The Oklahoma City Thunder dropped their 2nd game in a row at home, falling to the Brooklyn Nets, 95-93. The Thunder have now lost 3 of their last 4 games at home, and this evening's loss came at the end of a black and white colored rainbow that left the hands of clutch king Joe Johnson as time expired. Johnson's long 2-pointer, which fell through the net as the clock ran out, gave the Nets only their 11th win of what has been a disastrous season.
The Thunder once again left a mystifying game on the court, as they looked in control for 3/4 of the affair only to fall apart in the final quarter. Just as in the loss to the Trail Blazers two nights before, the Thunder had a 16 point lead, only to see it quickly evaporate and find themselves trailing in the final moments. On this night, it was Deron Williams who made 6-9 3-pointers to get his team back in the game, and Johnson put the nail in the coffin.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds, but also had 5 turnovers. Durant was followed by Perry Jones III, who finished with 11 points, including 3-5 from 3-point range. The Nets were led by Deron Williams, who finished with a game-high 29. Joe Johnson struggled from the floor, shooting only 1-6 from 3-point range,but hit the game winner to send the Thunder faithful into silent shock.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
First, the caveats.
- Every team in the NBA loses to teams that they should not.
It happens. It always happens. It happens to everyone.
Now that that's out of the way, it is necessary to address the obvious. The Thunder for the 2nd time in a row and 3rd time in 4 home games came up woefully short in the 4th quarter. The 4th quarter has been where Durant and the gang have defined themselves over the past 3 seasons, but as of late it has been their undoing. Against the suddenly dangerous Raptors, OKC managed only 14 points in the end. Against the Blazers, they got 16 points, and tonight, 16 as well. What is alarming is that with regards at least to the Blazers and Nets, those are statistically two of the worst defensive teams in the league, yet OKC went for agonizingly long stretches late in the game where they could not manage a single field goal.
What is going on? Is it only to do with the absence of Russell Westbrook? What do the Thunder need to do to break the pain?
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
What makes these past 2 losses so perplexing is how radically different the ends of the games looked from their beginnings. In each of the two first halves, the Thunder were playing quintessential basketball. They were aggressive and smart on defense, challenged open shooters, denied passing lanes, and got easy shots in transition. Everything flowed with an edge of precision and merciless efficiency and we could only smile as we watched the Thunder maintain their style of play even in the absence of Westbrook.
This is what we wrote in this space after the Thunder lost to the Blazers:
What defenses do when they have to shut down Durant is they start guarding him 30 feet from the rim and dare anybody else to try and take advantage of the remaining matchups.
Against the Blazers, Durant was running roughshod through their defense, getting inside the arc and to the rim with ease, finishing with 22 points in the 1st half on 11-17 shooting. However, in the 4th quarter when the Blazers staged their comeback, they took a page out of the Grizzlies' playbook and started locking up Durant far outside of the arc. Nic Batum was the primary defender, and he's a great candidate because he is long and lanky and he played KD very physically, denying the ball and forcing it out of Durant's hands. The result was twofold - Durant missed all 5 of his shots in the 4th, and the only guy left who could create a shot was Reggie Jackson.
This Durant weakness is a problem, especially since Westbrook is out for a while. Scott Brooks must get on a better page with Durant about how he is going to disengage from the perimeter defense when they use this tactic, because they're going to keep seeing it until the strategy is broken.
Guess what? We saw it again. This time we saw it against an inferior defense with less athletic players and it didn't matter at all. In Portland, Durant had zero baskets and 1 point. In tonight's 4th quarter, Durant had 4 points on 2-3 shooting and had as many turnovers as made baskets. On the Thunder's final offensive play, Durant dribbled right into a trap and it was only by good fortune that his tipped pass found Serge Ibaka close enough to the rim to finish the play and tie the game.
It might seem silly that the NBA's best offensive weapon could be so sufficiently wrapped up by what is essentially a triangle-2 defense, but it is sillier still that the Thunder and Scott Brooks cannot seem to do anything about it.
Durant can do only so much, and forcing fadeaway jumpers with two men in his face is not a solution. The burden is on Scott Brooks, Durant, and Reggie Jackson to figure out ways to get Durant in position to score in the 4th quarter. To be sure, Brooks is the man that has to put the plan in place, but it is also time to start holding Jackson responsible for what happens when the offense breaks down. This is what it means to be a point guard in the NBA. In the past, Jackson commented that he believes himself a starter. I agree with him. However, being a starting PG means that you then bear the responsibilities of the offense.
This is a burden that Westbrook has shouldered for years now, often to the echoing criticism from every rafter imaginable. Westbrook responded by getting better every year he has played. Now Jackson faces a similar pressure. He's leading a championship-contending team, he's got the best offensive weapon as a running mate, and now he has to figure out how to set up his offense so that Durant can actually receive the ball closer than 30 feet from the rim. If Durant needs a screen, it is Jackson's job to get him a screen from somewhere. Anywhere. If Durant needs to get some free throws to find his shot, it is Jackson's responsibility to get Durant moving toward the rim without the ball and then deliver it to him so that he can draw fouls. This is the life of the starting PG. Now is the time to learn.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Kevin Durant's 3 shot 4th quarter is something considerable, especially since we had just seen him falter in the same way vs the Blazers. However, also just as we saw vs Portland, Serge Ibaka too was not able to generate nearly enough offense to help his team out. Ibaka had only 1 shot in the 4th - the one that tied the game.
Overall, Ibaka shot the ball only 9 times, making 5 of them. He had 2 shots in the entire 2nd half. This is problematic in the same way that Durant's 13 attempts in the game is problematic. These are the team's 2 most important offensive players, and they combined for only 22 shot attempts against a bad defensive team. This is the primary reason that the Thunder managed only 34 points after the break.
There are two other factors worth considering:
1) The Thunder at one point had Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Kendrick Perkins on the court with Jeremy Lamb and Serge Ibaka. I have to ask - where exactly did Brooks expect the offense to come from? In that lineup, the de facto ball handler is Lamb, not Fisher. Lamb and Ibaka are no offensive slouches, but they were essentially playing 2 on 5 trying to score.
To their credit, this lineup (Adams eventually replaced Perkins) nearly held the Nets even in the 3rd quarter, a remarkable feat. The Thunder should have gone into the 4th up by 16 points. But then...
2) Paul Pierce (remember that guy?) hit a tough 16 footer with a second remaining. Lamb then made a foolish pass to midcourt, and Williams intercepted it and in less than a second flung up a prayer that somehow dropped. 5 points in literally 1 second of play. The Thunder of course went on to lose by 2.
Interestingly, Lamb made a similar error in the win over the Rockets, when he carelessly lost his dribble at the end of the 3rd and Aaron Brooks scooped it up and hit a shot from mid-court at the buzzer. The difference though was that OKC was still up by 20. In this game, they saw their 16 point lead dwindle to 11, setting the stage for their final collapse.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder have now dropped 2 in a row and are heading to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves, a team that can score with the best. They've already beaten the Thunder once, convincingly. At 16-16, the Wolves are going to be in contention for a low playoff seed all season long and they are going to look at how these two teams have consecutively beaten Durant and the Thunder and they are going to replicate it with the likes of Corey Brewer, a guy who has had some success against Durant in the past.
It is not time to panic in OKC, because as we have written, the first halves of these past 3 games did actually happen. OKC was on their way to routs before losing their way. The challenge now is to play in the 4th quarter the way they are playing in the 2nd quarter, utilizing the fullness of the team's athleticism and aggression to break the other team down.
Plato might have once written the phrase, "Necessity is the mother of all invention." Right now, the Thunder need to invent a better 4th quarter experience. The onus is now on Brooks, Durant, and Jackson to create an end sequence that cannot be undone by Love.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 24 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Jeremy Lamb, 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, +14
Thunder Blunder: Reggie Jackson, 9 points on 4-13 shooting, 4 turnovers
Thunder Plunderer: Deron Williams, 29 points, 6-9 from 3-point range
Next game: @ Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014