OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 20: Kenyon Martin #4 of the Denver Nuggets defends against Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 20, 2011 at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
We've written a lot in this space about what it means to "learn lessons" game to game. The idea of "learning lessons" has been part of the OKC Thunder broken record. If the team gets blown out? Lesson learned. If the team loses a late lead? Lesson learned. If a guy takes an ill-advised 30 footer with plenty of time left on the clock? Lesson learned. The question lingers though: is the lesson learned?
The game that comes to mind from earlier in the season is oddly enough a win against Golden State. I wrote about it at my former blogging post. In that game, the Thunder raced out to a huge lead, controlled all aspects of the game, but then nearly burned themselves when they stopped playing hard in the 4th. It underscored one of the main flaws in the Thunder's make-up at that time: they did not know how to hold a lead. The main reason why is that, at that point in the season, the Thunder's defense was terrible. The only thing they knew how to rely on was to keep shooting, which they did, and it nearly cost them.
The team's identity began to shift when Kendrick Perkins arrived. The defense became more robust, the team looked stronger, and good things were in store. And yet, right in the month of April, they suffered two terrible losses to Portland and the Clippers. In both, the Thunder had early leads, lost interest, and fizzled in the end. What happened to those "lessons learned?"
Perhaps the Thunder just needed those two games as a refresher course.
It has been written that in the NBA, you cannot win a game in the 1st quarter. There is too much time, the game moves too quickly, and the players are too talented to be able to win a game so early. However, as we saw tonight, while a great 1st quarter cannot guarantee a win, it can send a message. Mayberry wrote after the game that this 1st quarter against the Nuggets was perhaps their best of the season. I think you can probably stretch that emphasis a third of the way into the 2nd quarter as well, when the Thunder opened up a 26 point lead, 43-17. I will never know whether the Thunder's early focus was in reaction to their own failures in the 1st quarter of Game One, a reaction to the Nuggets' reaction following that game, or some combination of both. Regardless, I do think the early dominance accomplishes something psychologically when a losing team looks at the scoreboard and sees that it only has 10 points with under a minute to go. Or 17 points almost half-way through quarter number two. While the Nuggets actually performed admirably to make the game semi-competitive the rest of the way, I think the early message sent was profound.
Of course, the Thunder did have a five minute stretch in the 2nd quarter where they only managed six points (all by Serge Ibaka). To the team's benefit, their early burst earned the team the ability to endure such a funk while the Nuggets shaved 12 points off the lead. In a way, it probably was good for the Thunder to experience a weaker 2nd quarter (vs a 4th quarter) because it allowed them time to recognize and refocus their defense. After giving up 29 in the 2nd quarter the Thunder only gave up 45 the rest of the way.
I actually look at the 2nd quarter when considering which one was the most significant, because it was the quarter in which the Nuggets truly failed at a comeback. If we hearken back to Game One, the Nuggets jumped out to the early lead and looked to be in control in the 1st quarter, only to see the Thunder reverse the trend in the 2nd and make the game competitive. I've always said (don't you love that rhetorical crutch?) that if one team can score 16 more points than the other in one quarter, then the opposition can just as easily do it in the next. In Game One the Thunder reversed the trend by being more patient on offense and buckling down on defense. In Game Two, however, the Nuggets could not provide the same level of defensive resistance. While they were able to break free a bit offensively and score 29 in the 2nd, the Thunder scored 28 of their own, keeping the lead at a healthy 15 during the halftime break. The Thunder sent another message - they had weathered the storm, took the Nuggets' best shot at recovery, and threw it back in their faces.
The remainder of the game on paper looks like it was all but a draw, but it is important to note that all the Thunder needed at this point was a draw. While the second half did not feature the same fireworks as Game One where the two teams combined for 210 points, in a way this result was the more satisfying because it showed that the Thunder could patiently grind out an entire half without losing their composure.
It also is important to realize that, after that explosive 1st quarter, the Thunder offense probably couldn't even be called "good." I'd call it "adequate." It served adequately for the task at hand. The team settled for too many jumpers, took way too many 3-pointers (30!), and did have a brief let-up when the Nuggets closed the game to 10 points with over eight minutes to play in the game. How did the Thunder respond? They held the Nuggets scoreless for the next three minutes while tacking six more points to the lead. It was at this stretch that the value of the OKC defense was most profound, because it demonstrated how much margin for error a team has when the other team cannot score. Denver on the other hand had zero margin for error, so once this brief 4th quarter threat had subsided, the remainder of the game was mere formality.
So to conclude, were lessons truly learned? I think they were, and more importantly, those lessons were applied.
Defense on Nene. Credit goes to the Nuggets for trying to do whatever they could to maximize their one comparative advantage on offense. Nene almost single-handedly brought them back in Game One, and in Game Two the team fed him early and often. He only shot 2-8, but got to the free throw line 16 times. And yet, his effectiveness felt rather muted. I think it might be because at the end of the day, Nene is not a volume shooter. He only took 11 shots in the last game, and eight shots in this one. His FT's did not supplement his overall game, but rather replaced it. So instead of him rolling to the rim for face-shattering dunks (sorry, Nick), he was getting hammered and hacked to pieces and forced to slow down his game to concentrate at the charity stripe. I don't think Nene minds the contact (heck, he probably likes it), but perhaps forcing him to contribute at the FT line was a good strategy for slowing him down. Much credit goes to Kendrick Perkins (fouled out), Serge Ibaka (4 fouls), and Nazr Mohammed (3 fouls) for making Nene work at something that is not a strength.
Kevin Durant the facilitator. Much was made of George Karl's and Kenyon Martin's proposed adjustments after Durant lit up the Nuggets for 41 points. They planned on being more physical with Durant, throw double-teams at him, and get the ball out of his hands. Durant responded with five assists against only one turnover, and consistently looked to his teammates to get open shots. While he still had the tendency to drift to the 3-point line a bit (3-7 from 3-point range), for the most part Durant did not try to "break" the defense with his own offense. He scored a modest 23 points, but he did it off of only 15 shots.
More importantly, when the game was winding down and the Thunder just needed a few more shots to fall to wrap it up, Durant was there in the 4th quarter, making 4-4 field goals for eight points. It was a subtle and yet firm reminder that even though Durant has struggled with last second shots, he is still very good when the game is on the line.
The MIA's show up. As we noted from Game One, the two guys who really came up small on offense were Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Under normal circumstances, both of those guys provide 12-15 points of offense, which is a good compliment to the load Durant and Russell Westbrook carry. The balance they provide is one of the reasons why the Thunder are usually better when Durant and Westbrook don't score as much. These two, along with Nick Collison, are capable offensively, and in Game Two they all delivered. Harden once more was able to create his own offense (18 points) and the trio combined for 40 off of only 22 shot attempts. Not only was their scoring useful, but it was efficient as well.
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