With the finish line of their first playoff series victory in sight, the Oklahoma City Thunder ran out of gas.
The Thunder played a lackluster first half lowlighted by verbal clashes between Russell Westbrook and several teammates, plus Kendrick Perkins living out half the league’s fantasy by shoving Chris Andersen to the ground.
They trailed for most of the second half, but never allowed Denver to pull away. In the end, Danilo Gallinari’s unconscious fourth-quarter shooting, combined with Ty Lawson’s unstoppability off the dribble, were too potent for the visitors to overcome.
Raymond Felton’s free throw with 3.5 seconds left put the game out of reach, allowing host Denver to escape with a 104-101 victory that purged some of the frustration from the previous three games.
While disappointing for the fourth-seeded Thunder, tonight’s result will likely have little impact on their long-term fate. They had played four games against a formidable opponent and gotten a large amount of favorable breaks, so the law of averages predicted a letdown at some point. Every observer will be shocked if Durant, Westbrook and Co. don’t finish off the Nuggets on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.
The development most impactful to the Thunder happened almost 900 miles away earlier in the evening, as Memphis took a commanding 3-1 lead in its first-round series against top-seeded San Antonio. It was thus worth examining tonight’s game not merely for itself, but in light of how it predicts the Thunder’s Round 2 performance.
With the Grizzlies looking increasingly likely as Oklahoma City’s next opponent, how are the Thunder looking against the weapons Memphis is likely to employ?
The principal questions for the Thunder will be their defensive approach to quick point guard Mike Conley, and the post-up game exemplified by Zach Randolph.
Denver jet Lawson is one of the few floor generals who matches Conley’s foot speed, so Oklahoma City’s response to him will reveal much about their chances of slowing down the Grizzlies.
Tonight, Thunder fans got a worst-case look at those chances. Lawson repeatedly carved up their defense throughout the game, finishing with a series high of 27 points and causing havoc off the dribble. Coach Scott Brooks and his staff need to carefully study the tape of this game before allowing the Thunder to take the court against Conley (or, possibly, San Antonio’s Tony Parker). At the moment, they look horrendously vulnerable against such waterbugs.
In Randolph, Memphis owns one of the game’s scariest (when motivated) low-post threats. Oklahoma City has the personnel to neutralize back-to-the-basket scorers, and tonight’s trial run was a resounding success. The Nuggets tried to establish Nene and Kenyon Martin as inside threats early on, but the approach was so ineffective that they abandoned any low-post attempts for the second half.
End-game decision-making is also a slight concern for Oklahoma City going forward. Trailing by three with 10 seconds remaining, they settled for a rushed Westbrook pull-up three that fell two feet short. Westbrook-bashing has become a sidebar for some internet commandoes, but he gave his critics some fuel tonight with a few of his trademarked off-dribble heaves.
Even those who didn’t watch the game can glance at the box score and see that Westbrook’s 30 field goal attempts accounted for nearly half of his team’s total of 79. That’s an eye-popping number for a point guard, and no team has ever succeeded with its lead ball-handler taking that many shots.
Westbrook did score 30 points and kept his team from losing contact with several acrobatic fourth-quarter drives, but Thunder observers were left with the familiar notion that if he had shared the ball with Durant (31 points), the result might have been different.
They’ll have a chance to right the ship on Wednesday, and may even know their opponent’s identity by the end of that evening. There is work to be done, but not yet cause for panic.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.