After back-to-back narrow escapes to start the week, the Oklahoma City Thunder would have welcomed a reprieve against the Sacramento Kings. Instead, the Kings bullied their guests into their sixth loss.
Wearing Raider-esque black-and-silver uniforms, the Kings played the villain role to the hilt, hacking the more athletic OKCers on every foray to the hoop and punishing the Thunder on the offensive glass. DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson outfought Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins for numerous second shots. For the Thunder, only Russell Westbrook attacked the offensive boards.
In a battle of shoot-first “point guards,” Westbrook trumped Tyreke Evans by repeatedly bulling his way to the hoop. The Kings dragged the level of play down to something resembling trench warfare, and Westbrook proved himself equal to the dirty work with seven layups, although he curiously only earned three free throws.
Make Them When It Matters: The Thunder have developed an interesting system of alternating clear-outs for Kevin Durant and Westbrook. On the last two Thunder possessions, though, the two attempted to work together, and the results were agonizing. With the Thunder trailing by one, Durant drew a double-team at the elbow and threaded a pass to Westbrook, open in the corner. Russell had room to drive, but stepped out of bounds as he started his move.
The next time down, trailing by two, Westbrook found Durant popping out at the top of the key, but the go-ahead three-pointer bounced away.
It would be easy to see these plays as a microcosm of all that ails the Thunder. But that would ignore reality: the Thunder won two games earlier this week by getting quality looks on last-second shots.* Those shots missed tonight, but when game after game comes down to one possession, the law of averages will eventually take over.
*The hard truth, Blazer fans, is that the Thunder won on Monday partly due to an erroneous goaltending call, but also because they got three offensive rebounds on their last possession.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s . . . Thunder: Oklahoma City fans looking for real worrisome harbingers might point to the return of two disturbing trends. Westbrook committed seven turnovers, several coming in do-or-die situations, including the aforementioned failed dance on the sideline.
He also took 26 shots, while Durant got only 19. A loss to an inferior team will inevitably draw scapegoat-seekers, and those looking to place blame will need look no further than the box score.
Watching the games, the issue becomes more complex: Westbrook has mostly tamed his need to hoist terrible three-pointers, and he has vastly improved the quality of his shots. Depending on the matchup, he may be a better scoring option than Durant. The chicken-egg dynamic, though, forces serious fans to wonder: will Westbrook have to sacrifice some of his baskets, even when he has a makable shot, to make sure Durant stays in the flow of the game?
And if the answer is “yes,” will he figure this out before his team’s window of opportunity slides shut?
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.