Remember on Friday, after a gigantic road win against the Los Angeles Clippers two nights before, and a dominating rout of the New Orleans Pelicans that night, the Thunder needed one more win to clinch the No. 2 seed?
Well, it's Tuesday now, and after two games in between, the Thunder still need one more win to clinch the No. 2 seed after an embarrassing 101-89 loss to those same Pelicans.
(Technically, a Clippers loss Tuesday or Wednesday also gives OKC the No. 2 seed but, you know, building a narrative).
The problem is that there is only one game left for the Thunder to win.
The good news is that that game is at home on Wednesday against a pretty terrible Detroit Pistons team. The bad news is that, given the way the Thunder looked on Monday, it's hard to call anything a gimme.
The story was once again the Thunder allowing a relative scrub (albeit, a former Rookie of the Year) to log a career night against them. Tyreke Evans finished with 41 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and looked to get whatever he wanted. That's without any real discernible weapons to help him out, as the Pelicans top seven scorers were all out with injury, and Austin Rivers was ejected shortly into the second quarter.
It happened the same way it happened with Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, C.J. Watson, and the rest. The Thunder got too comfortable, failed to dictate the pace of the game, settled for too many threes and long jumpers, and looked generally unfocused on defense.
It's another bad loss in a second half that's had a few too many to be totally comfortable with. The good news, as it has been throughout all of this, is that the Thunder still has a great opportunity to finish with the second-best record in the entire league, in a year when their second-best player missed almost half of the team's games - including tonight's, as Westbrook once again sat for precautionary measures in the second night of a back-to-back.
It's obvious what the Thunder are at this point: A team that can play up to their competition just as they can play down to them, which should be somewhat reassuring heading into the playoffs give what stiff competition they will see there.
There's still one more game before they get there, though, and there's one thing the Thunder are not just yet... the No. 2 seed.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Ughhhhhhh. Sighhhhh. Blehhhhh. The usual emotions that go with losing a game that the Thunder should have won.
Again, it's nonsense to look at this as some sort of bigger picture that the Thunder isn't ready for elite competition in the playoffs. They have more than proven they can beat good teams in big games on any given night. The regular season is a test of consistency, though, and that's where the Thunder have struggled in this second half. Maybe it comes with being an elite team all these years now, where most of these guys have been in big time playoff situations and know what lies ahead and have simply looked beyond the task at hand on a few occasions.. Who can say for sure? It's just not worth it to overreact to a game like this.
It's more frustrating simply for the fact that KD and, presumably, the rest of the starters, will all play in Wednesday's finale against Detroit. Now, Denver could beat the Clippers tomorrow and all of these would be really meaningless because that, too, would lock up the No. 2 seed for the Thunder. But more than likely, that game will matter now, and the starters won't get that extra day of rest before the playoffs start.
Now, it's possible KD is a freak athlete that actually grows stronger with more minutes played and Wednesday's game will be a benefit to him, considering he has somewhat struggled with his shot in April. I'm more inclined to believe, however, that KD may actually be feeling some fatigue. Hopefully it's mostly mental, and the grind of a long regular season has him sort of bored and just kind of chucking up threes because he doesn't want to deal with getting beat up inside like he did all throughout his ridiculous stretches of brilliance this year. Save that stuff for the playoffs.
Anyone that has seen the Thunder play a few times this year knows the attention KD draws, and it has to take somewhat of a toll on him over the course of 81 games (one more to go!). For that reason, you sure would like him having close to a week off to rest everything and get his mind right for the playoffs.
That's the most frustrating part of this loss. But I'm sure a week from now we'll all forget about it when he is back dribbling through quadruple teams in the first round of the playoffs.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost?
Tyreke Evans. It's more than just a coincidence that guys have career nights against OKC. It's convenient to just throw your hands up and say, "This guy is out of his mind. Of course it happens against us" and feel like the gods are against you.
But it comes more with the Thunder's approach. They take guys for granted and let them get going, and then rather than go after them, they sort of just let them keep going. Evans scored 15 points in the third quarter, and the majority came just simply by beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim.
Those are the things that should make a defender grit their teeth and take it personally. When Green and Tucker were hitting those threes, it should have become a game within a game to stop those from happening. Same with Evans today. Jackson, Fisher, even KD need to step up and say, "Let someone else beat us, but this guy is not getting anything else." We know this because teams do it to KD all the time. Obviously, it doesn't always work, but an effort needs to be made to at least slow him down.
Instead, it was just drive after drive, lazy reaching foul after lazy reaching foul (Evans finished 12-16 from the FT line), and no one responded to that matchup.
Those games within a game are so often what decide outcomes - I even did a brief Head to Head series examining some of those matchups, which I will need to bring back for the playoffs - and letting one matchup be dominated that thoroughly is often too much for an entire team to overcome.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
16 turnovers for the Thunder to just 10 for the Pelicans. Honestly, with the way the Thunder plays, 16 isn't all that bad. But they are far more effective when they can force turnovers and get easy points on the other end. The statsheet says the Thunder had 17 fastbreak points, but it sure felt like only 7. That's still a stark contrast to Friday's game against New Orleans, when OKC outscore them 28-0 on the break.
Still, the active hands, aggressive closeouts, the things that won them the Spurs game and made them look so dominant in much of that Clippers game, weren't there tonight for the Thunder's defense.
Again, a lot of that is effort, and taking ownership of your guy and forcing him into a tough situation. The turnovers are rarely going to favor the Thunder, given the way their pace leads to so many, but they still need to force more than 10, particularly against an out-of-whack team like the Pelicans.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
That Wednesday's game means something, and the team doesn't get to rest in the finale.
I already said this - and it will be covered way more in depth when the regular season officially ends - but the Thunder is just one game away from clinching the second-best record in the NBA. Given all of the injuries, and all of the games that have left Thunder fans with that "Ughhh. Sighh. Blehh." feeling, that's really stinkin' impressive.
So a win Wednesday, and this game becomes nothing more than a footnote on a truly successful regular season campaign.
- Here's a quick look at the scuffle between Nick Collison and Austin Rivers that got them both ejected
(via Anthony Slater)
- Look at that one, and it doesn't look like Collison really did all that much. But that's the Thunder broadcast. Here's the shove coming down in between those two plays that may have resulted in Rivers coming up high at Collison the second time around:
- Is it worth an ejection? In Game 81, an essentially meaningless regular season game, sure, why not? Obviously, and I think anyone would make this same point, they're staying in the game if it's the playoffs. Basically, the refs just wanted to avoid it escalating into anything more ridiculous. Carry on.
- The lesson, as always, never trust your home broadcast.
- The guys that wear them went with the black compression pants/white sock combo to go with the alternates. It's possible they've done this before, but I really like the look. My question: Who decides that? Does KD do it and the rest follow? Is there a team stylist? Hashtag journalism, please.
- After Tyreke crossed-up KD for a layup (which was, admittedly, pretty nasty) New Orleans' play-by-play guy Joel Meyers said "KD is not known for his defense." I feel like giving an entire dissertation on this, but I'll just leave it at the fact that, while a lot of us have come to appreciate KD's sneaky-top-tier defensive skills, it's obvious there are still some around the league that don't think that way about Durant.
- For a "veteran leader," Derek Fisher sure commits some dumb fouls 70+ feet from the hoop.
- One thing that may be big in the playoffs: Serge Ibaka's free throw shooting. You see in games like this when he is active, he gets to the line more. He's shooting 79 percent for the season, which is more than OK, but there's just something about the way he shoots them that don't make me confident no matter when he's taking them. Related: I tend to overreact to things that aren't really there.
- The last game of a pickup run usually ends with both teams taking a lot of threes because every team is too tired to run actual basketball plays. That's sort of how this one felt. From the beginning.
- Roberson (tip, block, tip away for steal in first minute, then putback dunk to tie it at 73. Then steal when tied at 75.)
Next game: REGULAR SEASON FINALE (finally)! vs. Detroit Pistons. Wed. April 16 at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time