(Chris Hanneke will be in press row for the Thunder's games in L.A. and bringing WTLC readers the sights and sounds, not only of the game itself, but of the coaches and players before and after for a complete and unmatched game time experience.)
A little over an hour before tipoff of Friday night's Game 3 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Scott Brooks offered the key to his team winning. Having coached the team for the past six seasons, Brooks was already well aware of how his team operates.
That is, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook run the show. But as seen in the Memphis series, that doesn't always work out well for the Thunder, as the two can sometimes become too tunnel-visioned and fail to incorporate the rest of the team.
Before the game, Brooks said:
"There's a difference between attacking and finding others...We need [Westbrook and Durant] to use their abilities to get shots for others. We need everybody to chip in."
That's really the key for the Thunder offense. You always want Westbrook or Durant in control - and it certainly helps when they're both feeling it in the way they have been since Game 5 of the Memphis series - but you want them using the attention they draw from a defense to get the rest of the guys easy shots, as well. Team basketball, following the stars' lead, and playing as a cohesive unit.
Shortly after Brooks left the podium, Kevin Durant sat silently at his locker. Durant was there, as he's been shown so many times before games, headphones on, completely in his own element.
To his right sat Russell Westbrook, also with his own headphones in, browsing for the next track.
And so went the rest of the locker room, quietly focused, following the lead of its stars.
It was a sort of silent peace from a team that seemed fully aware of the task at hand. Win at least one of the next two, and you've got your homecourt advantage back and the series is in your favor. Win both and the series is all but over.
It left little stress for the Thunder, as a bad game tonight meant they could could simply bounce back on Sunday. No big deal.
There was something about that sense of calm, though, that seemed to sum up the Thunder as a team on Friday night. The two stars were relaxed and in their zone, so everyone else just followed their lead.
That sense of calm has surrounded this team since the blowout loss in Game 1. The fun storyline is to credit Tuesday's MVP speech, but Durant won't have any of that.
"Us losing Game 1 left a sour taste in our mouth," Durant said after Game 3, "Even if I wouldn't have had that long speech, we still would have came out with more focus and energy."
Westbrook is quicker to point out what that speech meant to the team.
"Obviously, Kevin's speech was one of the best of all-time. Definitely brought us closer as a unit," he said after Game 3. "We wanted to come out and play better. I think we've been doing that since then."
Whether it was the blowout, the speech, or a combination of both - probably that one - the Thunder stayed together to take a huge 2-1 series lead. Whether it was weathering a 63-point first half from the Clippers, back-to-back questionable 3-point foul calls at the end of the third, a bloody and angry Blake Griffin, no matter the challenge, the Thunder responded.
"You grow from experience," Durant said. "Having been there before, it's helped us out."
That experience may ultimately what decided the game, and may end up deciding the series. But there were several other keys to victory that led to the Thunder seemingly coming together in Game 3 and overwhelming the Clippers.
Durant on Adams' growth:
"Steven is growing every single game. He's learning from one of the best defensive centers in Perk and Nick. He's just following their lead and coming out and playing extremely hard." - Kevin Durant.
That's the type of instinctual play that a good defender can make. They sense the penetration, don't cheat too early, and lunge for the ball when the time is right. Durant mentions Perk and Collison as primary teachers, but if Adams can incorporate these Ibaka-type blocks into his Perk/Collison on-ball defense and ridiculous natural strength, his potential is limitless.
Adams continues to be a pest to the Clippers, and his physical, obstructive nature is exactly the type of attitude that can disrupt the emotionally-fragile Clippers. But when you add to that the fact that Adams is actually making fantastic basketball plays, his value in this series becomes undeniable. And it's a credit to the oft-maligned Scott Brooks for recognizing it and giving the 20-year old rookie big-time minutes in these crucial games.
On defending Adams, his counterpart Blake Griffin said:
"Just be physical, keep him away from the basket... Keep him off the offensive glass." Blake Griffin
You can see in the video at the bottom of this post just how much it pains Griffin to give the guy any credit. Again, this is a 20-year old going up against the league's 3rd-most valuable player. And he's doing a pretty good job!
Adams finished with nine rebounds in 17 minutes, four of which came on the offensive end. A couple of those offensive boards are just from lazy box outs by the Clippers, but it's a testament to Adams hustle and awareness that he can sense the defense being lax, and take advantage of it.
A lot of what Adams does well is just putting himself in the right place at the right time. For a rookie, that's a tremendous sign, because those are the things that players naturally develop over time. If Adams is doing it this effectively already, there's a chance he can be a thorn in Griffin's side for many years to come.
Something tells me Griffin would never admit that, though.
Brooks on Butler:
"A guy that has been there before, a guy that knows how to play, makes big shots... When Caron was open, we found him on time, on target immediately." -Scott Brooks
"Caron was doing a great job of spacing. Serge set some good picks for them. He did what he's been doing for a while, knocking down those big shots." - Kevin Durant
Plenty of people (ahem, me) have been critical of Butler's minutes/overall presence on the team. However it is becoming more and more evident why he has been given such a major role on this team. Those corner threes in the fourth quarter are exactly what the Thunder have needed in big moments all year. Yes, Westbrook hit a big shot. Yes, Durant hit the dagger. But it was the 3-point shooting of Butler, when the Clippers were overloading on Russ and KD, and when the Thunder needed points to keep pace, that really carried the Thunder to a place where they could then turn to their two stars.
It's pretty obvious how much Durant trusts and respects Butler. The "veteran" tag can be annoying at times, but you have to wonder how KD would feel passing to a young guy like Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb in a situation like that, as opposed to being in a place where the offense was seemingly running plays for Butler in key fourth-quarter moments of a playoff game.
That's what Butler was brought in for, to be that reliable presence, and he delivered.
On defending Butler:
"They were dragging us a lot off the pick-and-rolls, which strung us out. Left Caron open, who made a couple of big shots." -Doc Rivers
You see in the videos how much space there is for Butler. Part of that comes from Brooks' brilliant decision to go small for the fourth quarter, which allowed the entire Thunder offense the space they needed to find driving lanes and get easy baskets. It also meant the Clippers defense had more weapons to account for, and the Thunder ball-handlers did an excellent job making the right passes and taking advantage of the space and Clippers aggression.
That gets back to that whole "trusting in each other" thing that seemingly every Thunder player preaches time after time.
It's such a nice change from the stagnant offense we saw so often in the Memphis series, with Westbrook and Durant basically just alternating taking tough, contested shots. Here is a designed set, with Durant and Westbrook acting as facilitators, working to get easy looks for their role players. It also incorporates Serge Ibaka playing a key role as a screener. It's just great basketball, it's great coaching, and it's everything that makes the Thunder such a scary contender. Speaking of Ibaka...
Brooks on Ibaka's growth:
"Serge has gotten better every year... A couple years ago, if you would have got two quick fouls, his game would have been dicey coming back in... That's a sign of growth with Serge Ibaka, that he continued to play through and not worry about foul situations." -Scott Brooks
Serge Ibaka's consistency is quickly becoming his defining characteristic. Durant has had bad games. Russ has had bad games. Thabo, Reggie, Butler, pretty much everyone has had their off nights. Serge hasn't.
Game 3 would have been a perfect chance for Serge to take a night off. He picked up two early fouls, and then a third not far into the second quarter, resulting in just nine first half minutes.
Ibaka never wavered, though, going 6-for-7 in the second half for 14 points. Even as he picked up a fifth foul in the fourth quarter, he stuck to his game, and Brooks trusted that Ibaka would be able to stay on the floor playing with 5 fouls. He read the soft spots, knocked down that elbow jumper that he makes look as easy as a layup, and he stayed tough on Griffin.
Griffin, between his physical play and ability to bait referees, is always going to create foul problems. So for Serge to stand his ground and defend smart was a huge part of the Thunder taking and maintaining their fourth quarter lead.
Griffin still gets his points, but not after working hard, and not at the cost of losing Ibaka because of a foul out. Job well done by Serge, allowing him to contribute at the other end as well.
On defending Ibaka:
"Serge made shots. Again, I think that's on our rotations and our defense. We have to do a better job getting to him." -Doc Rivers
The fact that Ibaka is so effective on both ends is another underrated aspect of his game. He's already an elite defender, and he already gets credit for his offense, but it's just how effective his offense is becoming that is under-appreciated.
Looking at the video, you see the progression of his offense. He's consistently available for the easy pick-and-pop dropoff pass. As the game goes along, and the defense begins to account for his extended range, he has more room to roll, both for a pass on the second-to-last shot, and for an offensive rebound like on the last shot.
Sure, many of his shots were largely uncontested, but in big moments like this, it still takes a whole lot of confidence to knock them down. Check the score during these shots. Almost all in close-game situations, when the team needed point.
When Ibaka can space the floor like that, it's once again another unfair weapon for a defense to account for. It leads a defender to keep a body on him at all times, and not only does that give space to guys like Russ and KD, it opens up the opportunity for plays like those Butler threes where he can screen other defenders as well.
Westbrook on his lower shot totals:
"I'll stay aggressive, but also try to find a way to get guys involved and get them open. I think Kevin, Caron, Thabo, they made some big shots. Make them make it easy for me." -Russell Westbrook
Look, we're all sort of in the same boat when it comes to Westbrook. We've always loved and appreciated him, regardless of the shot-selection from time to time. But you can sense from his response here that he kind of knows how much better he can be when he isn't taking 31 shots.
Again, it's not always the shot totals, it's the fact that he is looking for shots. In the past few games, as he's been hotter than maybe ever before, he hasn't been any less aggressive, he's just been smarter about how to channel that aggression.
Rather than penetrate to the left baseline and try a tough bank-shot jumper, he seems more willing to swing it back out to an open shooter whose defender has sagged off to help.
It's just about playing smarter and making the right decision, something Westbrook has always had the ability to do. But I don't know that he's ever done it this consistently, this effectively, for this long of a stretch. It's completely revitalized the Thunder offense and turned them back into a terrifying contender.
On defending Westbrook in the pick-and-roll:
"Pick-and-roll coverage, we have to do a better job of it. Overall we've been pretty good in defense throughout until tonight. We got blitzed." -Doc Rivers
The Thunder is going against a devastating pick-and-roll team, but it has been their ability to pick-and-roll themselves that has opened up the offense and made it virtually impossible for the Clippers to keep up. It starts with Westbrook making the right decisions, as he discussed, and he has been doing a tremendous job of it.
Rivers saw what everyone in the arena saw, that the Clippers basically had no answer for it. Westbrook was either A) Getting the first step and driving to the rim, B) seeing the second defender early or C) getting inside and dishing it out to the perimeter if the defense collapsed too hard.
All of those options are great, especially when you have an athlete like Westbrook who is athletic enough to make just about any play. If he can continue to use his head and combine the smarts with the athleticism, these double-double, triple-double games won't be uncommon.
"It's hard not to talk about him." - Scott Brooks
"As you guys know, when it's time to score, we get the ball to Kevin, he does what he does." - Russell Westbrook
At the end of the day, Kevin Durant is the Most Valuable Player, and it will almost always come down to him. It's not a smart shot, per se, except he's Kevin Durant and literally anywhere on the floor, given his height advantage, is at least a decent look.
So much of his success seems to come from being mentally locked in. Since Game 6 against Memphis, he's made the concerted effort to come out aggressive and get his shots. He's getting far more space against the Clippers defenders, and it's allowing him even more opportunity to get into a rhythm.
That rhythm becomes all the more important at the end of games, when a comfortable Durant knows he can turn around and bury a shot no matter the score.
That's what he did here, and as Westbrook said, the Thunder has been turning to Durant for as long as he's been around. The fact that he can still come through so effortlessly is something that shouldn't be taken for granted.
That's two straight brilliant performances from the Thunder. Particularly on offense, but also enough so on defense that they were able to lock in and get stops when necessary to protect their lead.
It's hard to see how the Clippers can keep up, because they're simply not good enough defensively to slow down the Thunder attack. It's going to be up to the Thunder to maintain that focus though. To trust in one other, stick together through the emotional outbursts that the Clippers are prone to, and find the right shots to close out games.
So far, so good.
Here are clips of Russ, KD, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin after the game.