I know this is two days late, but I figured I'd post it for posterity's sake.
If you just watched this game in the arena with no stats or box scores to help you, it'd be pretty hard to judge exactly what was going on with the Thunder. And that's the perspective I came from when I left the arena Wednesday night. All I could think of was how Russell Westbrook had blown the game. He seemed to miss shots left and right, finishing the first half with only 2 points. Unknown to me and the rest of the crowd without smartphones, he had 8 assists during that time. As the game progressed into the second half, I could see that his scoring had clearly improved, but all of that was seemingly done away with after what I perceived to be a disastrous shooting performance at the end of the fourth.
However, after looking at Westbrook's numbers objectively, it's clear that his game was a lot more than his shooting ability. He kept Mike Conley in check offensively, and his assist numbers continue to to rise. It's just that due to his heavy minutes and willingness to dominate the ball, he has visibly bad stretches that everyone is going to notice. Which is why he takes a fair amount of criticism. In the end, I really wish that Brooks would be more willing to reel him in and let him rest on the bench, rather than watching him flounder and hope he plays through it.
What really lost the Thunder this game? Well, that's very simple: Perimeter defense. And I'm not just talking about three pointers, I'm talking about the mid-range as well. The Thunder became so focused on trapping and protecting the paint that they'd often leave a guy wide open on the wrong side of the floor. This consistently puzzled me, because the Grizzlies are the league's best team when it comes to protecting the ball. Why try to exploit something that's not there to exploit? There's a line between playing your game and showing your hand, and I think the Thunder firmly crossed it Wednesday night.
There's other factors in the loss, too. The Thunder's offense was about par for the course overall, and they actually finished with a very high percentage of shots made. But, it could have been better. Kevin Martin had some of the most useless minutes on the floor, taking 4 shots and doing virtually nothing else in 32 minutes of action. I'll be clear in saying that if I knew Martin was only going to take 4 shots tonight, I would have rather had DeAndre Liggins on the floor, because he can at least frustrate his man defensively. And he did have the worst plus minus of anybody on the team in -13. However, the Thunder smartly didn't assign him to guard Rudy Gay, and he wasn't being exploited consistently (like at the end of the Bulls game), so he wasn't totally atrocious. As I mentioned above, everybody was missing their perimeter assignments, not just him, so I'm not going to rail on the guy for contributing nothing. If nobody gives Kevin Martin the ball in the right spots, he's just not going to score. And there will be nights like that. You take the good with the bad.
You could also look to fatigue. Kevin Durant played 44 minutes, which is more than he usually plays. By the time the Thunder were trying to mount a comeback in crunch time, he had essentially carried the team through the third, and hadn't taken a break since the mid-second quarter. Defensively, he had spent the whole game trying to guard Rudy Gay, who spends quite a bit of time dominating the ball. So when he committed a few simple errors at the end of an otherwise great fourth quarter, it was no surprise. We need this guy as a closer, so give him some rest!
And, of course, Memphis had a duo of great bigs who will destroy the Thunder defense every time. Gasol and Randolph have shooting range, and the Thunder's bigs really aren't quick enough to defend against them. Perk and Ibaka did a good job of trying to hurt them with scores of their own, but in the end, they were outscored 34-25.
Is Kendrick Perkins a problem? Well, it's hard to say. He's never going to be fast enough to guard most players on the perimeter, but he is a terrific post defender and screen setter. But, in order to be effective on a night like this, the man needs to be a better rebounder. There's absolutely no excuse for him averaging half the number of boards that Durant does. None. This could be partially because the Thunder tend to use him exclusively coming off of the roll for post dumps, but still, he should be able to get more than he does. Of course, if he had a consistent jumper, I'd be willing to forgive him, but I don't ever see him getting it to an Ibaka level.
To close, I'd just like to say that Memphis is a team that's fantastic at holding its' lead. They've got a myriad of options on offense to pass to, they control the ball extremely well, and all of their main scorers are experienced guys who know how to get the job done. As a result, it's really, really hard to mount a comeback against this team once they've established a solid lead. There's just not that many holes to exploit. If the Thunder are to be successful against them in the future, they're going to have to establish better rotations, alter their gameplan a bit, and score more consistently.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Martin
Thunder Plunderer: Rudy Gay
Next Game: At the New Orleans Hornets, Friday, November 16th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.