When you first look at this loss, your knee jerk reaction has to be blaming Russell Westbrook. He screwed up a lot of key possessions down the stretch, had shot horribly all game, and was constantly suffering in the face of pressure defense. It might be unjust, but when you shoot almost 25% from the field, have two more turnovers than assists, and cause four fouls, it's hard to deflect blame.
It's been somewhat of a continuing trend with Westbrook this season. His offense has been sub-par, but the other aspects of his game have more than made up for it. But tonight, that wasn't true at all. During the first quarter, Mario Chalmers was constantly catching him with his pants down, sinking open shots and sliding by his overly tight perimeter defense. His five turnovers were silly, with two of them being offensive fouls initiated by him pushing Miami's defenders. The other three were just Westbrook getting trapped and not having the sense to pass the ball off.
Offensively, Russell Westbrook continued to have problems. I've talked about some of these problems before. He blew a few open layups down low because he ran in completely out of control. Not much you can say about that one, other than that he needs to improve his footwork. He continues to brick the stop and pop mid-range shot that he's fallen in love with. This isn't so much his fault, because the defense has learned to expect it, and the Thunder aren't enough of a transition team for that shot to be effective anymore. But some other issues seemed specific to this game. Westbrook was clearly frustrated, and it really turned him into a shot chucker. Any time he even got a smidgen of daylight, he chucked up a bad shot. Westbrook doesn't need to be shooting low percentage threes or driving against three guys in the paint. He's not normally so foolish, but I'm betting the turnovers ate into his confidence. Anyway, however you slice it, if he would have performed at an average level tonight, the Thunder would have won this game.
How can Westbrook improve? Well, I think we saw a couple of examples tonight. He hit a mid-range shot after physically backing Chalmers down to the spot he wanted. If Westbrook can hit that turnaround shot with some regularity, I think it could become a staple of the Thunder's half-court offense. Also, I'd love to see him get some two-man game work with the bigs, ala James Harden and Nick Collison. Tonight, there was a play where Kendrick Perkins backed into the post, drew pressure, and then dished to Westbrook about 5 feet away for an easy layup. Hubie Brown thought so highly of it that he let out a little "nice" as soon as he saw what was happening. His repertoire with the big wouldn't have to be limited to a specific play like this, or even specifically with Perkins. It's kind of bold to make a mid-season change like that, but with how bad Westbrook's offense has been, it might be time to re-think strategy.
Aaaanyway, people besides Westbrook were also factors tonight. Scott Brooks went with an 8 man rotation, leaving out Hasheem Thabeet and substituting Eric Maynor for Reggie Jackson. You could look at it in one of two ways. Either this is his playoff lineup and he thinks Reggie Jackson is the better option at PG right now, or he was playing things situationally and wanted to have more perimeter defense against the Heat. The strategy worked to an extent, as the Heat really had problems knocking down three point shots, shooting only 28.6%. But it backfired on the inside, as they were 30-52 from two point range.
It really seemed like the Thunder's interior presence was off tonight. You've got the obvious easy Bosh dunk that nearly doomed the Thunder to failure in the final minute of the game, but even besides that, you felt like the Heat were getting tons of easy points down low. Way too many open dunks because of our eagerness to play help defense on one guy. Oh well, not much you can do.
Turnovers were a titanic problem tonight. The Thunder were decent at limiting them in the second and third, but they had a combined 13 turnovers during the first and fourth. The first quarter turnovers allowed the Heat to go on a huge run, but the fourth quarter turnovers limited the Thunder from taking advantage of prime scoring opportunities, and it killed us in the end. For what's supposed to be considered a good transition team, that's pretty lame.
Reggie Jackson was a decent addition tonight. He was excellent at guarding Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, which Westbrook can't really say. And he had one really cool looking three point play. But other than that, it's clear that he's not Eric Maynor, especially when it comes to dropping dimes. The Jackson-Maynor debate is really a "pick your poison" type of deal. Do you want undersized scoring with little passing ability, or do you want great passing with no scoring. These dudes need to learn a fusion dance and become the ultimate backup point guard. Regardless, I do think Jackson was the proper choice for tonight, but Maynor definitely still has his uses.
In terms of other players, Kevin Durant was pretty passive in the first half, but, as usual, he delivered when it mattered, scoring 11 in the third and 14 in the fourth. Serge Ibaka had his normally solid offensive performance, but putting him on LeBron James in the clutch was a definite mistake. Kevin Martin shot pretty well, but not terrifically. Still, a couple of his shots were really unlucky misses, so he's easy to forgive.
On the Heat's side of the ball, they had their share of struggles. Aside from the lack of threes, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Norris Cole really struggled from the floor, and the bench was an overall dud. But when their starters can get such excellent production, who cares? Still, this isn't normal for the Heat, and this game could definitely be considered an outlier for them in terms of overall context. If the Thunder are going to win, they can't let the big three plus Mario Chalmers all shoot nearly at or over 50% from the floor.
Anyway, I could talk about this game all day, but the fact remains. Sometimes, the ball just doesn't bounce your way. Statistically, it's realistic that the Heat could have lost this game, and the Thunder took them down to the wire. But a few key decisions and a few missed shots put them in line for a loss. Not much you can do but pick up and move on.
Also, I hope all of you had a most excellent Christmas. Besides watching this game, of course.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, the ultimate closer.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, one of the most reliable dudes on our offense.
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook.
Thunder Plunderer: LeBron James, who else?
Next Game: Versus the Dallas Mavericks, Thursday, December 27th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.
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