The Oklahoma City Thunder are fortunate to operate from a position of seemingly perpetual advantage. Almost every opponent they face is less talented and less skilled, and as such, OKC’s margin for error is quite generous; the Thunder are free to live and adapt over the course of a game, and though their offense is neither steady nor fluid, it’s propelled by the creative efforts of three of the game’s most dynamic stars.
Saturday night brought that Thunder offense – in all of its erratic and star-studded glory – into full view. It certainly wasn’t always pretty, and the final margin alone will tell you that OKC wasn’t always effective. But the Thunder pulled to a commanding 3-1 series lead through their inherent advantages over a Lakers team that can’t reasonably be expected to play much better.
All five of the Los Angeles Lakers’ starters scored in double-figures. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum were arguably at their most harmonious* of the postseason, as both stars played off of one another with ease for the first three quarters. The defense was able to momentarily deny touches to Kevin Duran, keep things in check for minutes at a time, and continue to disrupt the shooting attempts of James Harden.
All of that made for a truly impressive effort, just not a winning one; Durant and Russell Westbrook can’t be impressed by the offensive exploits of mere mortals, and dropped a combined 68 points (including 42 in the second half) to bury the team that dared defy them.
*Though even that largely beneficial dynamic featured many more forced shots than it had to, a self-sabotaged shooting performance by Bryant, and the still unnecessary marginalization of Pau Gasol.
Certain teams can draw great strength from structure, but the Thunder – for better and worse – are not one of those teams. Scott Brooks has armed his club with plays, schemes, and preferred action, but Westbrook’s freewheeling and Durant’s quick trigger are nonetheless the keys to the Thunder’s transcendence – particularly when Harden is having such trouble creating off the dribble. There are stints where OKC would seem to benefit from a more formal plan of attack, but even while phasing in and out of brilliance, the Thunder still maintain the necessary firepower and guile to determine a game at a moment’s notice.
Oklahoma City is simply that good. They can fail to click, work through frustrations, and still put away an inferior opponent. That’s the benefit of having two stars that are so outrageously productive (not to mention a third fighting through a tough series), and a supporting cast whose impact pops out on the court, if not on the stat sheet.
The Thunder’s approach may be the least cohesive of any remaining playoff team, and yet it’s amazing how little that truly matters. Though we swoon at the Spurs’ ball movement and admire the Pacers’ balance, the Thunder are productively stilted, deeply flawed, and highly effective.
It makes for a hell of a ride, and if the fiber of the Thunder’s play offers any predictive quality, it could make for a hell of a postseason finish.