Last night was another great night to be a Thunder fan. Russell Westbrook found his offense again, and what's shaping up to be "the big four" accounted for 94 of the Thunder's 119 points. The game was firmly in their grasp most of the time, and every Warriors run was squashed by another run of the Thunder's own.
Still, the question remains. How did the Warriors managed to bring a 22 point blowout to within 7 in the final minutes? The run gave the Warriors a few possessions where they had a very realistic shot at victory, which is pretty worrying when you consider how well the Thunder had shut them down earlier in the game.
It all started with Kevin Martin. On three straight possessions, Jarrett Jack used Martin's lack of quickness to knock down three virtually uncontested jumpers, cutting into the Thunder's lead. Jack would later get off another uncontested shot, and Lee got an open layup after Landry had drawn a double team on one side of the lane. On the other end, the Thunder had three of their four scorers riding the pine, with Kevin Martin being their lone representative on the floor. He was forced into a couple of tough shots, and nobody else was really able to step up. With 9:14 left and the Warriors down by only 13, Scott Brooks called timeout.
Ibaka was back in. Immediately, Kevin Martin hit a gamey three from the corner, pushing the lead to 16 and apparently putting the game away. However, Curry immediately responded with an open three as the Thunder looked to protect the paint. Sefolosha missed a wide open three, and Brooks had enough. Durant and Westbrook re-entered the game, looking to put it away as quickly as possible.
But the game still wasn't over. David Lee drove into the lane for an And 1. Kevin Martin made a sloppy pass on the other end, and the Warriors responded with a fast break score, again from David Lee. The lead was down to 8, with only 5:59 to go. Again, Kevin Martin missed a jumper, and if it wasn't for an impressive "pass" by Collison to Ibaka, the possession would have been wasted. The Warriors would get within 7 a few minutes later via a Landry offensive board and Curry three, but the Thunder had so many offensive options on the floor that they were basically able to score their way to victory.
The point was pretty much telegraphed in my recap of the early minutes of the fourth, but I'll say it here for good measure. Kevin Martin nearly single-handedly destroyed the Thunder's lead. How much blame does he deserve? Well, the defensive errors were all on him, obviously. And the one turnover he had was all on him, too. But offensively, his overall game was superb, and despite a meh performance on that end, he had to force a few shots because nobody else was really willing to help him.
Again, we find ourselves in the neverending James Harden debate. Could Harden have stemmed the tide here? Would he have allowed Jarrett Jack to shoot four uncontested isolation jumpers? Might his passing ability have gotten open opportunities for other players? It's all very possible. Perhaps Harden is the guy we need in these types of situations, while Martin works better when he's with other scorers.
The point is, yes, Kevin Martin is a very flawed player in certain areas, and when he's not scoring, he can hurt the team. But there were four other guys on the floor who were contributing almost as poorly. Eric Maynor missed a three and a really difficult layup. Sefolosha missed a wide open three. Nick Collison took one shot for the entire game, and Hasheem Thabeet is only useful when he's standing wide open in the lane. Both Collison and Thabeet were getting owned in the paint, as evidenced by their combined four rebounds and -16 +/- ratio. Sure, Martin was the main catalyst, but when the Warriors go on a 18-4 run, there's a myriad of reasons for it.
The Harden trade is over, so I'm not going to waste more time on the neverending debate. What's more important is how we use Kevin Martin when the bench is on the floor. The general train of thought has been to keep him in with Sefolosha and to put him on the other team's worst scorer. Sometimes this works, but when the other team has three guys who love to run iso plays, it doesn't work, and results in easily lost points. There's no real solution to this problem other than going to a zone, which I don't think the Thunder are going to do. In other words, it's a flaw we're probably going to have to accept.
But offensively, there's a lot we can do differently. Sure, there are some plays where Martin looks the part and scores well. Otherwise, the Thunder need to work to get other guys more offensively involved. Have Maynor work on a two man game with Collison, rather than forcing him to go alone. Work on post passing, so Thabeet and Collison can find things down low. Keep Sefolosha on the weak side, so a three or cut from him is always relevant. Or the Thunder could consider throwing out another of the big three to shore up the bench, rather than Martin.
The last point is one that seems especially pertinent. Kevin Martin isn't James Harden, and he's not totally effective at being the number one option on the floor. Perhaps it's better to let him run with the starters, while you leave an effective passer out on the floor with the bench, like Durant or Westbrook. We don't necessarily have to change the starting lineup or alter minutes. All you have to do is shuffle rotations around.
Why does it matter? The Thunder won, right? Well, it matters because the Thunder need to have an effective bench if they're going to be a championship-level team. Remember last year's Lakers? Great starting lineup, but a trash bench. The Thunder took advantage and beat them in 5 games. Sure, the Thunder can finish the season with a great record and be a legitimate playoff team with the way their playing. But unless they find a way to be consistently effective and close out inferior teams, they won't be able to make it to the top. I'm not saying that they won't, but there's clear room for improvement with the way things are going right now.
Anyway, the rest of the game was nearly flawless for the Thunder. The Warriors kept clogging one side of the court with players, got frustrated with double-teams, and hardly ever had the sense to pass it to the weak side. Both teams performed well offensively, but the Thunder were able to stand out with their superior offensive talent and great passing. Durant was able to fill the role of facilitator and passer tonight, finally achieving his first career triple-double and the first non-Westbrook triple double in Thunder history. He was also effective at guarding Harrison Barnes, who finished with only 12 tonight.
Meanwhile, Westbrook had a fantastic game as well. Curry finished with 22, but most of his points came when Westbrook was off the floor or during garbage time. Westbrook was able to take advantage of the Warriors' overall poor passing ability for 5 amazing steals, and he looked excellent on the break. Ibaka had his usual schtick of great mid-range shooting and nice offensive boards. But, heck, even Kendrick Perkins looked effective tonight, clogging the lane and keeping the Warriors from being effective early on. I would have rather seen him than Collison in the final minutes.
Moving forward, the Thunder will take their first two day break early this week, face off with the Clippers in a pre-Thanksgiving showdown on Wednesday, and go on their first two game road trip of the year on Friday and Saturday, visiting Boston and Philadelphia respectively. In other words, its' easily their most challenging week of the season so far, and how they finish will give us a good indication as to how steadfast this Thunder team really is.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, Triple-Double
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 30 Points, 7 Assists, 5 Steals, Solid D
Thunder Blunder: Nick Collison's Offense, Kevin Martin's Defense
Thunder Plunderer: David Lee, 19 Points, 10 Rebounds
Next Game: Versus the Los Angeles Clippers, Wednesday, November 21st, 6:30 PM Central Standard Time.
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