Three random thoughts floated through my mind as I watched the Clippers make mince meat of the Thunder last night.
1. "I've seen this happen before."
That was the thought that I spoke to myself about mid-way through the first quarter. The Clippers were carving up the Thunder both on the inside and putting on a shooting clinic on the outside. It is a given that in the NBA, with the collection of talent that is available even on the weakest teams, players will collectively go through stretches where everything locks in. The passing lanes become clear, the hoop looks as big as the ocean, and everybody knows it at precisely the same time. Sometimes it happens for your own team (3rd quarter against the Spurs) and sometimes it happens against your team, like it did tonight. I've watched it happen when games are relatively meaningless, and I've seen it happen when the games are at the highest stakes. And I know for a fact that I'll see it again.
Regardless of when it happens though, quarters like the one the Clippers had against the Thunder should be the reason why we love basketball. The fact that the Thunder couldn't match that effort for 12 minutes was unfortunate but not heartbreaking because no team could have. For those 12 minutes, the Clippers played what you could call perfect basketball. It is like the runner's high, the sweet spot at the end of a bat, and the first sip of a cold beverage on a hot day. It is worth remembering.
Of course, there was still a winnable game to be had...
2. "Oh heaven help me, they're roping me back in."
One of the mantras I always say to myself after watching one team dominate another for a quarter is, "if that team can do that in one quarter, then the other team can do the same thing in the next." After the opening barrage, the Thunder treaded water for the first half of the second quarter. Their defense that seemed so porous in the beginning began to tighten up in the middle. They stopped giving up second chance points. Westbrook and Durant started to show some patience on offense, waiting for the defense to present itself rather than rush in with a sub-optimal shot.
A game that looked like it was about to be over after 18 minutes suddenly didn't seem like such a foregone conclusion, and this is the precise moment when being a sports fan can become so painful - it is because we can become so hopeful. After watching the Clippers throw out a statistical anomaly of a first half, shooting 60% from the floor and 10-14 from 3-point range, we should have been convinced that this was just not the Thunder's night. Even though we know this intellectually though, we still hope and begin looking for the smallest of elements to bring us a sliver of more hope. A defensive stop here, a 3-point shot there, a favorable out of bounds call...plays all strung together can suddenly reverse the entire trend of a game that previously seemed out of reach.
So it was with the Thunder as the 2nd quarter wound to a close. Down 16, the Thunder began to chip away at the lead. With just over three minutes to go in the half and the lead down to 11, I commented on our game thread that these last three minutes would be a big part of how the game turned out. If the Thunder could simply win this mini game-within-a-game, just win these last three minutes, then they could go into halftime down only single digits despite being thoroughly outplayed. The window was small, but it was there.
3. "What the heck just happened?"
With 1:35 left to go and the deficit at seven, Kevin Durant stepped to the free throw line. He had the opportunity to narrow what was once a rout to a two possession game. He made the first. He missed the second.
At that point, perhaps I should have started humming Weezers' "Sweater Song" to myself.
It was the smallest of things, just a single point, but Durant's miss was an opportunity squandered. He had a chance to put incredible pressure on the Clippers and shake their confidence, and he missed.
The Clippers rebounded and set up Mo Williams for a 3-pointer, which he made to push the lead back to nine.
James Harden next attempted a long 3-pointer, which he missed badly. Six seconds later Williams hit another 3-pointer. Lead up to 15.
Three seconds later Butler stole the ball from Durant. Five seconds after that Chauncey Billups hit the 4th 3-pointer that came in a span of 51 seconds. The lead was at its highest of the half at 18. The Thunder would never recover.
In the moment, we cannot comprehend how something looking so good ends up being so disastrous. All it would have taken was two to three solid possessions and the Thunder probably would have gone into the half down by around eight points. Then the impossible happens. We think to ourselves, "I've never seen anything that crazy happen before."
And it will happen again.
- James Harden - It is difficult to hang a loss like this onto any one individual, but if there is one guy that really made it difficult for the Thunder to overcome the Clippers' assault it was Harden. Pushed into the starting line-up because of Thabo Sefalosha's sore foot, Harden had the task of going up against Caron Butler. Butler is a fine player in his own right and I'm a fan of his going back to his time in Washington, but due to injuries Butler is not the player he once was. Harden needed to control this matchup. Unfortunately and mystifyingly, Butler thoroughly outplayed Harden. In fact, most of the night Harden looked like a completely different player than we've come to know and expect. His shot selection was poor, his decision-making was poor (a day after I bragged to Clips Nation that his decision-making was outstanding), and Harden never seemed to really know what his role was. This was a playoff-type intensity game, and when a team is in that kind of moment it is necessary for all its key players to be ready. Harden wasn't.
What made his play especially maddening was the fact that this was the precise type of game Harden in which Harden is invaluable. The Thunder were acting hastily in their offensive sets and playing too aggressively. Harden is great at looking for passing lanes and seams in the defense and then exploiting them at the proper pace. The team needed Harden's steady hand to help carry them through the chaos, and for whatever reason Harden wasn't quite ready to seize the moment.
- Blake Griffin - The Dunk. What can I say? It was ferocious, ridiculous, iconic, and unfortunate that it happened against the Thunder. That said, it was still ferocious, ridiculous, and iconic. Rightfully, it will be an end-of-season highlight, no matter where either the Clippers or Thunder end up. Here is what Kendrick Perkins had to say:
At the end of the day, if you're a shot-blocker, you're going to get dunked on. It was a great play that he made. Obviously, I wish I wasn't in it, but it was a great play that he made....It was a clean dunk-on."I know one thing about it is, if we've got plans on winning a title it's called sacrifice...I just came off a team [the Boston Celtics] that played with three Hall of Famers that didn't mind sacrificing, didn't mind taking a back seat. In order to win, sometimes you've got to sacrifice. You can win games and do that, but in order to get a ring, you've got to sacrifice."
The thing I think Perkins speaks of when he is talking about 'sacrifice' in this context is the idea that sometimes a player has to be willing to, in order to challenge a play, assume the risk of being made the fool in 1,000 SportsCenter highlights. Perkins is not afraid of playing that role, even if it was an ego-crushing moment. Sometimes, the play is just too good. Rest assured, Perkins will still challenge the next one.
- A positive takeaway - the Thunder never stopped playing hard, even when the lead ballooned to over 20 points in the second half. OKC knew it was not their night. They knew that the Clippers were trying to make a statement game. They knew the chances of recovery were slim. Other coaches would have packed it in, either for emotional or tactical reasons. The Thunder did not. For many teams, a loss is a loss and it doesn't matter if they lose by 10 or 30. To the Thunder though, it does. Losing by 30 would mean that they didn't fight as hard as they possibly could.
Despite the fact that the Clippers were still winning by double digits and Chris Paul was exerting his claim as the quintessential late-game manager, the Thunder left their starters in until only 1:36 was left in a long-lost cause. The team was essentially saying, "You may have beaten us, but we do not yield."
I like that.