“We’re coming off a devastating loss . . .
“At home . . .
“In which we led by double digits with five minutes or less remaining.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder had an excuse ready to go. Their fans might have even forgiven them if they’d rolled over and played dead in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
They defied expectations, though, playing with the passion and zeal that has characterized them over the past three seasons of immense personal and team-wide growth. They made their organization proud. They never quit.
Unfortunately, their loss also highlighted how far each member of the team has to progress if they are to break through to the level occupied by true championship contenders.
Here are the excuses the Thunder could deploy in the face of a frustrating loss and the long summer ahead.
1. “We had to present our X-rays to get a whistle, but the decrepit/foreign guys on the other team flopped their way into a million free throws.”
Somewhat true. The free-throw disparity (36-25 in Dallas’ favor) stands out a little, but more telling were the numerous uncalled bumps that could have been Oklahoma City and-ones, or the questionable blocking foul on Eric Maynor that sent Shawn Marion to the free throw line to cut the Thunder’s fourth-quarter lead to two.
2. “The other team’s best player had the series of his life, and we were just caught up in his wake.”
Completely true. Dirk Nowitzki’s brilliance saved the Mavericks in Game 1 and Game 4, and made his heroics tonight (26 points, go-ahead three-pointer with 1:14 remaining) seem mundane by comparison. He averaged 32.2 points for the series, shooting 56% from the field and making 59 of 61 free throws.
3. “Our coach still wasn’t sure who our best players are, or when to play them.”
True. Kendrick Perkins played the fifth-most minutes of anyone on the Thunder, totaling 21 points and 25 rebounds in five games. Serge Ibaka played vastly more minutes than Nick Collison despite his enduring difficulty guarding Nowitzki. This wasn’t all on Scott Brooks – he didn’t trade Jeff Green for Perkins – but at some point the Thunder coach should have reacquainted himself with Nazr Mohammed, or considered starting Collison and James Harden.
4. “Our offense wasn’t sophisticated enough to get our best scorers good looks in the halfcourt.”
True with a qualifier: yes, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook struggled against Dallas’ zone whenever the game slowed down, resorting to difficult step-back jumpers or blitzkrieg drives – unless Harden was in the game to supply the ballhandling and court vision that Westbrook sometimes lacks. Brooks couldn’t have played Harden 45 minutes per game, but he could have been more creative in playing lineups that took some of the creative burden off of his two All-Stars. Any time your team features an offense that repeatedly posts up Kendrick Perkins, though, it’s probably not your year. It might seem mean to keep piling on Perkins, but his first two post-up plays tonight resulted in one offensive foul and one traveling violation. Tough to pretty up that line.
5. “We never gave up – we just didn’t have it this year.”
True. The Thunder have three budding stars who are 22 or younger, and are light-years ahead of most similarly-pedigreed teams throughout NBA history. They will be back in the Conference Finals for years to come, barring disaster or chemistry meltdown.
Their two team leaders are hard workers with positive attitudes, and will likely come back whenever the NBA resumes play with new weapons in their arsenals. With the other Western powers aging or in transition, the Thunder will have many more opportunities to represent their conference on the league’s biggest stage.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.