The news hit hard on April 26 that the Thunder was entering a brave new world without Russell Westbrook. The first 15 minutes that the Thunder played without Westbrook were sensational – the Thunder took a 48-22 lead on the Rockets in Game 3. Then came about three games of struggle. Finally, in Game 6, a 41-22 run in the final 18 minutes to end a series that was exasperating and revealing and dramatic and, ultimately, successful. Here’s what I saw and heard:
* Derek Fisher was fantabulous. I mean, it’s impossible to overstate how he played Friday night: 261/2 minutes, 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, four rebounds, two steals, stellar defense down the stretch. Fish was so good guarding James Harden that Scotty Brooks didn’t feel the need to bring back Thabo Sefolosha, who had to sit late in the third quarter with foul trouble.
With three minutes left, the Thunder led 99-84 and Fisher’s plus/minus was +38. PLUS 38! I’ve never seen a stat like that. That’s got to be the stat of the year. The Thunder outscored Houston by 38 points with Fisher on the court, until the final three, mopup minutes.
Brooks on Fisher, who didn’t play well his first few weeks after signing with the Thunder in March: “It really makes no sense for me to defend Fish, what he brings to our team. It always seems like I have to defend him, but I tell you what … he has made our team better. His calming influence is incredible, will to win, and his spirit of doing it everyday is something that all teams should strive to play like. When we brought him in, Reggie’s become a better player and that’s not a coincidence.”
Brooks was just getting started: “What I saw tonight was some of the most inspiring play I’ve ever seen in all my playing time and in coaching. The guy laid everything on the line. He was probably one of the best players in the game. You guys could see it out here. James (Harden) is one of the best players and he was guarding him and making him make tough shots and making him make tough decisions, and for him to do that every single play down the court is a testament to his character.”
* Brooks wasn’t the only one singing Fisher’s praises. Jackson: “Derek Fisher sees the game from a different aspect. As a young player and a young guard in this league, sometimes it stills moves fast for me, so he helps me slow it down for me. Him and the rest of the team encourage me to attack and he brings tremendous confidence to this team and to me. He is a great mentor. I think his next contract, they should sign him to a four-year. There’s a mental battle to this game, and things start to slow down and your body starts to wear and tear, but mentally I haven’t seen anybody prepare like him. He tells himself he can do things that his body probably shouldn’t. He’s a great competitor and a great leader for us.”
* Kevin Martin was great, as you know by now. Which is good to see. I don’t think he’ll be back with the Thunder, but he seems to be a swell fellow, getting his first taste of playing on a championship contender (well, work with me) and had the horrible Game 5. But Martin was strong against Houston. Martin had 16 points in the first 17 minutes of the game. When he entered, the Thunder trailed 13-4. He played the rest of the half, and OKC led 58-54 at halftime.
Martin played a season-high 39:40. Martin’s 25 points were his third-highest total of the season – Circle K scored 28 on the Hawks in the season’s third game and 27 on the Hornets two weeks later.
“The last 48 hours after Game 5, I couldn’t even look my teammates in the eye, because I felt so bad,” Martin said of his 1-for-10 shooting. “It was going in there and playing like I have been in my career and jump-starting us to victory.”
Brooks on Martin: “K-Mart started us off with just an incredible first half. He didn’t make but one shot last game, and they were good looks. I believed in him, and the most important people who believed in him were his teammates. He made those shots, but I thought all the team made him make those shots, and that’s a true character win for our guys.”
* Brooks didn’t coach by the book Friday night. You know all about going small and staying small. But here’s another stat for you – no substitutions in the fourth quarter. Kevin Durant, Fisher, Kevin Martin, Nick Collison and Reggie Jackson.
It gets better. When Thabo picked up his fourth foul, with 5:48 left in the third quarter, Fisher replaced Thabo. The score was 72-62 Houston. And Brooks didn’t sub out again, other than Collison starting the fourth quarter instead of Ibaka. The Thunder went on that 18-minute run of domination and totally unhinged the Rockets.
The Thunder did it with defense. The Rockets scored 17 fourth-quarter points, and five of those came in the final minute, when the game was over.
“The biggest thing was, every pass was contested, every shot was contested and every catch was felt by our guys,” Brooks said. “Our guys got into them. I told them at the third-quarter break that if your man doesn’t feel you, you’re not doing your job and you’ve disappointed your teammates. I thought the guys made each (Rocket) player feel them. You knew you were being guarded by one of our players, and that’s what we do. That’s how we play.”
* Not that anyone should feel sorry for Houston, which avoided a four-game sweep only because of Westbrook’s injury, but the Rockets were a rotational mess by game’s end. Carlos Delfino was out with a fractured foot.
Kevin McHale ended the third quarter and started the fourth quarter with this lineup: Chandler Parsons, James Anderson, Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith and a rusty Jeremy Lin. That’s a D-League lineup, sans Parsons.
The Rocket starters actually played well. All but Parsons was on the plus side of plus/minus. But Aaron Brooks was minus-11, Anderson and Smith were minus-16 and Lin was minus-18.
* Kevin Durant’s third quarter: 4-of-7 shooting, 1-of-3 on 3-pointers, no foul shots, three rebounds, three assists.
Kevin Durant’s fourth quarter: 4-of-7 shooting, 1-of-3 on 3-pointers, no foul shots, three rebounds and two assists.
* From the don’t-you-hate-it-when-we’re-right department, every Thunder fan, every analyst, maybe every Thunder player and executive and coach this side of Brooks knew Nick Collison should play more, after going just 61/2 minutes in the Game 5 defeat.
Collison entered the game with 3:34 left and the Thunder down 24-17. On his first possession, Collison stole the ball off a pick-and-roll. When Collison went back to the bench, midway through the second quarter, the Thunder led 46-41.
Collison didn’t play in the third quarter, in which the Thunder played poorly early and excellent late. Then Collison played the entirety of the fourth quarter.
His game line: 10 points, nine rebounds, one assist, one steal, one blocked shot. Easy call, Foreman Scotty.
* Hey, how does Durant only get two foul shots? One of them off a technical foul?
* Serge Ibaka’s struggled continued. Ibaka was 4-of-13 shooting, Ibaka was a decent 3-of-6 from mid-range, but he missed his only 3-pointer, missed two jump hooks and was just 1-of-4 from shots at or near the basket, while facing. He’s got to be stronger in the Memphis series.
* DeAndre Liggins continues to impress. His stat line wasn’t much, but he played good defense, on both Harden and Parsons. With no Westbrook, the Thunder is a little deficient on the defensive perimeter, especially when Durant gets lost like he did on occasion Friday night.
* Another lost night for Kendrick Perkins, who played just the first 4:22 of the game and didn’t come back. The Thunder trailed 13-4 when Perkins went out. Hang in there, Perk. You’ll get all the minutes you want against Memphis.
In Gran Torino’s defense, he didn’t get to play with the small lineup. The Thunder had to play small against Houston, yet Perkins didn’t get a crack with that lineup in Game 6. Especially when Omer Asik is in the game, that would have been interesting to see.
Brooks did explain why he stuck with the same starting lineup. “I wasn’t going to put Reggie in a position to make two lineup change when he’s the point guard, which is the toughest position,” Brooks said.
“Perk has been terrific, and I defend him because I love what he brings. We win basketball games ever since we got him. We went to the Finals because of him. This series was a hard series for him, but his commitment to still cheer his teammates on in the second half shows that he’s about winning. And playing Memphis, he’s going to play every minute he deserves and he’s ready for that challenge.”
And the Thunder’s second-half start was typically awful, even though Perkins was on the bench. The Grizzlies scored on eight of their first 10 possession and got stops on eight of their first 10 possessions. That has got to stop.
* Jackson was great. Really, really solid. He’s not going to have an easy time of it with Mike Conley in the Memphis series, but Jackson is a gamer. He’s going to be fine.
Jackson had 17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. It would have been a Westbrook-like game, except Westbrook might have shot 10 foul shots (instead of two) and scored 24 points.
“Reggie really hurt us,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “Made plays out in the paint. K-Mart had a great stint in the first half. We had a really good start. It really kind of got them up, and KD (Durant) made some shots late and those three guys…I just really think Reggie Jackson had a good game for them.”
Brooks on Jackson: “I give Reggie a lot of credit. We’ve said it for a week now, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have one of the best players in basketball with Russell … he’s taken us to places that we are very thankful that we’ve been able to do. For Reggie to come in and step in and play basically four solid games at the hardest position in basketball as the point guard … he led us throughout the game tonight. He made big plays, big passes and made big stops, and that’s what point guards do. I thought he was terrific tonight, nearly a triple double. It’s taken a couple of games. We’re going to make excuses but you lose a big part of your offense, a big part of your spirit, and he (Reggie Jackson) has done a great job of filling in.”
* The Thunder’s best-looking offensive possession came with Durant on the bench. In the second quarter, Martin penetrated, kicked it out to Liggins in the corner, and Liggins quickly passed to Fisher on the wing for a 3-pointer. Great ball movement.
* The Thunder didn’t run wild, but it definitely increased the tempo. OKC outscored 16-11 in fast-break points.
* Fisher was booed every time he touched the ball in all three games in Houston. The fans are still chapped that Fisher refused to report to the Rockets in February 2012, when he was traded by the Lakers. But Fish said, “It’s never about a particular team, but it’s always just about doing my job to help my team win. When you’re on the road in the playoffs, the reason why it’s so much fun is because the fans hate you so much and while you’re getting booed and people say the most outlandish things that kids probably shouldn’t here. It requires you to go to a deeper level and focus and intensity, that’s the great part about being in the playoffs.”
Fisher’s class showed as he left the court. He stopped, took off his sneakers and handed them to a young boy in a Rocket jersey.
* Troubling stat: Asik had five offensive rebounds. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are licking their chops. Houston outscored OKC 12-10 on second-chance points.
* The Thunder was perfect from the foul line; 16 of 16. Man, that’s got to be comforting for Brooks.
“We needed every one of them,” Brooks said. “We are a good free-throw shooting team. Our guys improve. We feel like it’s a very important part of the game. We work on it. It’s not something that we hope to get better at. We work at it everyday. All of our consistent habits are worked on every day, and free throws, we do it every single day, every shootaround, every practice.”