What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Well, first there are the unintelligible guttural sounds of despair and disgust.
After pushing through that though, my thought is that this is what it feels like to have the shoe on the other foot.
The Thunder have won a number of games this season where they have overcome late game deficits to pull a win out of thin air (The Nuggets and Warriors games come to mind). Tonight the Thunder played approximately six minutes of true Thunder basketball, where they were the aggressors, they allowed their talent to rise to the surface, and they defended the rim with a vengeance. Six minutes.
Is six minutes enough? Funny enough, it sure felt like it was. The problem though was that, unlike against the Nuggets or the Warriors, it was the wrong six minutes. Instead of it being the last six minutes of the game, the Thunder lost their focus with just over two minutes remaining. Seemingly with a comfortable 11 point lead and a team that was finally showing signs of life, the Thunder were outscored on their home court 13-1 over the final stretch. Courtney Lee was the late game hero, burying a 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to give his team a one point lead.
With 15 seconds to go and the ball, the Thunder once again failed to form any semblance of an effective play. Instead, they put the ball in Kevin Durant's hands and waited for him to make a play. Unfortunately for him and the Thunder fans, Chandler Parsons once again denied him a clean shot and he missed the 20 footer. Serge Ibaka's rebound and putback was blocked, and that was the game with which the undermanned Rockets ran off.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder lost?
You could say that the Thunder lost because they lost their focus in the very end. There was certainly ample evidence for it. Consider over the final 2:30, the Thunder scored 1 point, missed three shots, had three turnovers, and picked up a technical foul when Russell Westbrook went after Goran Dragic after a called foul. If I may refer you to our story headline here, you can see that the Thunder lost by a single point.
But no, that collapse is not why the Thunder lost.
They lost because those final 2:30 minutes were the game's norm, not the exception. For 42 of the game's 48 minutes, the Rockets were the better team. Despite missing both Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry, the Rockets still had the better backcourt on the night. The duo of Dragic and Lee were quicker, made better decisions, and outscored the Thunder starting backcourt 33-21. Chandler Parsons continues to be a most surprising foil for Durant. Parsons scored a career high 21 points on the night, including 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but more importantly he does a tremendous job staying in front of Durant and turning him into a long range jump shooter.
Durant still had a solid game with 28 and 12, but aside from him, it is difficult to say that the better players 2-8 were wearing red rather than white.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
If you look across the box score, it is difficult to point to any one statistic and say, "Ah, THAT is what really cost the Thunder tonight." Instead, the box score is really quite balanced from team to team. OKC's usual culprits for bad play, rebounding and turnovers, were by and large non-factors. The Thunder had a slight edge in rebounds while the Rockets had a slight edge in turnovers, but the net result was only a five shot discrepancy. If you knew nothing other than the box score, then you would conclude that this was a closely fought game. And of course it was, because the final margin was the smallest possible.
Perhaps though that is what should give us the most concern. The West-leading Thunder, playing at home, were statistically no different at all from a just-over-.500 team that was missing its two best offensive players.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
After the horn sounded and I stared at the final result in shock, I remembered something said long ago by Michael Jordan. He said that he always preferred playing on the road rather than at home. The reason why is because he felt like it was easier to focus on just the game at hand, because there were none of the distractions from home that tended to hamper his concentration.
The Thunder just wrapped up the second of two 5 game home stands in the past three weeks. They looked strong going into the All-Star break, but if I had to choose one word to describe them coming out of it, I would select that word that Jordan alluded to - "unfocused." To be sure, the Thunder are always going to struggle from quarter to quarter in maintaining their energy level, in part because they are so ridiculously talented that they can coast on talent alone for stretches. However, without the proper focus on a whole-game standpoint, their offense and defense turns into something quite ordinary.
Consider their leader, Kevin Durant. Durant has taken 30 3-point shots in the home stand, making nine of them. Thirty 3-point attempts is a lofty number, even if you're a player like Ray Allen. Even if Durant made 3-4 more of those shots, pushing him into a very respectable 40% clip, the net result is still that he is more Rashard Lewis than LeBron James. Durant cannot merely be a decent 3-point shooter; he has to bring an entire offensive game to make the Thunder attack dynamic and unpredictable. Otherwise, they're simply the Golden State Warriors in different colors.
Thursday night is a game in Denver against Nuggets. We know that there is nothing that team would like more than to gain a mental edge on the struggling Thunder right now. Let us hope that the trip north will help clear the Thunder of their foggy focus, energize their weary legs, and begin to show some growth that will give us optimism as we work through the month of March.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 28 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Daequan Cook, 2 points off of 1-4 shooting in only 13 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Courtney Lee, 21 points, 4-7 from 3-point range, including the game winner
Next Game: at the Denver Nuggets, Thursday March 15, 8:00 PM Central Standard Time