This time last year the Thunder was rolling through the first round against the Mavs as the number two-seeded team in the West. Two weeks ago the Thunder was the number one seed in the Western Conference and had just rolled the Rockets in the first game of the playoffs. It seemed that the Thunder were on the path to the NBA finals yet again. Now the Thunder is up 3-2 against the Rockets with the series going back to Houston. Does the Thunder have reason to panic?
Since game two the Thunder have lost their second best player and possibly the best player at his position in the league in Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have struggled to score and looked awful at certain points in both games 4 and 5. It got so bad that even Royce White, the Rockets rookie forward that hasn't played a single game all year took shots at Kevin Durant on twitter.
Back to the original question, the Thunder doesn't need to panic. They only have to win one more game against a team that they are better than even without Russell Westbrook. No team has ever come back from 3-0 to win a series. That isn't to say that the Rockets couldn't do it, because this would be the perfect situation with the Thunder missing Russell. The Thunder does have reason to worry however because of the last two games, they have looked anything but the number one seed.
The first issue: Scott Brooks. He has majorly held the Thunder back the past two games. Zorgon wrote an article about this yesterday pointing out how Brooks hurts the Thunder. His hack-a-Asik (when you say it fast it sounds like one foreign word) was a major failure. It was a big mistake for multiple reasons. First he showed no trust in his team's defense. When he chose to continually foul Asik he was sending the message to his team that he didn't believe that they could stop Houston. Granted, they were having a difficult time guarding them, but there are probably other ways to try to stop the Rockets. The second reason it was stupid was because the ‘hack-a-Shaq" strategy very rarely works. The only time it would statistically make sense to intentionally foul someone with that much time left would be if they shot worse than 45%. Other than that you are just conceding points. Asik shoots 56%. If Brooks had done his homework he would know that fouling him doesn't make any sense statistically. The last reason the hack-a-Asik wasn't smart was because it slowed the game down and made it choppy. It forced the Thunder to do what they struggle with most especially without Westbrook and that is play in the half court. The Thunder didn't have any chance to run, which is their favorite way to score, since they were fouling.
Scott Brooks made some major mistakes last night other than fouling Omer Asik and one of those was giving Kendrick Perkins so many minutes. In games 4 and 5 Kendrick Perkins has scored 2 points with a -30 plus/minus. I know I may sound like a major Nick Collison homer (I definitely am) but the man needs more minutes. I wrote an article last week about this very thing. But Nick only played 6 minutes in game 5 and went 3-3 and grabbed 2 boards. Kendrick Perkins really doesn't have any reason to be in the game with Houston playing mostly 4 guard sets. And Nick and Serge haven't shown any reason that they can't guard Asik just as well.
One of the other issues the Thunder has is at guard. Kevin Martin has played atrociously this series, especially game 5 when he shot 1-10. Reggie Jackson is beginning to shoulder a bigger load and shoot the ball more, and hasn't done too poorly filling in for Westbrook. Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin on the other hand haven't been very good. And because Brooks didn't develop his bench enough during the regular season (Jeremy Lamb) the Thunder are forced to play DeAndre Liggins. Liggins isn't playing poorly, it would just be nice to have someone else that could make some more plays.
Lastly, the Thunder's half court offense has been very stagnant at times without Westbrook. Heck the offense was stagnant at times with Westbrook. If Kevin has the ball it is all standing and watching, and if he doesn't he often is just standing out on the perimeter. The Thunder struggle to have anyone other than Durant and sometimes Reggie Jackson to make plays. The Rockets have also gotten away with letting James Harden guard Serge Ibaka the last couple games. Serge has to take advantage of this matchup as it is helping the Rockets matchup with everyone else.
The fact of the matter still is that the Thunder should beat the Rockets even without Harden. It took Chandler Parsons to nearly have a triple double and Serge Ibaka to miss a point blank layup in game 4 for the Rockets to win. And it took James Harden to go 7-7 from 3 to pull out a win for the Rockets in game 5. Ultimately the Thunder are expected and most likely will win one of the next games, but could the issues that have haunted them in games 4 and 5 haunt them the rest of their playoffs?
Maybe the Thunder's struggles in games 4 and 5 will help Thunder fans see just how important Russell Westbrook is to the Thunder. Because the Thunder might be able to beat the Rockets without Westbrook but are they going to be able to beat someone like Memphis. The Grizzlies play some pretty unbelievable half-court defense and it would be hard to imagine the Thunder being able to score consistently against the Grizzlies.
The Thunder's season is not over by any means. They still have a lot to play for and still have a good chance to advance. Without Westbrook their room for error is much smaller. If they can eliminate some of the mistakes they are making now then they will be in much better shape. So, no the Thunder don't need to panic, at least not yet.