When the league’s best team loses to its worst, the story practically writes itself. “Played to the level of their opponent,” sportswriters can grumble, or “Don’t have the mental toughness to win it all.” Much more complex, but less juicy, is a hyperbole-free examination of facts. Here they are.
The Washington Wizards outscored the Oklahoma City Thunder by seven points in the fourth quarter to come from behind and win the game by three. They outrebounded the Thunder by nine, attempted 13 more free throws, and hit twice as many three-pointers. Identifying the causes of Oklahoma City’s defeat at first seems as complex as a third-grade math problem.
Some unusual suspects hindered the Thunder tonight, though, and here the story grows more complicated. Kevin Durant attempted 10 three-pointers, hitting only two, while also committing seven turnovers. He scored 33 points and hit 11 of 24 field goals, so it wasn’t as if he was an offensive disaster, but he’d be the first to admit that his shot has felt better.
Over the course of a full season, even a player as efficient as Durant will submit the occasional scattered performance, so this isn’t a harbinger of certain doom. In fact, given the choice, Scott Brooks would likely have opted for Durant to face-plant like this in a game against a doormat like Washington, instead of a showdown with a division or conference rival. A more troubling issue, though, was the inability of Durant’s teammates to pick up his slack.
Every Thunder bench player posted a negative plus-minus, in stark contrast to the second unit’s usual competence. James Harden missed four free throws, coughed up the ball four times, and contributed nothing outside of his 13 points. Kendrick Perkins somehow turned the ball over three times in 28 minutes despite not attempting a single shot. The scapegoats were numerous.
Russell Westbrook, for once, was not among them. He did hoist 26 shots, but hit 14 of them, and once again willingly looked for Durant in transition. Five of his seven assists led to layups or dunks, while the other two got open jumpers for Durant. These signs indicate a growing ability to recognize who has the best shot.
It might not matter, though, if none of his teammates can make one. Harden is the team’s third-best offensive player, but he rarely plays alongside Westbrook or Durant and thus is limited in his ability to take pressure off the All-Star duo. His three made field goals tonight actually tied a team high for players not named Kevin or Russell. If the other ten players on the court can’t step up big against the league’s worst (by record) team, can Oklahoma City really feel it has a playoff-worthy supporting cast?
Saturday’s game against New Jersey, followed by a Monday home game against the lowly Pistons, will offer ample opportunities for redemption. Harden, Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison would do well to study tape of tonight’s loss, then stride out on Saturday determined to atone.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.