To most observers, it's pretty obvious that we lived by the Westbrook and died by the Westbrook tonight, rightfully so on the 24th anniversary of the day of his birth. Strangely, he only had two turnovers for the entire contest, and those came rather late.
So what was Westbrook's problem? Well, he jacked up a lot of shots. More than a third of the shots the Thunder took tonight came from him. And he went through several peaks and valleys of offense, as such. His first two plays were post ups on the smaller Brandon Knight, leading to easy points. He capitalized on a fast break as well, but after a 3-3 start started to get overconfident. Two attempted transition layups rimmed out when he met Monroe in the lane, along with an ill-advised transition jumper. His lull culminated with a open layup that he just blew. But Westbrook re-found his mojo when Will Bynum became his defensive assignment. Bynum just got misdirected twice, which was enough for Westbrook to slice through the Detroit defense and score two straight layups. For his last play, he rotated himself onto Bynum and narrowly missed a decent-looking layup. To cap it all off, Westbrook had three steals in the first, all from trapping the defense at the right time.
At this point, Westbrook is 5-10 at the end of the first quarter, and things appear to be okay. The Thunder are up by two, the Pistons have had some unbelieveably terrific shooting that's bound to level out, and the game looks very manageable with the Pistons' weaker bench coming into the game. But it's just the beginning of the Thunder's problems. Jeremy Lamb is subbed in and does little more than foul twice, turn the ball over, and watch Stuckey grab two free baskets as he forced a mismatch with Thabeet. On their next scoring play, the Pistons again abused Thabeet as they drew him out to the perimeter. Then, everyone failed to pick up Jerebko on a fast break and he grabbed an easy And 1. With these errors, it was apparent that the backups could do little more than tread water, and the Thunder's starters were phased back in, including Westbrook. He wouldn't sit for the rest of the game, and Maynor wouldn't return.
Unfortunately, Westbrook went ice-cold from the floor. He pulled up for three really tough looking jumpers with his man right on him, and blew another layup. His only make was another post-up on Knight. However, even though Westbrook was struggling, he kept his wits about him. He had two nice passes to a cutting Ibaka in the post, and even had a lob to KD in transition. These three assists, which all happened in less than a minute, brought the Thunder to within two.
The third quarter was probably Westbrook's worst overall. He went 2-6 from the floor, with a lot of those missed baskets being reckless charges into the lane. His low point probably came with the Thunder down by 10 late in the third, during which time he was blocked by the 6'7" Jason Maxiell. I wouldn't really blame him for some of his follies though, because he was getting around Will Bynum with ease and had some decent shots at the rim.
It should be noted that during the third, Kevin Durant was having a horrible stint as well. He went 3-9 from the floor. Again, I wouldn't really blame him for his cold streak, as everything he shot was reasonable (save for a blocked dunk). It just all came down to execution.
However, I do think that the Thunder should be blamed for going back to the offense that played them right out of the Western conference finals. At the Thunder's lowest point, the Pistons really knew what to expect. Westbrook/Durant high pick and rolls, all the way. Maybe a couple of set ups for threes. They started trapping in the back court to make things difficult, and played great help defense in the paint because they knew the duo weren't going to pass the ball. (Both had 0 assists in the third.) Individually, the shot attempts they took looked alright, but collectively, they were playing right into the Pistons hands.
Meanwhile, the Pistons were successful offensively because they're a great passing team. Monroe is more than capable of having the offense work inside-out, Stuckey and Knight are both combo guards with decent passing skills, Bynum is fast enough to draw pressure and pass, and Tayshaun Prince is an experienced player who knows a lot of tricks. None of them possess any sort of stand out talent in terms of the NBA (except Monroe), but when they work together and play to their particular skill sets, they can have good nights.
Of course, that kind of talk was all but eliminated once the third quarter rolled around. Lawrence Frank started the quarter with four backups plus Rodney Stuckey, and it was a total disaster. The Pistons just started to chuck up jumpers with Jerebko and Bynum, and the starters were quickly subbed back in. Meanwhile, after a lucky Westbrook transition jumper, the Thunder went back to their bread and butter and started forcing themselves to the line.
And then, Westbrook exploded. After going to the line and succeeding twice, he beasted around Will Bynum for a lightning quick layup. The next play saw Rodney Stuckey somehow get put on him, resulting in an easy drive and score. For the first time in a long time, OKC had the lead.
Rodney Stuckey was quick to respond, getting two slow defenders in a row that he ran around for easy points. But then, Westbrook did this:
That's right, he threw the ball OFF Brandon Knight, and ran in for the layup. Even Brian Davis was caught by surprise on that one. Happy Birthday, Russ.
Detroit would shortly regain the lead, and Knight would exact revenge with a steal and three. But all of the momentum was still with OKC, and they still had the greatest closer in the game. When Westbrook ran out of gas, Kevin Durant cleaned up the mess, nailing a tough jumper at the top of the key while getting fouled, and hitting a leaner/floater while near the side of the paint. The rest of the work was done at the line, while the Pistons continued to rely on jump shooting.
When you look at the stats, the Thunder's ability to get to the line won them this matchup. But having actually seen the game, Westbrook won us this game. Even though it might have felt like he was killing us in the second and third, he didn't sink as much as he did swim. Durant may have closed the game, but we would have never gotten there if it weren't for the unleashed energy of the Honey Badger.
However, I'd like to close on the note that the Thunder can't play every game like this. They've got to get better production out of Ibaka and Martin, and they've got to work for more opportunities for Sefolosha and Collison. Westbrook won't be able to execute a one man comeback like this against the more serious teams in the West, and not many teams will fold under pressure like the Pistons. I mean, when you get right down to it, the Pistons could have won this game if Knight didn't throw the ball away and Monroe got called for three in the key during the waning seconds.
Regardless, this game was a blast to watch, and every team has their moments. Sweep #1 complete.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, for obvious reasons
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, for closing it out
Thunder Blunder: Jeremy Lamb's terrible three minutes of basketball
Thunder Plunderer: Rodney Stuckey, who provided the Pistons offense when they needed it most and shot over.500 for the first time this year!
Next Game: Versus the Memphis Grizzlies, Wednesday, November 14th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.
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