Kevin Durant has probably been the best player of these 2013 NBA playoffs, but after the way the Oklahoma City Thunder came apart down the stretch of an 87-81 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, it's starting to become clear that KD's supporting cast won't be good enough to help him advance.
Serge Ibaka, whom Oklahoma City paid before James Harden largely because it believed the big man had a few more levels of development left, had a game to forget. Sure, he notched 13 points and 10 boards, but he missed 11 of his 17 shots and simply wasn't the No. 2 option the Thunder needed him to be.
Ibaka is painful to watch right now.— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) May 11, 2013
His jumper wasn't falling, and worse than that, it appeared as though Ibaka didn't even want to be shooting at times. It got so bad at one point that one observer leveled a truly hurtful insult at Ibaka by comparing him to another embarrassingly poor offensive player.
Kendrick Perkins is wearing a Serge Ibaka suit.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 11, 2013
And the most perplexing aspect of the power forward's breakdown was his inability to cram home a couple of the easiest scoring opportunities he'd seen all year.
Oh, man. Ibaka missed two dunks and a lay-up. That's six points right there. Whoops.— Rey-Rey (@TheNoLookPass) May 11, 2013
Russell Westbrook's absence is killing the Thunder in a number of ways, but among the most obvious is that it has thrust responsibilities onto players—like Ibaka—who simply aren't ready for them. And now, it's getting harder to imagine that they ever will be.
I was pro-Ibaka big $$ deal over Harden as the "3rd guy" (JH, RW & KD = no bigs) but has Ibaka improved this year from last?— Jason McIntyre (@TheBigLead) May 11, 2013
When a star goes down, everyone moves a notch or two up the totem pole. In the Thunder's case, that has meant a much bigger role for Reggie Jackson and a frightening reliance on Kevin Martin to be a consistent scorer. And neither of those two role players has been capable of providing sustained production in their elevated roles.
Jackson had some impressive plays in Game 3, including a nice coast-to-coast drive after he poked the ball away from Mike Conley. But down the stretch, Jackson took a few ill-advised shots and failed to involve his teammates in a way that may have been a little too reminiscent of some of Westbrook's worst nights.
Martin shot 6-of-17 and clearly suffered from the increased defensive attention he received.
To be fair, Durant himself wasn't all that great after halftime, either. But if you think about it, KD's second-half dip was very much a symptom of his teammates' inability to shoulder enough of the load. Durant played 46 minutes in Game 3 and clearly lost steam as the game wore on, going only 3-of-10 in the second half.
What's worse, Durant's fatigue prevented him from getting to the rim in the third and fourth quarters. Had he been able to take even a brief break, he might not have faded in the game's later stages. But such a break is basically impossible because of the way the Thunder play offense.
And Scott Brooks' inability to diversify his team's attack might constitute the biggest failure of any member of Durant's supporting cast.
It might feel a little odd to think of a head coach as a role player, but it's actually not that much of a stretch. Brooks is supposed to organize and motivate his players, so he's very much connected to what's actually happening on the court.
The problem is that, based on the complete lack of ingenuity with which OKC operates on both ends, it seems like Brooks is out to lunch most of the time.
I know OKC got the steal, but Scott Brooks coaches like he doesn't grasp basic math.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) May 11, 2013
The Thunder rated as a terrific offensive team during the regular season, but their 110.2 points per 100 possessions (good for No. 2 in the NBA) were largely a product of having two of the NBA's most dominant isolation players on the floor at the same time. Whenever the defense focused on Westbrook, Durant had space to work, and vice versa.
That duo was so individually dominant that there was almost no way for Brooks to screw up an offense that featured both of them.
The extent of Brooks' offensive innovations during the regular season seemed to be a simple dribble handoff between Westbrook and Durant that was apparently designed to create a mismatch if defenders switched. Even that strategy was dubious, though, as there's really no such thing as a defender who isn't overmatched by either Durant or Westbrook in the first place.
That total lack of offensive creativity is now forcing Durant to do everything himself. He brings the ball up more than he ever did during the regular season, and once he reaches the frontcourt, he's expected to either score on his own or generate a shot for somebody else.
There are no plays or counters. And there's certainly no mystery as to what OKC is trying to do on offense.
A predictable attack that relies so heavily on one player simply isn't enough to make a defensively stout bunch like the Grizzlies work. In fact, it's a true testament to Durant's greatness that OKC has even managed to win a single game in this series.
Thunder shot 36.4% in loss-- the 2nd-worst they've ever shot from the field in a postseason game since the team moved to Oklahoma City— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 11, 2013
Without a reliable support system and a coach capable of creating other options through tactical adjustments, Durant is on his own, a victim of the failure of those surrounding him.
If there's any good news for KD, at least he'll only have to suffer through a couple more games before his team's total inability to help him results in OKC's elimination from the playoffs.