The Thunder were extremely frustrated last night, and they almost lost to a team that shouldn't have been able to beat anyone.
Look, I can understand that bad teams have good nights. The Magic beat the Pacers back in January. But this wasn't a case of some rag-tag guys putting together an All-Star performance. This was a case of the Thunder playing on the Magic's level, and nearly losing their cool.
Where's my evidence? Well, on the Magic's side, it was apparent that they couldn't hit a perimeter shot to save their life. Aside from a miraculous stretch in the early third quarter, they just couldn't seem to hit the wide-open shots they were getting. By the end of the game, the Magic were driving the ball about 90% of the time, and it took the Thunder until the last possible second to finally realize that they could just pack everyone in the paint and let the Magic suffer.
On the Thunder's side, it was like they were playing on a bed of hot coals. They ran to their spots, but their over-eagerness to push this game out of reach led them to totally forget how to play offense. I can't tell you how many times I saw Westbrook just isoing himself and throwing up a bad jumper, or Durant shooting on a way too predictable pick and roll. Blaming guys who shot so well on a night where other players (Sefolosha) didn't do so well might seem silly, but they could have shot so much better if they had just played a little bit smarter.
Let me put it this way. The only accredited players on the Magic were Jameer Nelson, Beno Udrih, and, during the early part of the game, Aaron Afflalo. The rest of the team is a combination of first or second year players, some of them drafted deeply. Why in the world would you try to continue to force the ball outside? The Thunder shot an astoundingly bad 5-31 from three. There's a point where you have to play your game, but there's also good ways of tailoring your offense to your opponent. You could point to the lowish percentages of Ibaka and Perkins, but I'd also point out that they took their share of jumpers and were often looked to as a last resort, forced to shoot when the shot clock expired.
When the Thunder's offense was most successful, they worked from the inside-out. Just look at the 10 point in two minute stretch they had in the mid-second quarter. The Thunder get out in transition, the Magic anticipate a drive, bam, Kevin Martin corner three. Give it to Ibaka in the post, bam, two easy points. Repeat. Let Durant draw pressure, bam, another pass to K-Mart for the open three. It's that simple. Yet, the Thunder literally had to stave themselves off at the line in order to win this game.
Still not convinced the Thunder are playing frustrated? Look at their body language during the game. It seems like everybody is on the verge of losing their cool, even KD. At the end of the second quarter, Durant threw the ball across the court, obviously not pleased with how things were going. Even more telling are the free throw numbers. A team that shoots 82% from the line taking such a sudden dip, especially with the game hanging in the balance, has to be more than random chance.
At the end of the day, the Thunder were playing against one of the worst teams in the NBA. And they were missing 3 of their 4 best players. If they think a fourth quarter rebuke of a one-dimensional offense is going to get them far in the playoffs, then they're wrong.
It's time to play smart.
What is playing smart?
1. Adjust your gameplan to your opponents weaknesses. Sub players accordingly. Stubbornly forcing your type of game doesn't work all of the time.
2. Let Durant run easy plays for himself at the top of the key and the block. (See the linked articles for more info.) Picks aren't even necessary, and sometimes lead to unnecessary trouble.
3. You can't play Fisher, Martin, and Jackson side-by-side. One of them has to be the odd man out. (Fisher.)
4. Don't play Durant the entire second half.
5. Let the second-team offense flow through Reggie Jackson, not Kevin Martin.
6. Speaking of Kevin Martin, let him work more two-man action with Nick Collison.
7. When you go small, run the floor!
8. Lock down the paint defensively. If you're going to pressure needlessly and give up open shots, the least you could do is have a good paint help defense. It needs to be our calling card.
The list could go on. But there's so many adjustments to be made to this team, and so, so little time. If things don't start clicking soon, this could be the team that never was.