Here are five observations on the Thunder’s crucial 105-104 Game 5 win over the Clippers on Tuesday night:
1. Russ to the Rescue - Through all the wild twists and questionable calls and sudden mood changes and heart-stopping drama, Russell Westbrook emerged as the star of the game. His flaws — which produce errant shots, out-of-control turnovers and occasionally confounding decisions — were on full display. But so was his unbelievable skill and speed, insatiable competitiveness and incredible will to win. He wouldn’t let the Thunder die on Tuesday night. And he’s the biggest reason they’re going to Los Angeles up 3-2. Westbrook finished with 38 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. But it was a ton more than the numbers. It was about how he picked up his offense when the MVP labored to a 6-of-22 scoring night. It was about his whirlwind third quarter, when he scored 14 crucial points to keep OKC afloat. It was about his gutsy late-game gamble, picking Chris Paul’s pocket to set up the game’s defining possession. And it was about sealing that final Thunder possession by calmly (yes, Westbrook can do something calmly) strolling to the line and sinking three of the biggest free throws of his life to win the game. In a series filled with superduperstars, Westbrook has probably been the best player.
2. Film room: Stagnant offense - The Thunder’s miracle finish and unlikely win temporarily masks a recurring issue that OKC can’t seem to fix — an inactive, static offense that rears its head at some of the worst times. With 9:02 left in Tuesday night’s game, the Thunder had cut L.A.’s lead to 90-88. But over the next five-plus minutes, as the Clippers piled up 11 big points, OKC went stagnant and scoreless. The Thunder failed to score on seven straight possessions and, on many of them, failed to even get up a decent shot. Let’s take a quick film room look at some of these empty trips.
-The first one may be the worst one. Following a timeout, Westbrook brings the ball up into a spread set with Steven Adams shooting up for a quick pick-and-roll. But Westbrook denies the screen, wanders around the perimeter and finds no movement from those around him. So with nowhere to pass it and no plan around him, he unsuccessfully improvises, as is too often the case for Scott Brooks’ crew. This possession consisted of Westbrook dribbling for 20 seconds, losing it a couple times and then kicking it. Not ideal:
-This next shot — a pull-up mid-range in transition by Westbrook — isn’t a terrible look, considering he had been hot most of the night. But still…there were 19 seconds left on the shot clock and two men in his vicinity. Probably best to work it a bit more, feed Durant on the wing or take it strong to the rack. Can’t really blame Brooks’ offense for this, since there was no chance to run a set. But you could argue he should be blame for allowing this kind of shot:
-Maybe the best movement of any play during this scoreless five-minute stretch. But still didn’t produce a great look. Durant half-heartedly posts up, with Matt Barnes able to push him out toward the 3-point line. Then, when it looks like he’s facing a quick double, he swings it to Caron Butler. But other than Butler and Durant, the other three players aren’t moving. So Butler pump fakes and steps in for a long two that he bricks. The Clippers will take this shot all day:
-Another possession where Westbrook literally pounds it for 15 seconds before taking a shot. No passes. Not necessarily a terrible look, but the lack of movement and fluidity make the possession look ugly. It’s amazing to watch the Clippers, at times, on one end: swinging it around the perimeter, the ball flying around the court, before setting up J.J. Redick perfectly for a wide-open jumper on a pin-down screen. Then you look at the other end and it’s a ton of isolation, top-of-the-key screens and some awkward standing before one of the stars begins to operate:
-Another issue the Thunder seems to have is ineffective out-of-bounds playcalling and passing. It led to a couple turnovers and bad shots on Tuesday. Here’s one during that bad fourth quarter stretch, after Durant was stripped out of bounds. With one second on the clock, Jackson has nowhere to go with it, so he flings it toward the backcourt for a desperation, after-the-shot-clock airball heave by Serge Ibaka:
-The last play has a whole bunch of ugly wrapped into one. It starts with an unsuccessful Reggie Jackson isolation, with his teammates standing around watching. Jackson gets stripped by Jamal Crawford, but it goes right to Steven Adams, who fires it back out to Westbrook on the perimeter. Still with five seconds on the shot clock, Westbrook elects to fire up a contested 30-foot heave. Airball. From my courtside seat, I remember this play. Right after Westbrook’s airball, an OKC fan near the Thunder bench gets up and yells for all to hear: “Run an offense!!!”
-Buuuuuuuuuuttttt, right when you think the Thunder is done, down 13 after an absolutely brutal five minutes of offensive basketball, they flip the switch. What you thought was hero ball becomes sensational clutch play. Durant starts firing in long-range bombs, Westbrook takes over the game with his frantic play and the crowd that was so frustrated two minutes before is back to adoring their talented stars. So, you know, it’s good with the bad with this team, which is one win away from the WC Finals. Thrilling most of the time. But man, it can be ugly in spurts.
3. The Calls - The memory of this incredibly entertaining game will always be marred by a batch of controversial calls. The rag-tag first half had 31 fouls in 24 minutes, leading to 37 free throws. And both teams were continually voicing their displeasure, causing lead official Tony Brothers to go over to the scorer’s table in the first quarter, point to both teams and yell: “Warning for complaining over here, warning for complaining over there. That’s it!!!” But it would only get worse in the second half, and particularly late in the fourth quarter. At this point, you’ve probably seen or heard the Doc Rivers rant (I wrote about it for the paper, some of it is in the video below). He was livid about an out-of-bounds replay call that wasn’t overturned with 11 seconds left. Jackson looked to get fouled on a drive, but the refs didn’t call it, instead giving it to the Thunder out of bounds. Upon review, it looked to clearly go off Jackson. But the refs upheld it, OKC got the ball and eventually the win. Among other statements that’ll make his wallet lighter, Rivers labeled it “horrendous”: “We got robbed because of that call” and “That’s a game-defining and possibly series-defining call, and that ain’t right.” Rivers had a right to be peeved. But bad calls happen, particularly in a frantic environment with some of the world’s best athletes flying around. More than anything, the Clippers should blame this loss on dumb turnovers and silly decisions down the stretch.
4. CP3 agony - With 49 seconds left in the game, Chris Paul maneuvered around the court with those crafty, untouchable in-and-out dribbles, before weaving toward the lane and dropping a feathery, cold-blooded 17-foot dagger. It put the Clippers up seven, sent fans to the exits and was sealed with a Thunder timeout and long Paul staredown. It looked as if the league’s most composed point guard had calmly sealed it. But then, in the next few moments, he melted down. Through the first four games of this series, Paul had only committed four combined turnovers. But on Tuesday, he committed five, including two on the Clippers’ final two possessions. The nightmare scenario started with 13 seconds left, when Russell Westbrook picked his pocket in the backcourt. Then moments later, Paul got too close to Westbrook and committed a costly 3-shot foul, which gave OKC the lead. But with a chance to atone on the final possession, Paul drove the lane and fumbled it away, losing it underneath to Serge Ibaka. A distraught Paul called it “probably the toughest thing I’ve been through basketball-wise” in the postgame. I’d expect him to come out amped and ready in Game 6, but if they eventually fall and Paul doesn’t make it out of the second round for the ninth straight year, I’m sure he’ll look back on this ugly final sequence.
-More Paul postgame: “Everything happened there at the end is on me. Turnover 17 seconds left, assuming they’re going to foul is the dumbest play probably I’ve ever made. Then to put it in the official’s hands to call a foul on the 3, it’s just bad basketball…Last play I don’t even get a shot up and that’s just dumb. Supposed to be the leader of the team, that can’t happen.”
5. Adams family - Because of all the hoopla, fringe performances will probably fly under the radar in this one. Like J.J. Redick’s 16 points or Matt Barnes’ four threes and 10 rebounds or Reggie Jackson’s solid play. But perhaps no non-star had as important an impact as Steven Adams. Early in the game, Serge Ibaka got in immediate foul trouble. He was limited to six minutes in the first half, producing zero points or rebounds. And in his place, the Thunder needed production. Adams gave them plenty, continuing his breakout play over the past two weeks. The rookie center had seven points, three rebounds and a monster block during that important stretch without Ibaka and played well in key moments down the stretch. Scott Brooks is starting to trust him, and rightfully so. Adams is maturing into a key rotation piece with a bright, bright future.
How about this second quarter sequence from Stone Cold?
-Rough game for Durant. He was 6-of-22 overall and 0-of-11 on mid-range jumpers. Looked a lot like early in the Memphis series, when he missed shot after shot and increasingly grew more frustrated, slapping his legs and looking around for calls that weren’t coming. But he got it together in the final three minutes, scoring 10 points. As we’ve learned, there’s no reason to worry about KD. He’ll get his mojo back.
-With 49 seconds left and the Thunder down seven, large sections of fans started leaving the arena. It wasn’t exactly Miami fans from Game 6 of The Finals, but it was still noteworthy and noticeable. KD even alluded to it postgame, saying: “everybody was getting up and walking out”.
-Regardless of the wild finish, the craziest thing to happen on Wednesday night, bar none, was Thabo Sefolosha absolutely mashing a dunk on top of DeAndre Jordan. Still not sure that it really happened:
The poster (via Bryan Terry):
-Our photo staff shot some incredible pictures in this game. They do it every game, but this one was particularly great. Click here for the full gallery, but here are some highlights:
-Durant while Westbrook is shooting the game winning free throws on the other end
-Westbrook and KD celebrating with the Durant family after the game
-Here’s Blake Griffin just eating a Kendrick Perkins shot:
-Up next: Game 6 on Thursday in Los Angeles. Tip at 9:30 CT on ESPN.
-In our Wednesday version of The Oklahoman, we put out a special commemorative section on Kevin Durant’s MVP. Lotta great writing, design and photo. I’d encourage you to pick one up. Click here for the online version.