Here are five observations (and some other lingering thoughts) on the Thunder’s 100-99 Game 5 overtime loss to Memphis:
1. Wild times - We may not gain a true appreciation for this series until we’re a few months (or years) removed. But like the 2009 Bulls-Celtics series and a few others before it, this will serve as one of those crazy reference points. The ‘yeah, this is pretty crazy’, but do you remember that Thunder-Grizzlies marathon. Four straight overtimes, four-point plays for everyone, wild comebacks and blown leads. The Ray Westbrook tweet, the Kendrick Perkins seat, the Joey Crawford stiff-arm and the MVP’s struggles. It’s had late-game drama, countless storylines, interesting subplots and a ton of huge shots. The only thing that’s missing is a dramatic Game 6 and 7. But there’s still time for that.
2. KD’s surprising struggles - This series, to me, boils down to the struggles of Kevin Durant. If the soon-to-be-MVP was playing near the level of his typically efficient self, the Thunder may have already claimed it. Instead, OKC’s fortunate to still be in it. The past four games have all gone to overtime. Each could have swung on a play, a coaching decision or, in Durant’s case, a better individual performance. Combined in those four games, Durant went 37-of-100 from the field. That 37 percent clip is lower than Brandon Jennings’ FG percentage this season. At 37.3 percent, Jennings was 124th out of 124 eligible players in that category. Bump that up to somewhere around 44 percent — still six below Durant’s season average — and we’re talking about an entirely different series. Instead, we’re looking at a potentially huge postseason asterisk on Durant’s first MVP season. That is, unless he reverses course in Games 6 and 7.
KD’s shooting lines
Game 1: 13-of-25 FG, 3-of-7 from three, win
Game 2: 12-of-28 FG, 5-of-12 from three, loss
Game 3: 10-of-27, 0-of-8 from three, loss
Game 4: 5-of-21 FG, 1-of-7 from three, win
Game 5: 10-of-24 FG, 3-of-8 from three, loss
-A ton of this clearly has to do with Tony Allen’s bulldog defense and the Grizzlies crisp backside help, but Durant’s still missing a ton of makable shots. He’s botching open layups, clanging 15-footers, rushing clean looks, committing sloppy turnovers and not getting bailed out by the refs. Allen may be in his head, but Durant’s the MVP. He’s widely considered the most skilled offensive player in the world (and maybe of our generation). It’s his job to figure it out.
3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Westbrook - For Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about the constantly entertaining, always confounding Russell Westbrook (you can read it here). And Tuesday night may be the greatest microcosm of who he is as an NBA player. The dude put up a 30-10-13 triple-double, made a game-saving steal/dunk and kept the Thunder afloat at times with his clutch playmaking (11 second-half assists) and infectious will to win. But he also took 31 shots (seven more than KD, 14 more than anyone on Memphis), committed sloppy turnovers, had some costly defensive lapses and exhibited some of the strangest shot selection you’ll ever see out of an average jump-shooting point guard. Then after the game, wearing one of his patented ‘Wait, is that a Halloween costume?’ outfits, he said: “If they’re giving me a 15-footer, I’ll make that nine times out of 10, so I’m going to shoot it.” That coming from a guy who is now 13-of-44 on mid-range shots in the series and 7-of-38 from three. A bit irrational, always entertaining, annually polarizing. Personalities make sports so great. And Russell Westbrook’s certainly got a unique one.
-Per Elias, Russell Westbrook is the first person in playoff history to put up a 30-10-10 triple-double while also missing 20-plus shots from the field.
4. Film room - The thing that makes the Grizzlies defense so good is the steady energy, communication and rotation that they play with. The Thunder have enough athleticism and shot-making ability to explode for spurts, but the Grizzlies don’t panic. OKC, meanwhile, has immense defensive skill and length, but doesn’t utilize it consistently. The Thunder terrorize opposing offenses in these wild and explosive bursts, which can be exhilarating and game-changing. But the occasional lapses are what hurt them. Multiple times per game, they have a defensive breakdown or an individual brain fart that allows the other team an easy bucket or a crucial rebound. And in a series this evenly-matched, those are deadly.
-Let’s do a quick film study, picking on the Thunder’s two best players, to see what I’m talking about:
The first play came early in the second quarter. Understandably, Durant is willing to help when guarding Tony Allen, a below average outside shooter. But Allen’s also a terrific and well-known back-cutter. Gotta be aware of the personnel. And Durant isn’t here, completely losing him on the play. It leads to an easy layup, which Allen has got on numerous occasions this series:
The next two clips are a pair of effort rebounds late in the game in crucial spots. The first came after Durant played some solid defense on a Marc Gasol post-up. He’s overmatched physically, yet holds his own and forces a tough shot and miss. But he doesn’t finish the play by attacking the rebound. He spectates as Gasol crashes the glass, grabs the board and gets fouled (watch this one through for the replay):
The next one is off a free throw with 30 seconds left. Durant does an average job of boxing out Tayshaun Prince but, again, doesn’t attack the rebound. It allows Prince to back-tap for a huge possession:
Now let’s look at a couple Westbrook lapses, both late in the game during crucial spots. The first one comes when the Thunder trails 83-82 with four minutes left. As Mike Conley takes a dribble hand-off from Mike Miller and drives toward the paint, Westbrook lazily reaches around for a low-percentage gamble and gives Conley and easy, uncontested floater:
Soon after this next play, Westbrook would make up for his defensive errors by hitting on one of his most fruitful gambles — a steal and game-tying dunk with four seconds left. But in a tight game, this next clip is an equally important play. After missing a three, Westbrook slowly floats back on defense and, as Conley attacks him with the dribble, Westbrook lets him cruise right by. Easy layup, no resistance.
5. Miller Time - Imagine how different this series would have been if Mike Miller decides to sign with the Thunder this past offseason. At the time, it sounded like a real possibility. And not only would it take away the Grizzlies only consistently potent 3-point threat (what a fit he has been for them), you’d add a piece the Thunder could desperately use. Caron Butler’s been great — and would still be used — but Miller’s a different level of shooter. If the guy’s open from 30 feet and in, you can basically book it. Pairing him with Westbrook and Durant could have been deadly.
-Also, his combined line in two career Game 5s against the Thunder: 44 points on 12-of-16 from three, plus 11 rebounds.
-A little too much attention is being paid to Joey Crawford’s predictably weird antics late in the game. After giving Kevin Durant the ball for a second free-throw late in the game, Crawford sprinted at Durant, took the ball from him and went over to the scorer’s table for an animated and extended argument. Like an NFL coach to a kicker, Crawford iced Durant a bit. KD missed and the Thunder remained down by one. Scott Brooks called it “An awkward situation”. Mike Conley kinda laughed about it, saying he thought “What is Joey doing?”. But Kevin Durant was right when he said: “I don’t know what happened, but I got to make that free throw”. It’s too convenient for the Thunder to use that as an excuse.
-One game after his career night, Reggie Jackson was limited to only six points on 2-of-7 shooting. Saved the season on Saturday, but he’s been underwhelming in the other four games (5-of-26 shooting). Thunder need more from him consistently.
-The Thunder has three crazy four-point plays in the fourth quarter of games this series. They’ve gone on to lose all three games.
-On the last play, I don’t understand why the Thunder (or maybe just Kevin Durant) treated it like there was 0.6 seconds on the clock. OKC inbounded it with 2.9 seconds left and only trailed by one. They didn’t need a three and certainly didn’t need a fadeaway contested look. Maybe some kind of backdoor cut or misdirection, even an inbound to Durant that had a screen attached to it so he could free himself up with a dribble to find a cleaner look. It wasn’t desperation heave time, but they treated it like it.
-Kevin Durant wrote “It’s only bball” on his shoes for the game. Slightly interesting and it might be over-analyzed, but I do think it gives a small peak into his current psyche. The struggles are probably (and understandably) weighing on him a bit. This has been a tough series for him. So it probably serves as an in-game reminder for him to relax.
-Photo of the game came from Nate Billings on the last sequence — the Serge Ibaka game-winner that never was. Crazy scene that sums up this crazy series:
-I still think the Thunder has a solid shot to pull this series out. I’d pick Memphis, because who wouldn’t at this point, but it just takes two solid performances from the Thunder in a row. Not inconceivable.