I can't remember the last time I was so frustrated. Oh wait, actually, I can. It was back in the NBA Finals, when the Heat went small and did the exact same thing the Hawks did to the Thunder tonight. But this Hawks team didn't have LeBron James or Dwayne Wade. Heck, they didn't even have Josh Smith. Somehow, Al Horford, Lou Williams, Jeff Teague, and the NBA's greatest collection of spare parts were able to outsmart the Thunder and pull out a reasonably comfortable victory.
Though all the blame can't lie on Scott Brooks, he's the guy I immediately turn to. There were just so many easily fixable problems going on out there. First of all, the Thunder continued to run high pick and rolls late into the game when it was clear that the Hawks would trap them like hell. I mean, look at the hustle stats. Thunder have 20 turnovers, Hawks have 10. Thunder have 4 steals, Hawks have 12. I can't find the points off of turnovers online, but I know that the Hawks had something like a 20-10 advantage (according to the in-arena scoreboard). And it wasn't Westbrook or Maynor getting trapped, either. It's when the Thunder would strand a scorer like Martin or Durant on the wing with no passing options. I understand the advantages of an iso play, but really, guys?
Secondly, the Thunder kept trotting out big lineups that the Hawks would continually take advantage of. When you had Perk or Thabeet out there, the Thunder would struggle. You might think the size would give the Thunder the advantage in the paint defensively. But literally every Hawk that played tonight could shoot the three, so staying in the paint was fruitless. The Hawks would constantly spread the floor, taking advantage of whoever was too slow to get out to the three point line, and take an open shot. Now, the Thunder have a problem with three point defense already, with Westbrook's occasional lack of focus and Kevin Martin, but the problem was only compounded by the Thunder succumbing to their strategy.
Furthermore, because the Hawks had scared the Thunder's bigger defenders out onto the wings, they were able to send their guards (Teague and Williams) into the post without many problems. They'd just weave past their matchup and find themselves with an open lane or an unprepared defender that they could shoot a crisp floater over.
Continuing along the problems with matchups, it's clear that Perkins and Thabeet were really struggling. Whenever either of them had to guard Al Horford, Horford knew they were too slow to block his jumper, so he'd just back them down to the spot he needed and let the shot fly. Pachulia managed to bang for a couple points down low, and his shot was enough of a threat to draw the defense and allow him to make an easy assist to the open man.
So, given all of the information above, it's downright mind-blowing to me that Scott Brooks didn't go with a small lineup. Our bigs weren't doing us any good. There were a few blocks, but the Hawks were having their way offensively and got way too many offensive boards. There was one point in the early fourth, from about 10:45 to 6:27, where the Thunder went with a lineup of Collison-Durant-Sefolosha-Martin-PG. And while the deficit didn't get any better (the lineup came in down 3 and left down 2), it was clear that they were successful defensively, and that they slowed the Hawks down. They weren't owning the Thunder inside, and really had to ride their momentum to stay alive. Meanwhile, the Thunder bricked a few decent shots, and Scott Brooks quickly went back to Ibaka and Perkins. The results were immediately disastrous, as the Thunder didn't have a hot hand to distribute it to, the Hawks attacked the paint, and all the air was let out of the building.
Speaking of hot hands, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin were huge boons tonight. Serge had eight points in the third, and was able to open up Atlanta's defense by forcing them to space out a little bit more. But Kevin Martin was the true story, scoring 19 points during the second quarter and making his defender look silly. This is the pre-injury Kevin Martin that we all wanted to see, shooting lights out from the perimeter, faking out his defender so he can re-set for an easy mid-range shot, and getting fouled in the paint. But of course, the ghost of James Harden still haunts us all, as he has 4 turnovers and no assists, a stat line that the bearded one would scoff at.
But there were definitely some guys who went cold tonight, and one of them was Russell Westbrook. He made some nice assists, but that's about it. His turnovers were killer, because he made them all on the perimeter. His defense was terrible, because he let Teague and Williams score with little difficulty. But most of all, his shot execution gave everyone migraines. It's not like the guy was making consistently bad decisions about when and where to shoot (except on a couple key plays at the end of the game). He just wasn't executing. He missed open threes. He couldn't hit from his usual spot at the top of the key. And he struggled to score in the lane. Unfortunately, he pretty much killed the Thunder offensively tonight, and we might have done better just to have Maynor and Jackson on the floor. (Yes, Maynor went 0-4, but he generally won't force the issue like Westbrook does.)
So, when a guy like Westbrook flops, someone needs to pick up the slack, right? Well, normally, Kevin Durant is that guy. And tonight, his offense was efficient, but it just didn't seem to be on a Kevin Durant level. It's really hard to complain about Durant, because he was two dimes away from a triple double, worked to get his team involved, and was admirable on defense. But his overall offensive attitude just seemed off, like Westbrook's. He missed a few jumpers that normally melt like butter. He lost the ball way too much. But most of all, I just never saw that killer instinct.
"Killer Instinct". It's a vague term (and a silly video game). I see it often thrown out there by national analysts who don't know what they're talking about. Still, it's hard to ignore the signs. Even with Scott Brooks' logistical problems, the Thunder should have the talent to put away a team like the Josh Smithless Hawks. Yet they just seemed lackadaisical. You have to raise the question: Did the James Harden trade affect Durant, Westbrook, and the team emotionally? Basketball is more than slapping some superstars, stats, and prospects together. The Lakers and plenty of previous NBA chemistry disasters can tell us that. It's about a team working together towards a common goal, and being able to unite through camaraderie.
It's really hard to put a finger on whether the Harden trade affected the Thunder, and we probably won't know the true answer until this generation of players is long retired. But the whole premise could very well be wrong, and I'm not willing to make a judgement either way. Whatever the reason for this slump, the Thunder have an entire season to get over it. And I'm confident they will.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, who still almost had a triple double
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Martin, for his massive amount of points
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, 5-18 Shooting, 3 Turnovers
Thunder Plunderer: Al Horford, 23 Points, 12 Rebounds
Next Game: Versus the Toronto Raptors, Tuesday, November 6th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.