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Nuggets from my notebook from Sunday's loss to the Lakers

by Darnell Mayberry Modified: March 10, 2014 at 10:10 am •  Published: March 9, 2014
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Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant stand together on the court against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 9, 2014. The Lakers won 114-110. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant stand together on the court against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 9, 2014. The Lakers won 114-110. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

The Thunder just ran into two teams that were hungrier…

  • Maybe this will humble the Thunder. Maybe this will show OKC, once and for all, that it isn’t as good as it thinks. If a 114-110 loss to the Lakers in a nationally-televised game doesn’t, I don’t know what will.
  • This is as bad as it’s been for the Thunder in quite a while. Since the team transformed into a title contender, the defense hasn’t been this bad for this long. OKC has now lost five of eight since the break and is giving up 110.2 points on 47.4 percent shooting over that span.
  • “We have to do a better job of executing on the defensive end of the floor,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It comes down to just taking pride in guarding your man.”
  • More from Brooks: “There’s no sugarcoating it. We have to be a better defensive team if we want to continue to build our team moving forward.”
  • Pinpointing the cause of the Thunder’s problem was tricky before this game. Not after. I wrote about it for Monday’s paper. This team is no longer playing for each other. Too many guys have different agendas. Too many are doing their own thing. Too many are playing for the wrong reasons. Kevin Durant is gunning for his first most valuable player award. Reggie Jackson is playing for a lucrative extension this summer. Russell Westbrook is working himself back into shape. It’s selfish basketball, the kind we’ve rarely seen take shape in OKC. It doesn’t define all 48 minutes. But it’s seen in stretches. Far too many of them. The Thunder simply isn’t playing with the right focus. Winning simply hasn’t been the sole mission. Other objectives, various things for various players, are being targeted while winning stands as the greater goal. But that’s become a problem.
  • Kevin Durant’s triple-double was the unfortunate example of that in this one. He had 10 points, five rebounds and five assists after one quarter. And after checking back in with 7:58 left in the second, he spent the entire quarter padding his stats, searching for the assists he would need to notch the triple-double. It was obvious what he was doing, and it was a bad decision once the Lakers started mounting a comeback.
  • Durant took just one shot in the final eight minutes of the second quarter. It came with 43 seconds left. My guess is he felt comfortable enough with an 18-point lead to start manipulating the game and playing for numbers. It backfired. Because while he was padding his stats, the Lakers were storming back, cutting an 18-point deficit to two. Durant didn’t score in the period. Didn’t get to the stripe, either. The Lakers were taking command of the game, seizing all the momentum, and the best scorer on the planet got up just one shot while it was happening. That was a problem.
  • In Durant’s defense, he made some really good passes during that stretch. Deliberate, no doubt. But good nonetheless. He got teammates Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Serge Ibaka quality looks. They missed. But that’s where Durant should have stopped passing it to them. Ordinarily, it’s ideal to continue to trust your teammates. But the Lakers were rallying and yet Durant continued to be consumed with getting his assists up.
  • Fisher hit the nail on the head after the game, unexpectedly confirming that this team isn’t playing with proper focus when I asked him what’s wrong with the defense. “It’s tough to say and separate offense or defense right now in terms of our team,” Fisher started. “It’s obvious that defensively we’re struggling in terms of how many points teams are scoring, field-goal percentage, etc. But I think it’s just a larger perspective in terms of where we are as a team and our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game. So, for me, I think it’s everything, and it’s easy to point to the defense and points, just like it’s easy to look at a stat sheet and say ‘Oh, the guy that scored 20 points played better than the guy that scored four points,’ which is not always true. And so I just think as a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team success, then you’ll start to see, offensively and defensively, things tighten up the way they need to tighten up.”
  • After that reply, I asked Fisher a follow-up, asking whether a bigger issue is in play. “I mean, just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs, that’s what we get paid to do,” Fisher said. “We’re not losing games because teams are better than us. We’re losing games because of things that we’re doing poorly. You always give credit to your opponent, and I’ll do the same thing today. But it’s no question we’re just not bringing the right focus, the right mentality, to the game that one would expect from us. Not outside of the locker room. What we should expect from ourselves.”
  • Another reporter then asked Fish if he was wondering whether his teammates’ priorities are in the right place. “No, I’m not wondering if they are,” Fisher said. “I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team. I’m saying, right now, we’re not putting it collectively out on the court. I never worry about that in this locker room in terms of priorities and whether or not the team comes first. But it’s very challenging to, over the course of an 82 game season, collectively put that out on the court. And right now we’re not doing that. And we have to do a much better job in that area. And that’s when you’ll start to see the way we’re playing the game, offensively, defensively, our field-goal percentage defensively, the effort, the things that need to happen, I think those things will improve as we improve our mindset.”
  • With those last three nuggets, Fisher adequately summed up what’s wrong with this team right now. The Thunder certainly doesn’t want to hear it, but maybe this team needs to. It’s bigger than just bad defense or the absence of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. This team just isn’t focused on the right thing at the moment.
  • I wonder if the MVP race is getting to Durant’s head. Forget what he says. Study his play. One night after LeBron James scored 61 points, Durant answered with 42 through three quarters. Today, Durant was hellbent on getting a resume-boosting triple-double. He’s missing free throws — perhaps the most mental thing in the game — at a relatively alarming rate. All these things are potential signs that it’s weighing on him. And how could it not? Despite what Durant or anyone on his team says, this award matters to him. A lot. It would be his first one and would be another step toward solidifying his place in the game’s history. It seems natural for this race to seep inside his head.
  • Jodie Meeks scored a career-high 42 points.
  • And no one did anything to put out that fire. That’s becoming too common a theme for the Thunder. Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to talk about defense, but I’m not seeing either of them actually step up and play it. As the leaders of this team and two of the best players on the planet, one of those guys has to accept the challenge. Frankly, I’m shocked that they haven’t in games like this.
  • Brooks on what to make of the way the Thunder is playing: “We’re not playing good on the defensive end. We’re scoring points. We scored a bunch of points last game. We scored a bunch of points tonight. And this is on the road we’re scoring points. We have to just get better. We’re in a little bit of a defensive valley. The good thing about it, this is not who we are. We can get back to what we’ve done all season long. It’s just going to take some extra work on the practice floor and in the film room. We got the ability to do it, and we will do it. We have plenty of time.”
  • I asked Brooks if a change might be needed. It’s admittedly a question I’ve asked Brooks a bunch over the years. So now, whenever he hears it, I assume he just assumes I’m talking about a lineup change. And while I wouldn’t rule out that either, I’m also referencing minutes, who’s in the rotation and who’s not and schemes when I ask the question. Anyway, with that as necessary background, here was Brooks’ response: “Well, we had enough changes. We had two starters come out, and we added a couple of players. So the change is not the problem. We have to lock in on the defensive end. When you play against these teams that have great 3-point shooters, you have to be able to close out on the catch and don’t get beat on the drive, because their next pass is a 3-point shot. That hurt us tonight.”
  • Durant on why the Thunder is struggling defensively: “Effort. Schemes. I mean, it’s a bunch of everything. We just got to be better. We got to help each other out. We got to talk more. We do a lot of talking in film and practice, but we got to do that s*** in the game.”
  • Interestingly, this was the second straight game in which Durant pointed out the team’s defensive strategy against the pick and roll. Makes you wonder if he thinks something needs to change there. “We pressure so high out on the pick and roll they just exploited it,” he said. “They were hitting the pocket passes and they were sucking us in the lane and they were throwing it to shooters. And once shooters hit a few shots, it’s natural as players we want to stick to them and that’s when they were getting rolls to the rim and that just opened everything up because we’re pressuring so high out on the ball in the pick and roll. But that’s how we play. So we just got to figure out how to make the second and third effort.”
  • I asked Durant if he put any stock into the notion that this team simply is coasting. I don’t think he took too kindly to the question. “People don’t know. They don’t know what we go through every single day. We’re struggling. We ain’t coasting. We want to win games. We don’t want to come out there and lose. So I don’t worry about people on the outside. I don’t worry about (the media). I don’t worry about fans. It’s about these guys in this locker room. We’re having a tough stretch. I mean, every team goes through it. So I don’t give a damn what people say on the outside. We just got to do what we have to do to try to get out of it and we’ll be fine.”
  • Westbrook on his poor shooting game: “It happens. It’s normal, man. That happens all the time. No worries, man. You got 82 games. Be ready to play the next game. Missing some shots happen, man. But I don’t think the game is about shooting, man. You just got to defend, play hard and try to win.”
  • Fisher when asked to reflect on his time with the Lakers, something he declined to do all last week when asked repeatedly by the local media: “I don’t know if I’ll do that now or anytime soon. At the end of this season or in the future, I’ll be able to reflect more on the totality of my career overall and not just my time here. But it’s no doubt we had some great years and accomplished some things that very few teams in the history of this league have accomplished. That’s a great feeling to know that’s in the bank. I’m just, right now, focused on us and trying to enjoy some of those experiences again.”
  • If you care after a loss like this, Fish on his favorite teammate (Kobe Bryant has said Fish is his favorite): “I have two compartments. One is the basketball compartment, and then the other part is just guys that you end up being closer to as friends, or you hung out more, or went to dinner more. Kobe, by far, is my favorite teammate from a basketball perspective in terms of what we were able to accomplish. But it would be a disservice to guys like Devean George, Luke Walton, Horace Grant, guys that I really got close to over the years in terms of being friends to automatically put Kobe at the top of that list. But we definitely shared some special years, and I miss him every day. And I want him to get healthy and get back on the court as soon as possible.”
  • The Suns were 2-4 in their last six going into Thursday. The Lakers had lost three straight (including one to the Clippers by a franchise-record 48 points) and 10 of 13 coming into today’s game. So, yeah, the Thunder ran into teams that were just hungrier.
  • Tip-ins: Durant tilted his head back and let out some sort of primal roar just before tip-off, skipping across the court out in front of the Thunder’s bench. I’ve never seen him do that before…The Lakers started Kendall Marshall on Perry Jones III while putting Jodie Meeks on Westbrook. More evidence that Jeremy Lamb needs to start in my eyes. Can’t let teams continue to just hide defensive liabilities like that…Hasheem Thabeet provided more quality minutes before picking up three fouls in 4 minutes, 17 seconds…The Peake’s ovation for Butler made Staples Center ovation for Fish in his “last game” here look like garbage. You would have thought Butler helped OKC to five rings and Fish was the mid-season acquisition with no history to the place…The Thunder out-rebounded the Lakers, 59-36, and held L.A. to just two second-chance points…Durant went 7-for-11 from the foul line…Ibaka had 21 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but no answer for friend Pau Gasol on the left block…The Thunder was called for 14 more fouls than the Lakers…At one point, Jodie Meeks had 38 points and Durant and Westbrook had combined for 27…Westbrook and Durant combined to attempt 21 3-pointers in this one. Twenty-one!!! They made six…Westbrook picked up his seventh technical foul of the season for arguing a call in the second quarter…Both teams led by as many as 18 at various points.
  • Up next: Houston on Tuesday.
by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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