We might be watching history, folks. Coming home did not cure the Thunder’s ills. Since taking a 48-22 lead 15 minutes into Game 3, the Thunder has struggled mightily without Russell Westbrook and is playing like it will become the first NBA team ever to lose a playoff series in which it led three games to none.
Game 5 was worse than Game 4, which was bad enough. The Thunder lost 107-100. Here’s what I saw and heard:
* The Thunder defense has not been good. But it’s been acceptable when Scotty Brooks at least tries to match up with the Rockets. The Thunder offense is a total mess.
* Brooks: “The good thing is we are up 3-2. They won the last two and we won the first three. Now it is time that we have to step up and play much better. They are playing well right now. They are a confident group and they should be.”
* Kevin Durant through three quarters: 11 of 18 from the field, 13 of 16 from the line, five assists, one rebound, one turnover, 36 points.
* Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter: 0-of-5 from the field, 0-of-0 from the line, two assists, six rebounds, two turnovers, 0 points. And lots of frustration.
* The Thunder’s start to the last four halves has been bad. Down 13-4 after four minutes of Game 4, outscored 10-0 to start the second half of Game 4, down 16-9 after five minutes in Game 5, outscored 16-7 to start the second half of Game 5.
“We cannot give them confidence to start the game,” Durant said. “I have to be better as a leader and lead my guys and get us to play harder every minute.”
* Here’s what Scotty Brooks has to do.
1. Play Thabo Sefolosha more, even though Thabo played 35:49 in Game 5. Here was his offensive line – nine points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocked shots. Sefolosha is playing. He made three of six 3-pointers; the rest of the team was five of 27.
2. Play Kevin Martin less. The guy is wilting on the big stage. We all hate it. He’s a prince of a fellow. But Martin is wilting. He was a no-show in the second half of Games 3 and 4, and Martin expanded his game by going no-show the entire Game 5: 1-of-10 shooting (by making his last), three points. Plus he can’t guard any Rocket with the possible exception of Carlos Delfino.
3. Play DeAndre Liggins more. Liggins played 18 minutes in Game 5. His defense was not as good as it was in Houston, but the Thunder is having a hard time matching up. Liggins can stay in front of James Harden and Chandler Parsons. Heck, he might need to be tried on Patrick Beverley or Aaron Brooks.
4. Play Derek Fisher more. Who would ever have thought the Thunder season would come down to this. Fisher is a positive, defensively as well as offensively. Fisher can at least stay with Francisco Garcia and Delfino. And Fisher isn’t a bad matchup on Harden, if it comes to that. Harden doesn’t really outquick defenders. He outfoxes them. Hard to outfox Fisher.
5. Play Kendrick Perkins less. Nothing against Gran Torino, but the Thunder’s big lineup isn’t working at all. If Foreman Scotty wants to keep the starting lineup intact, fine. But bail on it quickly. You can’t have two big men running around out there with no one to cover.
6. Play Nick Collison more. Collison played 61/2 productive minutes in the first half, then didn’t play in the second half. I didn’t get it and no one else did, either.
* I don’t think Jeremy Lamb is an answer. Sure, it would be nice to have someone who can shoot, but the Thunder has to guard the Rockets, and Lamb hasn’t proven he can guard.
* On Feb. 20, Francisco Garcia was traded from the Sacramento Kings to the Houston Rockets, because the Rockets and Kings are like 10-year-old best friends who live across the street from each other. They seem to share everything.
Tyler Honeycutt and Thomas Robinson came with Garcia to Houston, for Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas, Patrick Patterson and cash. Patterson seemed to be a ballplayer. No one else did. His last year-and-a-half with Sacramento, Garcia averaged 17 minutes a game on a bad team.
The Rockets played 27 regular-season games after the trade. Garcia played in 18 of them. He averaged 17.7 minutes per game and 6.4 points per game. If someone confused him with Scottie Pippen as a premier perimeter defender, it has not been documented.
But Garcia in these last three games of the Thunder-Rocket playoff series has played terrific defense on Kevin Durant. KD is getting his shots and making a good number of them. But it’s not easy.
Garcia and Kevin Martin were Kings teammates for five seasons. In those five years, Martin averaged 33.8 minutes and 19.3 points. Garcia averaged 23.4 minutes and 9.0 points.
In the last three games of this series, Garcia has averaged 15.0 points a game and made 12 of 27 3-pointers. Martin has averaged 11.4 points a game and made nine of 27 3-pointers.
* Early in the game, the Thunder did a better job of getting Durant the ball in scoring position. He caught the ball below the circle several times and flourished.
But far too many times, this Thunder offense has regressed to the international distress signal – Durant standing on the wing, Garcia draped all over him, Durant’s hand in the air, asking for a lob pass. That’s not offense. That’s a tired team and tired minds.
* I loved Reggie Jackson’s aggression in the fourth quarter. He scored 11 points and continually got into the paint. If the Thunder can couple that with Durant energy – it was gone in the fourth quarter; either that or his attitude temporarily went south – then it’s got something to build on.
* The Thunder has NOT taken advantage of a depth edge. The Rocket starters in Game 5 played 40:12 (Garcia), 42:01 (Parsons), 37:52 (Omer Asik), 41:34 (Harden) and 38:55 (Beverley). It’s been a long time since I’ve seen all five starters play at least 38 minutes each. The Thunder should be the stronger team down the stretch – and frankly has been the last five minutes of every game until Wednesday night.
* Which made Brooks’ Hack-a-Turk strategy dubious. The Thunder crawled within 93-85 then fouled Asik on six straight possessions. The strategy didn’t cause undue harm on the scoreboard – when it was over, the Rockets led 101-92, with 3:53 left – but the Thunder had squandered 1:40 of playing time.
Here’s why the math doesn’t work so well. Asik was a 56.2-percent foul shooter in the regular season. That means he’s good for 1.1 points per possessions. And indeed, Asik made eight of 12 – after starting three of six. Eight of 12 is 1.25 points per possession.
The Rockets to that point had averaged 1.16 points per possession but were struggling in the fourth quarter – until the Hack-a-Turk, Houston had six points in 13 possessions.
Think about that. The Thunder defense had finally found its footing. And that was a series-long trend. In the last five minutes of the previous three games combined, the Houstons had scored 28 points in 28 possessions.
And Brooks let the Rockets off the hook. Any time you’re struggling, a trip to the foul line is an oasis in the desert, even if it is a 56-percent foul shooter.
* The Thunder had 10 blocked shots in the first half. And zero in the second. Some of that was from the Rockets not attacking quite so much.
* The pick-and-roll game was interesting. Houston got its pick-and-roll going with Asik and a variety of ballhandlers. But the Thunder found some pick-and-roll action with Serge Ibaka and Jackson. Not the pick-and-pop. The pick-and-roll.
Remember when Ibaka had those monster games against the Spurs by nailing mid-range jumpers? Those have disappeared in this series. Ibaka made seven baskets in Game 5: five dunks and two follow shots. Ibaka missed seven shots, including a short hook and five-foot runner. But the other five misses were from the perimeter – 15 feet, 13 feet, 3-pointer, 19 feet, 17 feet. That’s 0-of-5 from outside.
So maybe the Thunder has found something with the pick-and-roll. “We had a little trouble with the Reggie Jackson high pick,” said Houston’s Chandler Parsons. “Because we were denying Durant (you think?) and we didn’t want to leave Fisher in the corner.”
* Harden had been horrible this series – four of 25 on 3-pointers through four games. So he was due a brilliant game. Harden made his first seven 3-pointers and finished 7-of-9. The Thunder has to live with that.
Without Harden, the Rockets were not great from beyond the arc – seven of 26.
“We were due for a couple 40 percent shooting nights from the 3-point line,” McHale said. “We’ve had them on and off all year. I give my guys a lot of freedom to shoot them.”
* Here’s the frustrating part for the Thunder. It won many of the elements of the game that had been a thorn. OKC outscored Houston 50-34 in the paint, 17-10 in second-chance points and 12-8 in fast-break points. The Thunder even would have outscored the Rockets from the foul line, if Asik hadn’t been given all those free trips. The Rockets outscored the Thunder 25-20 on foul shots.
* The Thunder did a much better job on Parsons, who shot 4-of-12 and finished with 10 points.
* Beverley had the last laugh. The crowd won the first half with its booing, but Beverley won the second half, with excellent play. He had 12 second-half points.
“I try to stay under control at the same time,” Beverley said. “I’m very energetic, and I don’t want that to be a negative with my game getting in early foul trouble.”