For two games, the Oklahoma City Thunder have chosen the path of greater resistance.
In 48 hours, they have won one playoff game by 2 and lost another by 3, each time expending far more energy than strictly necessary against a game opponent who no longer seems overmatched.
The Thunder had been running between raindrops for at least the past two contests of the Western Conference Semifinals, and some of their big-picture problems led to the Game 3 loss, which cut their series lead to 2-1.
As is often the case, Oklahoma City’s errors were mistakes of excess. More than many teams, they walk a delicate line between “just right” (fast enough to overwhelm less-athletic teams) and “too fast.” Here is where the Thunder mainstays fell on that spectrum tonight.
Kevin Durant: It seems ludicrous at a time when LeBron James is still at the peak of his powers, but the question remains necessary: is Durant the most terrifying NBA player in the open court with a full head of steam?
He can get from halfcourt to the rim in just as few steps as LeBron, moves almost as quickly at full speed, and if he doesn’t quite have King James’ overpowering force, he compensates with a much deadlier shooting touch.
Durant spent a lot of time at the rim tonight, doing what he could to put pressure on the Lakers’ defense. On final life-or-death possessions, he twice found the correct speed to create an open look for himself. That his last three-pointer bounced off makes his ability to free himself no less impressive.
James Harden: The bearded one could have ended the Lakers’ season in 17 seconds of the fourth quarter. That was how long it took him to fire the ball downcourt to a streaking Durant for a layup, then steal a bad Matt Barnes pass and pull up for a three-pointer that gave Oklahoma City a 5-point lead. All of Harden’s activity, though, ultimately couldn’t save the Thunder from their deficits inside.
Nazr Mohammed/Nick Collison: When the Thunder acquired Kendrick Perkins before the 2011 trade deadline, his defense against Andrew Bynum provided much of the rationale. If the Thunder would have to go through the Lakers to assume Western supremacy, they would need a way to neutralize LA’s inside strength.
Perkins came up bigger than usual tonight with four blocked shots, but when he sat, Mohammed and Collison looked helpless against Bynum, fouling him repeatedly and watching him convert 11 of his 12 free throw attempts. Their frenetic, reaching approach to interior defense is a serious weakness against the wrong opponent.
Serge Ibaka: Obviously, his putback attempt with under three seconds left and his team trailing by three was a moment of panic that he’d like to have back. Just as costly, though, was his rushed 17-foot jump shot one possession earlier that could have put the Thunder ahead.
For all his unteachable talent and instinct, Ibaka still lacks some court sense that may only come with a few more years of experience.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.