Caron Butler was finally leaving the scene of the Oklahoma City Thunder's gut wrenching 101-99 defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4. All the chaos had finally died down, at least for a little while, and it was time to get on the plane and try to put some sort of positive spin on losing a game that would have given his team total control of the series.
Butler spotted a familiar face on the way out, though, in TNT's David Aldridge. Aldridge, like Butler, has been around the league for ages, and so the two have had plenty of encounters before. Aldridge was mostly just there to gather background for Tuesday's Game 5 broadcast - a game that has significantly more importance for the Thunder now that they lost Game 4 - but before any microphones were set up, any pens were taken out, Butler just needed to share his frustration with the only familiar face around.
"Damn, we gave that one away." -Caron Butler
It was a brief comment by Butler, but because of the context, seemed to nicely sum up how the Thunder would attempt to leave this game. It wasn't a matter of a Clippers team coming out and beating them, it was a matter of them simply giving a game away.
It may seem like a subtle difference, but a team that feels it should have won a game is still more dangerous than a team that feels like it lost a game. The silver lining was there for the Thunder, and Butler wasn't the only one that believed it.
About 20 minutes before that, Thabo Sefolosha spoke to reporters in front of his locker (video below). He, too, seemed confident that the Thunder simply gave the game away.
"I think the way that we've been playing, you know, I believe that we showed we're the better team... Obviously we let one slip, but other than that, I think we're good." -Thabo Sefolosha
That's a reassuring sign, that the Thunder still recognizes itself as the better team in this series. After playing better in Games 2 and 3, as well as the first 40 minutes of Game 4, you can see why they may feel that way.
It showed in their demeanor before the game. While Game 3 featured a pre-game locker room full of silent focus, Game 4 was much more carefree - with guys walking around more, eating breakfast, talking to one another. The focus was still there, but there was a looseness to them as well.
That's usually a good thing, and it was for sure in that first quarter, when the Thunder stormed out to a 29-7 lead, and a 32-15 lead at the end of the quarter. It was a display of a team that knew what it was, was comfortable in its skin, and simply took it to what they considered an inferior opponent.
They maintained that energy for the majority of the 2nd and 3rd quarter, but the Clippers kept it within striking distance. Of course, that looseness is what has so often came back to bite the Thunder, and Game 4 was just about as high-profile of an example as you'll get. So why did the loose, free-flowing Thunder come to a screeching halt? A few reasons.
The Clippers's defense on Kevin Durant:
You can credit Chris Paul all you want, just know that Kevin Durant isn't. Asked what kind of challenge Chris Paul presented during that 4th-quarter collapse:
"He doesn't. It's not a one-on-one. When I catch the ball, they sent a double-team. When they sent a double-team, they did a good job crowding me, making me get rid of the ball. When it's one-on-one, I got the advantage." -Kevin Durant
Durant isn't wrong, either. He still shot 4-5 in the fourth quarter and 2-3 from the line for 10 points. Where he struggled - and it may not have been entirely his fault - was in turning the ball over trying to adjust to the double-teams.
The Clippers were in desperation mode and sent hard doubles, trying like crazy to force someone else to beat them. The problem with the offense was that it failed to adjust to these double teams even a little bit. Here's a clip of Durant's second-half turnovers to give a better idea of how the defensive scheme, and the Thunder's inability to adjust to it - NOT Chris Paul - disrupted the offense in the 4th.
We also had a breakdown of this situation earlier today, but I think the first turnover in the clip is important, too. If you want to credit Chris Paul, this is your best example, because not only does he strip Durant for an easy layup at the other end, he may have changed Durant's approach for the rest of the quarter. Durant is a solid ball handler, but having the ball stolen so effectively here almost certainly played in his mind for future decisions to put the ball on the floor.
And so you get to possessions like the next one in the clip, where Durant is content to stand in a place like the one where he hit his dagger in Game 3. It's not a bad idea, except for the fact that the Thunder gets so complacent in its offense that Durant isn't even catching the ball until 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
Now that the Thunder has wasted half a possession just trying to get the ball into KD, he is forced to speed up his decision-making process. Rather than take an extra beat to allow for a cutter or look to the weak side perimeter, he forces the pass to Reggie Jackson, whose man is still on him.
The entire offense is at risk here, as no one recognized the double, despite the fact the Clippers had done it at several points throughout the game. Instead, you have Ibaka with Caron Butler's man in front of him and Butler in the far corner completely removed from the play.
That skip pass to Butler is what torched the Clippers in Game 3, but the panicked Durant wasn't in the spot he was consistently getting to to make those passes, leaving that skip pass at too difficult of an angle to complete.
It gets even worse on the next one - which may have been the decisive play in the game, as Durant doesn't catch the ball until 8 seconds left in the shot clock. In those 16 seconds, no other Thunder player even moved. The offense is so focused on getting the ball to Durant that a light screen from Jackson is the only real action from the offense. The defense also knows the entry pass is coming, and Crawford, Jackson's man, commits way early, only Westbrook is so focused on Durant that he misses a wide-open Jackson cutting to the rim.
Sure, Westbrook could have seen that pass, and the anti-Westbrook crowd will most surely jump right to that. But this is the issue he is often faced with. He is part of an offense that simply force-feeds KD in one spot, with no other real movement, and either he finds that or, if it breaks down (which it didn't here), he is then forced to create entirely on his own. Freedom for Westbrook would be running the offense from 24 seconds left on the shot clock on down, not just the final 10 seconds after an entry pass is denied.
That's frustrating enough, but then, even after Durant gets the ball on this particular possession, he's left with hardly any time to do anything, and poor spacing forces his hand.
Paul is on Durant, and Collison - Westbrook's man - is easily able to cheat off enough to cover but not enough to leave Westbrook all that open. Crawford also is there to handle both because Jackson is about three feet away from Westbrook. There's two other guys down low whose guys are halfheartedly defending them because there is no off ball action, and because there is still a crowd on that side despite an entire empty third of the court on the other end.
These are things that teams adjust to on a game-by-game basis, but it is frustrating that no one on the sidelines recognized the problem at any point. The double team shouldn't have been a surprise and the Thunder should have had other options. Sefolosha even admitted as much after the game.
"I think the ball actually got sticky towards the end, I think we were looking for the matchup too much instead of just running our offense." -Thabo Sefolosha
Therein lies the problem with the Thunder offense since the beginning of time. It's been a criticism of Brooks and the entire team seemingly every week, but just as the noise gets its loudest, the team seems to respond with moments like crunch time in Game 3 when the offense runs plays for Butler and, all of sudden, the clogged offense starts running again.
The Thunder insisted that offense wasn't the issue, though, and that their lack of stops played a bigger role, and the defense certainly did them in just as badly.
A lot of Collison's baskets came by way of turnover, which once again speaks to how costly the poor execution on the offensive end was for the Thunder. It doesn't change the fact that, for example in that very first play, the defense seemed to stop defending with the same intensity it had throughout the game. Kendrick Perkins had his own reasons why such easy layups happened:
"Lack of communication, sense of urgency wasn't there." -Kendrick Perkins
In the first quarter, rotations were crisp, the help was ready, and guys were able to stay in front of their man and force tough looks. Here you have Darren Collison, the backup point guard, who gets a switch onto Durant. Durant is a more than capable defender, but Collison is so much smaller that he is able to make a few moves and get to the rim.
In the past, that's a layup that Ibaka has blocked over and over, only he is on the sidelines. Instead you have Nick Collison, who helps just a bit too far off of Glen Davis, and Adams who gets caught just too far under the hoop with DeAndre Jordan, resulting in an easy look for Collison, even after pump faking to get Durant off of him. No communication, nor urgency, like Perk said. Easy layup.
The second basket you live with, simply because it is off an offensive rebound and you'll settle for the best shot being a midrange jumper. Of course, the offensive rebounds shouldn't have been as easy, given the Clippers ultra-small lineup in that fourth quarter, and yet LA still out-rebounded the Thunder both in the quarter and in the game. It was the first time all postseason the Thunder had been out-rebounded.
That, too, comes back to effort, and you wonder if that confidence and carefree attitude that was so noticeable before the game caused the Thunder to sit back just a little bit and not take rebounding as seriously.
Lastly you have the final two baskets, both of which come off of easy run-outs, which once again comes back to effort. A bad play on the offensive end doesn't have to result in points on the other end. And yet, time and time again down the stretch, the Clippers were getting stops and then capitalizing on the lack of effort from the Thunder transition D. At one point, per the Oklahoman's Berry Tramel, the Clippers scored on 18 of 19 possessions. That's an astounding number, and a good look into why the Thunder found themselves on the losing end after building what seemed like an insurmountable lead.
"You have to have all five guys locked in, not only physically, but mentally engaged, playing off one another. When one guy moves, four other guys need to move. If you don't do that, you're in trouble." -Scott Brooks
And trouble they were in. The Thunder has proven more than capable of finding that balance between calm and focused in Game 3, and relaxed and nonchalant in Game 4. You want a loose team, one that is confident they can beat the other team, and the comments by guys like Butler and Sefolosha after the game certainly make it seem like confidence isn't the issue. The Thunder believes it is the better team, and they just gave a game away. But it's a three-game series, now, something else the Thunder players seemed intent on reminding themselves.
The Thunder believes it is the better team, and with homecourt, can take the series. It's a matter of showing it now.
Here's the thing about these videos, I only had an iPhone at my disposal, and capturing video on an iPhone with a bunch of big TV cameras, reporters, and basketball players around makes it tough to get great audio. You can hear them alright if you use headphones, though. Well, maybe not Serge, but I was standing six inches away from Serge and still could barely understand him. KD wasn't just being funny about the whole "Serge, you still don't speak English" thing.
Lastly, I've got some leftover thoughts from my weekend in LA that don't really fit in anywhere else, so I'll just leave them here:
- Doc Rivers really is fantastic with the media. He just commands the attention of everyone in the room, answers every question in great detail, and is completely human throughout the entire thing.
- For example, before Sunday's game - when the Clippers basically needed a win to save their season, mind you - Rivers came in, completely relaxed, and joked "For all the men out there, it's Mother's Day... it's never too late." It may not be all that funny, but when you're in tense situations like that, to see the human side is great, and makes for nice anecdotes for people like us that look for such things.
- No matter how many times you've been there, you're never fully prepared for LA traffic.
- The Staples Center itself is, of course, fantastic. Everything is up to date, there's all kinds of food, the staff is helpful, parking isn't any more outrageous than at any other stadium. It's a great place.
- The fans, however, are an entirely different animal. Game 3 was dead throughout, and Game 4 only came alive in the final five minutes. They have emcees that try like hell to rile up the crowd, only it never really works. The loudest reactions come from booing Justin Bieber on the big screen or cheering Rihanna, nothing basketball-related. Unless of course the team is staging an all-time great comeback, then it's insane. Definitely got loud and crazy when the Clippers needed it most.
- You really need to appreciate Serge Ibaka's style. Not because of how it looks or anything, but because of how carefully he prepares his outfit. The guy spent about three minutes rolling his jeans just right, another two minutes tying his boots just right, and about 20 seconds too long adjusting his hat just right. Can't say he doesn't pull it off, though.
- Caron Butler was still doing the "Whenever you can't, UCONN" thing to Dan Woike from the Orange County Register, who apparently went to Michigan State. People who love their college teams bother me, mostly because mine is terrible. Still, it's been like six weeks, Caron. I'm totally not going to rub this series in Clippers' fans faces six weeks from now if you win... Actually, I totally am. Carry on.