MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After another tough shooting night, another close defeat and another night that ended with more questions than answers, the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday morning started practice with another trip to the “truth box.”
And after the latest visit to the film room, Kevin Durant came away with a different truth than most who watched the Thunder sputter to a Game 3 overtime loss at Memphis on Thursday.
“We’re not playing a two-man show,” Durant said.
Pretty much every shred of available statistical data disagrees.
Durant and Russell Westbrook are dominating the ball, hogging the shots and, at this point, shooting the Thunder out of this series.
The duo shot a combined 19-for-53 from the field in Game 3. They took 36 of the Thunder’s 49 shots in the second half and overtime. A day later, both players characterized their shot selection as being aggressive. But it felt much more like freezing out teammates, forcing shots and fighting an unnecessary and unfair two-on-five battle.
If anything changes in Saturday night’s Game 4, it’ll be a stark contrast to a long-established strategy that has led to ample success for the Thunder in the regular season but remains dicey in the playoffs.
“That’s who led us all year long so we’re going to live with them, we’re going to die with them,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. “We’re going to roll with them until the wheels fall off. Down the stretch, we want to go through them. KD is obviously the league MVP, and we expect him to be the MVP down the stretch.”
There are three primary reasons the Thunder has relied on a two-man show for so long: the first is talent, the second is tactical and the third is trust.
Westbrook and Durant are two of the five most dangerous scorers in the world. Any team would be crazy to not put the ball in their hands and allow them to do what they do best.
“We got to be aggressive,” Durant said. “We’re the guys.”
That means that every shot attempt hoisted by a teammate is one less for Durant and Westbrook. It’s a sight that allows defenses to breathe a sigh of relief as lesser-talented Thunder players attempt what in most cases are lower-percentage shots. Grizzlies guard Tony Allen on Thursday night admitted that is Memphis’ game plan, and the Thunder never wants to let teams off the hook that easy.
But then there’s the matter of trust, and it’s a tricky one.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks must first trust his roster to complement his stars with necessary offensive contributions, and Westbrook and Durant must then trust those teammates to step up and hit shots. The Thunder talks about having trust in one another, but the results at times have appeared drastically different.
Take Thursday night, for instance. In an overtime game, Oklahoma City finished with just 13 assists. Durant and Westbrook combined for five. Through three quarters, they had just one between them.
“It’s (not) like they’re not trying,” said Perkins. “They’re getting some good looks. But, obviously, overall we got to do a better job of moving the ball. And they will. They just want to win so bad like everybody else do. They want to carry us, and sooner or later, hopefully (Saturday), things will get right.”
Oklahoma City passed the ball 230 times Thursday night, according to ESPN.com, citing figures provided by SportVU 3D tracking data. By comparison, Memphis made 367 passes.
According to Brooks, the Thunder generated just six shots out of drive-and-kicks.
“We just got to do better,” said Durant. “We got to make sure we get guys confidence early on. But we have to do it within the offense. We have to be better. Maybe we are shooting too much. But we’re going to stay aggressive no matter what anybody says. Some shots we felt that we could have made but we didn’t. But we just continue to trust our teammates and we’ll be fine.”
Rushed shots with little to no ball movement are the type the Thunder wants to reduce. On multiple occasions Thursday, Durant and Westbrook settled for ill-advised 3-pointers in transition without so much as looking for or, in one instance, waiting on teammates.
“It’s as simple as just playing better and executing it much better and getting the shots that we want, not the shots that they’re forcing us take,” Brooks said. “And we want to be able to dictate that a little more.”
Put differently, the Thunder wants to pass up good shots for great shots, and sometimes Durant and Westbrook won’t be the ones with the best looks.
“We may shoot some good ones, but we have some better shots that’s out there that we’re leaving on the table,” Durant said. “So we have to do a better job of finding those guys and we have to get everybody going throughout the whole game. We can’t just rely on the second quarter here or the third quarter there.”
OKC’s big guns, however, are also expected to dig it out of big deficits like the 17-point hole the Thunder fell into Thursday. But that doesn’t always have to be with scoring. The first seven points in the Thunder’s late 17-0 run were sparked by Durant setting up Thabo Sefolosha for a corner 3 — he was fouled while shooting and made all three shots — Durant finding and feeding Perkins under the basket for a layup and Westbrook dishing to Serge Ibaka in transition for a bunny.
“This whole thing is a process, and trusting in it is tough when you lose two games in a row,” Durant said. “But that’s what good teams do. They trust in the process.”