With 54 seconds left in the Thunder-Blazer game Wednesday night, Portland’s Wes Matthews missed a 3-point shot. OKC’s Serge Ibaka rebounded, and the Thunder had the ball down 105-104.
Scotty Brooks did not call timeout. Generally, that’s a good move. NBA analytics show us time and again that defenses, not offenses, are enhanced by timeouts.
But in this case, Brooks made the wrong decision. For this reason. He didn’t have the right lineup on the floor. OKCs five-man unit was Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins.
It’s a perfectly fine fivesome. I know, everybody will gripe about Perk, but criticism of Gran Torino in this game is completely off base. The Thunder still had a chance in this game primarily because Perk at least was slowing down LaMarcus Aldridge, to some degree.
Aldridge had a phenomenal game. He scored 38 points on 17-of-28 shooting. In the 20 minutes in which Aldridge played but Perkins was on the bench, Aldridge made 12 of 17 shots. In 17 minutes with Perkins on the floor as the primary defender on Aldridge, the Blazer forward made five of nine shots. Still efficient, but not nearly as productive.
The Thunder tried Ibaka and Nick Collison both on Aldridge. Neither slowed him down. Aldridge was in one of those zones where everything he shot seemed to go in. Not letting him shoot apparently was the only defense, and Perkins mostly did that.
So by all means Perk needed to be in the game. Just not with 53 seconds left and the Thunder down one. At that time, Brooks needed to go to situational substitution. At that time, basketball becomes like football. Fluid play ends. Each play is interrupted by huddles.
The Thunder had two timeouts remaining. Timeouts are precious in the final of a game. But so are possessions. You can’t go squandering them.
You know what happened next. Perkins, doing really the only valuable offensive trait he has, set a pick and was called for an illegal screen. Turnover.
The Thunder’s chances of victory went from about 50-50 to 25-75.
But Brooks’ transgressions weren’t over. Portland called timeout after the illegal screen, with 37.2 seconds left.
Suddenly, defense was paramount for OKC. It had to get a stop.
And Brooks stayed with the same lineup, even though his best perimeter defender, Thabo Sefolosha, was sitting on the bench. Some say Thabo has not played as well defensively this year. Maybe it’s true. I’ve seen no evidence. It’s just people talking. When you guard the opponents’ best player, you’re going to give up some points.
Whatever, Thabo remains the Thunder’s best perimeter defender. And there he sat, watching those final 37 seconds.
The Blazers came out of the huddle, inbounded the ball and ran a special play for Nic Batum. Portland screened off Durant, who later admitted he fell asleep, and Batum sank a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left that gave Portland a 108-104 lead and largely ended the drama.
Maybe the Blazers would have won anyway. Maybe Batum’s basket would have occurred whether Thabo was on the floor or not. Maybe Collison or Ibaka or someone else would have set an illegal screen. Maybe the Thunder would have missed the go-ahead shot.
But in the final minute, when the game slows down and it becomes possession by possession basketball, you’ve got to play the percentages. And the percentages say Kendrick Perkins needs to be out of the game when the Thunder has the ball, and Thabo Sefolosha needs to be in the game when the Thunder doesn’t.