The Oklahoma City Thunder won in spite of their All-Star point guard.
Russell Westbrook spent much of Saturday’s Game 3 against Denver forcing shots or passively dishing off to teammates. He finished the night by missing two free throws that would have put it out of reach. As the final buzzer sounded, he got tangled up with a frustrated Nene, who cast the smaller player to the ground like an elephant shaking off a pesky bird.
The Nuggets were elephantine throughout the evening in their physical force, but also in their lack of grace and finesse for much of the second half. They missed 20 of 23 jump shots during one second-half stretch, hit only 29 of 72 field goals and 30 of 45 free throws on the night, and generally looked out of sync on offense.
That they still had a chance to win at the end was largely due to Westbrook committing an ugly pile of mistakes. He missed three of his inexplicable three-point launches off the dribble and lost the ball or forced up wild shots on several one-on-four drives.
The numbers actually show that Westbrook was probably the game’s outstanding player, as he put up a near-triple-double (23 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) in a road playoff victory. Watching the game, though, it became clear that he was part of the problem as well as the solution. Against a more accurate-shooting opponent, his mistakes could have resulted in decisive momentum shifts.
He got enough support to render the issue moot for now. Serge Ibaka played the game of his life, with 22 points, 16 rebounds, and perfect free throw shooting (10-10) to go with the aforementioned blocks. He dueled the three-headed monster of Nene, Kenyon Martin, and Chris Andersen to a draw, offsetting frontcourt mate Kendrick Perkins’ lack of production (four points, two rebounds).
Kevin Durant shot poorly (7-22 field goals, 9-12 free throws) but put up 26 points and six assists while drawing much of Denver’s defensive focus. He also played a long stretch of the fourth quarter with five fouls and brilliantly altered a Felton layup attempt that would have cut his team’s lead to four with just over a minute remaining.
The Nuggets’ atrocious shooting doomed them tonight, and is the main reason that they’re headed for summer vacation in one or two more games. This series has been less competitive than many predicted for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the myopia that led three referees to miss Kendrick Perkins’ Game 1 basket interference, but Denver’s inability to bring its A game before a raucous home crowd was inexcusable.
The Thunder defenders did their part to discombobulate their hosts, switching pick-and-roll coverage often enough to stymie any offensive rhythm. Point guards Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson had only four assists apiece and never found a way to consistently attack even while the Thunder defense left openings inside and around the perimeter. For every slick interior pass, there were three errant jump shots.
The Nuggets found themselves turned back on many inside forays, as Ibaka blocked four shots and Durant swatted three. It all added up to a collective offensive failure for one of the league’s most explosive teams.
The Thunder were scarcely better, actually shooting a lower percentage from the field and roughly the same on free throws. They should feel encouraged for pulling out a road win on a bad shooting night with only one player performing at his peak. Whether they close out the series in four games or five, they are close to vaulting the obstacle that is their first playoff series victory.
With Memphis grabbing a 2-1 lead over the top-seeded Spurs in the other half of this bracket, there is little certainty about the next opponent. The Thunder would do well to find their shots before the next series commences. Otherwise, the pundits who question the team’s on-court leadership will have plenty of ammunition. They’ll aim straight at Westbrook, unless he finds a way to right his ship.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.