The Thunder dropped a close game last night to the Lakers in Game 3, losing 99-96. As the saying goes, the more desperate team usually wins, and that certainly could describe the Lakers' looking into a 3-0 series abyss. The Lakers ground it out, manufactured the points they needed, and are a game away from turning this series on its head.
In the midst of the loss though, I can't help but replay the Thunder's most important sequence during the final few seconds. The Lakers had fought their way to the lead, but OKC had the ball and they had a player in Kevin Durant who could take advantage of the referees' noisy whistles. Here was the play:
If you've been watching the Thunder for any length of time, you know what is supposed to happen here. James Harden is to inbound the ball to Russell Westbrook and then run a pin-down screen on Durant's man, Metta World Peace. The initial screen is followed up by a second Kendrick Perkins screen, which allows Durant to curl off the screen into the top of the key for an easy jumper.
The Lakers however are in full Durant-denial mode here and force him high and wide from his desired path. The result is that Durant dishes to Serge Ibaka who has to shoot a fade-away jumper that misses, and the Lakers secure the rebound. Grantland's NBA expert Sebastian Pruiti praised MWP's defense on the play, noting how KD's trajectory was altered.
In the end, the Lakers got the job done on this play. Even so, here are the litany of things that are splinters in my mind today:
- Both Andrew Bynum and MWP had Durant sealed off pretty well from receiving the path he wanted, but the real reason why Durant's path was thrown off so badly is because MWP ran through Perkins' screen, clutched Perkins and Durant, and continued to move with them as Durant tried to pull his arm free. MWP's blatant hold was done right in front of the referee, and yet there was no foul called for the contact or the hold MWP committed on either Durant or Perkins. It is 50-50 odds whether a ref will call this kind of play in most situations because it is off the ball, but since the refs had clearly established off the ball contact on the other end of the court, I couldn't believe that MWP's contact was allowed.
In fact, this was the 2nd game in a row where MWP ran straight through a screen, took out two guys, and no foul was called. Remember this play?
MPW literally clotheslined Nick Collison and then knocked over Harden, which caused the turnover. I get that there's going to be contact during games, but this is two games in a row where MWP has simply run over players right out in open space and nothing has been called against him. Why should he let up on his over-aggressive physical play if the refs aren't going to call it, anyway?
To top off the ball denial play, Bynum then actually gives Durant a full on "I just got drafted in the NBA, let me man-hug the Commissioner" embrace:
Yes Bynum lets go quickly, but even then, you can't even do something like this in the NFL. Great defense? Well, I guess so.
- Despite the ball denial, Durant eventually receives the pass and has MWP in open space. Durant has proven that MWP cannot guard him in open space, and quickly sheds him with a cross-over. Now we get to the heart of the Thunder pain. Durant has a clear path to the lane, with Pau Gasol blocking his way. Now, what is the right play here?
Durant has 3 options: 1) pull up for the 18 footer, a guaranteed open look for a makable shot; 2) drive the ball straight at Gasol to try and draw the foul but risk the charge; or 3) dish the ball to Ibaka, who looks like he's ready to cut hard to the rim. Durant's choice isn't a bad one.
- Unfortunately, Ibaka plays the situation way too passively, and instead of cutting hard to the rim, drifts for the baseline jumper. I think this is one of the main things that has hurt the Thunder offense in the past two games - Durant is passing up open jumpers to set up Ibaka, but Ibaka is just taking a different jumper. If that's what he's going to do, better then to just have Durant take his own jumper. In the previous Dallas series, Ibaka took the ball strong to the rim at the end of Game 1, which earned him two 3-point plays and helped the Thunder win. Yet all series long, Ibaka has been looking for the jumper instead of attacking the rim against the slower Gasol and Bynum.
- By my unofficial count, Ibaka is shooting 3-9 for the series from that baseline area, including two 3-point attempts. I know that Ibaka has great touch on his jumper, but I really do not understand this offensive wrinkle where Durant keeps setting him up for that shot attempt. He's not burning the nets down on those shots, and he has now attempted almost as many 3-pointers in this series alone (2) as he had during the entire regular season (3). I think there is an important reason for that, and it isn't because he can't knock them down. Collison can knock them down too, but OKC doesn't need another jump shooting tall guy. They need Ibaka to be down on the blocks grabbing offensive rebounds the way he did against Dallas. Whatever they might gain with his random jumpshot is a net loss for not having him at the rim challenging Bynum and Gasol.
Ibaka makes the terrible decision by shooting a fadeaway 18 footer, a shot that I do believe I have never seen him even attempt before, instead of tossing the ball to Westbrook, who is sitting in the middle of the lane unguarded.
- Lastly, Durant secured the offensive rebound. Was MWP's strip clean? Darnell Mayberry scoffs at the notion and he's probably right, given the angle that MWP knocked the ball free. It was such a bang-bang play though that I can't get too bent out of shape over it. The earlier holds by MWP and Bynum were much more blatant, egregious, and easy to call.