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Nuggets from my notebook from Tuesday's loss at Utah

by Darnell Mayberry Modified: January 8, 2014 at 3:25 pm •  Published: January 8, 2014
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Always something when the Thunder plays at Utah. Always…

  • Let’s keep this in perspective. The Thunder was down two starters, on the road, against a division rival that has been playing its best ball of the season and one that it had already beaten twice this season. Very important. What happened here Tuesday night wasn’t pretty and probably not acceptable. But this is a game you just blow off and move on from. You don’t dwell on it. You don’t over analyze it. You just own it and move on. Given the circumstance, there’s really not much you can take away from this performance.
  • One thing you can conclude is Serge Ibaka is more important than we might think. He missed tonight’s game with flu-like symptoms, and without him the Thunder’s defense had more holes than Swiss cheese.
  • Think about this. This was only the third game Ibaka has missed since the start of the 2010-11 season. We almost never experience the Thunder’s defense without him. And we probably have grown jaded by him being a fixture in the lineup. We talk about how his shot blocking is great but focus more on how he needs to improve as a low-post defender. We (read me) praise him for his improved rebounding but spend more time balking at the idea of him guarding the perimeter. Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe Ibaka’s defensive impact extends well beyond his blocked shots.
  • Reggie Jackson certainly thinks so. “Missing one of the biggest presence at the rim, if not the best in the league,” he said of Ibaka. “People only look at his shot-blocking stats, but he cleans up a lot of our mistakes when we let our guys blow by us. He alters shots…He’ll be the first guy you always have to worry about, Serge’s ability to go chase a shot. So you find yourself not being able to see the rim. You find yourself making up a bunch of shots that maybe you’re not accustomed to. Him being out was a big missing piece for us. They made us pay all game. If you watch it, they just kept attacking us at the rim.”
  • More Jackson on Ibaka’s loss: “Of course it’s going to impact the team in some way. They proved me wrong, but I didn’t think they were going to have the ability to beat us as much as they did off the dribble and off catch-and-gos. They really tested our feet all night. They made it difficult on us. Hats off to them. They did a good job noticing that we were missing a big piece and they just kept getting into the paint.”
  • One more from Jackson. This time, he broke down how Ibaka’s absence non-coincidentally coincided with Gordon Hayward’s career night. “He’s one of the ones that took real advantage of Serge being out tonight,” Jackson said “Pick and rolls. Catch-and-gos. If it was off somebody else’s catch-and-go, whoever was guarding him might have to help. And he was just putting his head down attacking the rim. Got to the line. At times, he was making plays for himself. Like I said, I think overall as a team they really made sure they keyed in and kept attacking the rim as much as possible.”
  • Hayward had a career night. Scored 37 points. Grabbed 11 rebounds. Dished seven assists. Made 13 of 16 shots. Scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, single-handedly keeping the Thunder at bay when OKC made a furious rally from down 24. Heck of a game by Hayward.
  • Now, to the matter of who was defending Hayward, because in my eyes that’s the only other real takeaway from this game. Bear with me. This could take awhile. I feel strongly about this. Everything the Thunder could do wrong in deciding how to defend Hayward, it did do wrong. Let me start by saying Hayward’s a fantastic and versatile young player and a rising star in this league. He got hot and had a great night. But there was more the Thunder could have done.
  • Starting with bringing back Thabo Sefolosha in the fourth quarter. If you didn’t see the game, Sefolosha sustained an undisclosed finger injury early in the third quarter. I don’t know when or how exactly it happened. But he came out with 9:07 remaining in the third quarter. Andre Roberson took his place. Sefolosha never checked back in.
  • A member of the Thunder’s training staff taped Sefolosha’s left ring and pinkie fingers on the sideline, and Sefolosha looked good to go. Didn’t appear to be in any pain and was even seen later attempting to stay loose while seated.
  • Scott Brooks, however, opted to play Derek Fisher all 12 fourth-quarter minutes, entrusting the veteran to hound Hayward early in the period. Say hello to bad idea No. 1. Fisher gave up at least six inches and did more harm than good.  He was fouling like a mad man, committing five in the final period while “fighting” through screens, and missed all four of his shot attempts, all of them 3-pointers. His contribution in those 12 fourth-quarter minutes was one rebound and, maybe, if memory serves, a deflection. Maybe.
  • Problem No. 2. Brooks then went to Jeremy Lamb on Hayward. Lamb tries really hard on defense and has been a pleasant surprise on that end. But asking him to put out a fire? C’mon now. Lamb didn’t fare any better.
  • Up next was Perry Jones III. Ordinarily, not a bad idea. He’s got length and foot speed to stay in front of Hayward and make his looks tough. But once again, Brooks called PJ3′s number after the fire was already raging out of control. Hayward had scored 12 straight when PJ3 was inserted. And when Jones was put back in with 2:24 left to play, he hadn’t been on the court since getting the early hook with 8:38 remaining in the third quarter. We’ll call this decision bad ideas Nos. 3 and 4.
  • So of the three players Brooks looked to to handle much of the fourth-quarter assignment against Hayward, two were second-year players, neither of which are known as defenders. Draw your own conclusions.
  • Before I continue, let me say in Brooks’ defense that Sefolosha was a train wreck on Hayward in the first half and in his limited minutes in the third. Hayward surprisingly did pretty much whatever he wanted against Thabo, beating him off the dribble, getting to the rim, drawing fouls and setting up teammates.
  • I still didn’t see that as a reason to not come back to Sefolosha. If one of the offensive studs is having a tough first half, Brooks doesn’t bench him and not give him a chance to finish strong in the second. Why the difference with Sefolosha?
  • Don’t bring up the finger injury. I don’t pretend to know how bad Sefolosha’s finger was/is. But, again, all indications were that he was just fine. And what’s a finger got to do with playing defense anyway?
  • Brooks gave a bit of a mixed message when asked if Sefolosha’s finger injury kept him out. “That kept him out,” Brooks said. “We’ll see how he feels. I probably could have thrown him back in. But we made a nice run. So I just wanted to stick with the guys that made that run. We cut it down (from) a large number. We had a chance to cut it to two with three or four minutes on the clock. So I just wanted to stay with the guys.”
  • Of the five players on the floor, Fish had the least to do with OKC making that run. Not taking him out was mistake No. 5.
  • No. 6 is on Kevin Durant. He played his heart out. The Thunder wouldn’t have come back without him. He did a ton to help his team win tonight. But he could have done more. He should have done more.
  • When the decision was made to leave Sefolosha on the bench, Durant needed to be the one to take the challenge of stopping Hayward. He never made that move. And that was disappointing. He allowed Hayward to abuse a senior citizen (by NBA standards), two second-year players and a rookie (Andre Roberson in the third quarter) and apparently never felt compelled to put a stop to it.
  • I know to some it seems unfair, perhaps ridiculous, to ask Durant to defend while he’s posting 48 points and flat out carrying the offensive load. But that’s what he’s got to do. He’s widely considered the world’s second best player, a ranking he’s repeatedly said he’s sick of. Newsflash: No. 1 doesn’t let what happen tonight go down. Not without at least trying to do something about it. Durant’s got to get there. No excuses.
  • Again, yes, the Thunder needed Durant’s offense. But if that’s your argument for why he didn’t or shouldn’t have switched over onto Hayward, I’m here to tell you that it wouldn’t have mattered if KD scored 90. The Thunder wasn’t winning this game without getting stops. And that started with cooling off Hayward’s hot hand.
  • I remember only one possession, with just over two minutes remaining, in which Durant defended Hayward. It led to Hayward knifing into the paint and drawing a foul. He split the pair for his 13th straight point. After that, PJ3 was on Hayward the rest of the way.
  • I asked Durant if he, as the leader of this team, would like an opportunity in the future to slide over and cover a player who has gotten as hot as Hayward did tonight. “I’m just doing whatever my coach needs me to do,” he said. “
  • Problem No. 7.
  • Durant on if he was surprised Sefolosha wasn’t brought back: “I mean, I don’t make coaching decisions. I trust coach 100 percent. Whoever he got on that floor, we rolling with. Whoever was on there, we got confidence in them.”
  • OK. I’m done. I think.
  • No wait. I got some more. Here’s what is really bothersome about Sefolosha being on the bench. Look at the Jazz lineup down the stretch. Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Hayward, Richard Jefferson and Derrick Favors. Had the Thunder made one sensible substitution, it would have put Jackson on Burke, Lamb on Burks, Sefolosha on Hayward, Durant on Jefferson and Collison on Favors. Almost a perfect player-for-player lineup for the Thunder. On most nights, the Thunder wouldn’t just take those matchups, it would dare the Jazz to try it. I kept waiting for Brooks to go to it and say ‘Let’s get it on.’ But it never came.
  • Utah came into the game averaging 93 points, 28th in the league. The Jazz scored 112. They came in shooting 43.2 percent, 26th in the league. They shot 58.8 percent.
  • This was the first time the Thunder has allowed a team to shoot 50 percent all season.
  • The porous defense started early. Utah made 10 of its first 13 shots and posted 30 points in the opening period.
  • At halftime, the Jazz had scored 59 points. They came in averaging the fewest points in the first half at just 44.6 a night.
  • Jackson got off to a shaky start, largely because he was making sloppy passes. But he settled in and finished strong. Scored 20 points with five rebounds and six assists. Made six of 14 foul shots. Also got to the line 10 times. That’s a career high.
  • Defense was the biggest issue tonight. But the Thunder’s offense without Russell Westbrook and Ibaka was atrocious. The third leading scorer was Lamb with nine points. The three starters not named Durant or Jackson contributed just 10 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
  • What can the Thunder learn from this offensive performance if Ibaka is again unable to go Thursday? “We just got to play with more pace,” said Jackson. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily just with Serge out. But that’s for the season. We like to get up the court early so that the ball can move from strong side to weak side and back to strong side and maybe back to the weak side. It showed in the second half. We were just really attacking downhill. On certain plays, the ball was just moving. They couldn’t really catch our speed. So being young and athletic, our speed is one of our key factors in our game offensively, even defensively. So we got to use it to the best of our ability.”
  • By the time the second period was halfway over, Brooks had grown so desperate for defense that he played Sefolosha, Roberson and Kendrick Perkins together. Ballsy. The other two Thunder players on the court were Jackson and Durant. That lineup was a plus-1 in that stretch. It went 3-for-6 with two turnovers.
  • Steven Adams got some really good experience tonight matching up at various times with Favors and Enes Kanter. I thought he played well in stretches. I was most impressed with his rebounding.
  • Durant changed shoes in the second quarter. I wonder why.
  • With the Thunder trailing 86-67, Durant barked to his bench: “It’s not over. It ain’t over!” Sure enough, it wasn’t. Not at that point.
  • Really impressive Thunder rally. A bunch of players, but especially Lamb, made some great hustle plays to give the Thunder a chance to come back and win it. Got steals. Chased down offensive rebounds. Turned defense into offense.
  • Lamb won a jump ball over Kanter.
  • The free throw distraction dude should have been kicked out of the building upon his second warning. No reason referees should have to stop the game to tell a fan twice to stop doing something.
  • I absolutely hated what Marvin Williams did to Durant with 8:12 left to play. Williams had latched himself onto Durant and was grabbing his arms while trying to keep him from effectively using a Nick Collison pin down. Durant took exception to the contact and shoved Williams (which probably should have been a technical foul). But then Williams walks up to Durant looking for an explanation for the shove before apologizing. I couldn’t believe it! Was Williams competing or trying to be friends? If anything, Williams should have kept the pressure on. Used his physical play as a means to get under Durant’s skin. Knock him off his game. Maybe even get him kicked out. Instead, he offered an apology.
  • Brooks’ technical foul was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was going to be heard, no matter how far onto the court he had to drift. Pretty gangster tech.
  • Durant on what he wants to see out of his team on Thursday: “Some toughness. More toughness. Some fight.”
  • Up next: at Denver on Thursday. Game is on Fox Sports Oklahoma and TNT.
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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