NBA Playoffs: Thunder Are Learning How To Walk Even If They Keep Hurting Themselves

Progress.

A little over three weeks ago, I was playing some pickup hoops with some of my friends. It was a little windy out and I was having a bad day shooting the ball. It probably would have been a bad day shooting the ball even without the wind. Something was just off. So mired in a shooting slump, I decided that the only way for me to score and make plays was to take the ball to the hoop.

On one play (and my last play for a while), I drove the baseline with my left hand. As I got under the basket, I tried to stop without warning in the hopes that the guy guarding me would slide past me just enough for me to sneak a layup attempt towards the hoop. As it so happens, the inside of my right foot buckled and rolled under my ankle. I had never rolled my ankle that way before – it had always been the traditional way of the outside of my foot playing limbo with my ankle. But this time, we decided to try something new.

Since then, I’ve been fairly hobbled and hoping to make progress. I figure I won’t be completely healthy until I’m able to slide a shoe on my right foot without the use of my hands and without any pain. Recently, I’ve been able to start driving a car again and I can pretty easily walk up the stairs in my house. I just can’t slide that shoe on or walk down stairs without feeling an uneasy discomfort that gives me a lot of trepidation with my next movement.

But I’m making progress day by day with an extra step here and some extra weight put on my foot there.

You could say the Oklahoma City Thunder made progress with the three-point loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night. They took what was for the most part a frustratingly mediocre game in the first part of this series and turned it into a two-point game with a Kevin Durant three-point attempt for a series tie heading back to Oklahoma. He didn’t make it. He clanged off the iron and eventually the Thunder had to settle for a missed Jeff Green three-pointer to try and send this game into overtime.

But the fact that they played horrible terrible HORRIBLE offense and yet still were within one big three-point shot from the league’s leading scorer has to count for something besides a second playoff loss. Everything at this point in this franchise-building project is a good lesson for future reference. In the first game, they let some of the role players like Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum find ways to score the ball against them. In this game, they held everybody not named Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in check.

Kobe and Pau scored 64 of the Lakers 95 points on the night but the big part of those totals was the fact that the two Lakers stars combined for 40 of those points in the second half. The Thunder adopted the philosophy of let the stars have their nights and shut everybody else down. And it damn near worked. Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest combined for a 9/38 shooting extravaganza. They just couldn’t stop Pau Gasol in the post or Kobe Bryant in the anything he tried to do in the fourth quarter.

But this was a good next step for the Thunder to make. Limiting the role players worked. Getting Kevin Durant to knock down some shots worked. Defending the paint worked (17 blocked shots). Holding your own on the rebounding battle didn’t work (49-37). Getting other guys outside of KD to hit shots didn’t work (17/48 for 35.4%). However, the youngest team in the NBA took the defending NBA champs down to a decent three-point look from the NBA’s leading scorer with 15 seconds left in the game and down only two on the road.

The Thunder aren’t sliding the shoe on that foot yet. But they’re starting to climb up the stairs.

Playoff Paroxi-Notes

– Thabo Sefolosha may have needed a rest. Or he may have needed a new jump shot. Or he may have needed to sit on the bench so he could scan the crowd for all of the Swiss celebrities (what up, Martina Hingis?). Regardless, I don’t understand how he didn’t see any time other than the final 1:16 of the fourth quarter. In a period in which Kobe Bryant went off for 15 points, it would have been good to have your best defender on the floor for at least half of that time.

Instead, Jeff Green was given the assignment of checking Kobe and it showed. Jeff Green is nice in theory but he hasn’t been great in application during the first two games of this series. I trust him guarding Ron Artest or Lamar Odom but certainly not Kobe Bryant. His first step is too slow. His second step is too slow. And by the time he recovers, Kobe is already figuring out which ridiculous shot he wants to get on SportsCenter. Kobe got whatever shots he wanted and got to the line nine times in the final period. I’m not saying Thabo would have stopped him but he did force him to start 6/16 from the field. There were better options no matter what the reason for sitting Thabo was.

– Ron Artest has made life a living hell for Kevin Durant. We all remember what happened in the first game in which it looked like Ron was using Durant as his personal ventriloquist dummy. And in this game, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference. Durant went to the free throw line fewer times and ended up committing eight turnovers in the game. At the same time though he just found a way to make shots. He seemed to take advantage of other players getting switched out to defend him, like when he baited Lamar Odom into giving him too much space on a three-pointer. When Artest was on him and he wasn’t turning the ball over, he made some ridiculous turnaround jumpers. Durant will not be stopped in this series and it’s foolish to think he can. Artest is doing the correct thing in making him work for everything he gets. This is one of the most impressive battles I’ve seen in a long time between two individuals.

– I don’t want to keep harping on mistakes Jeff Green has made but it would be nice for Thunder fans if he decided to show up for the rest of the series. He is now 6/23 in this series because he can’t knock down open jumpers.

– Serge Ibaka is a man. He’s a large, intimidating man. He had six points, five boards and seven blocks like it was nothing. He’ll struggle at times but this guy is going to be All-Star material some day.

– The two most successful ways for the Thunder to score in this game were off of isolation plays (56.3% FG) and in transition (41.7%). Other than that, they were pretty horrible on offense. A lot of this had to do with the open, spot-up jumpers they were missing. They made just 6/18 spot-up shots and with three of those makes and 13 of those attempts coming from behind the three-point line. With all of the good looks the Thunder are getting, it’s hard to say that the offense is THAT bad. At the same time, they can’t hit their threes so maybe it’s time to take those looks and drive it to the basket. (These stats courtesy of Synergy Sports – seriously go sign up and enjoy your summer with this stuff)

Seth Carstens