’ defense was good all game against Randolph, but Randolph is a quality player. Randolph worked hard to get his 25 points, on 10-of-25 shooting. Perkins largely kept Randolph off the foul line and away from the basket. Four of Randolph’s 10 field goals came at least 10 feet from the basket. You can’t ask for a lot more.

* Mike Miller hurt the Thunder. He got loose for four 3-point attempts and made three of them. The Thunder’s defense was decent on Miller. The killer was the go-ahead trey in the final of regulation off an offensive rebound. The Thunder wasn’t hurt too badly on the boards. OKC had 16 offensive rebounds to Memphis’ 12; the Thunder outscored the Grizzlies 15-12 in second-chance points.

* As far as I’m concerned, the Thunder’s worst stretch of the game was the first three minutes of overtime. Memphis scored on three of four possessions and squelched all the OKC momentum. Randolph hit an 18-footer. Lee scored on a runner in the lane. Randolph hit a baseline jumper that fouled out Perkins. The Randolph baskets you can live with. But letting Lee get in the lane was indicative of the game-long problem for the Thunder.

Joerger said Durant’s miracle shot was tough to rebound from. “Seems like shots like that have been going in against us this year,” Joerger said. “He’s a great player and made a great play. It’s tough. It’s tough to take that hit and go into that overtime. That was a big moment. And that huddle was a big moment for us because we came out and executed and got stops in the first two minutes in the overtime where it’s easier to take that hit and go ‘Ugh’ and the air comes out of you.”

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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