It's easy to think that Russell Westbrook's injury is really what went wrong for the Oklahoma City Thunder in their second-round defeat against the Memphis Grizzlies, but there's a whole lot more to it.
Sure, not having their second-best player and emotional leader on the floor was a big hit to this Thunder team. However, knowing that Kevin Durant was still suiting up had many people reasonably believing that this series and possibly even the next one after it was still winnable.
It was a weird experience for KD, who'd never been in this type of situation before. No one doubts that Durant is a bona fide superstar, but he's really never been in this type of position where he has to pretty much single-handedly carry his team. Ever since Durant's been in OKC, Westbrook's been right there by his side.
That changed for the first time when Westbrook tore his meniscus in Game 2 of the Thunder's first-round series against the Houston Rockets. It was time for KD to answer the call, and he gave it all he had to keep this team hanging around while missing one of their key components.
During the series against Memphis, Durant averaged 28.8 points, 6.6 assists and 10.4 rebounds which demonstrated that he was doing plenty to fill the void that Westbrook left statistically in all of those categories.
After Game 1, all looked to be going well for the Thunder. They managed to erase a nine-point deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter to come back and claim the first game of the series thanks to a smooth Kevin Durant jumper with just 11.1 seconds remaining.
Oklahoma City did a great job of playing good defense and hitting important down the stretch of this game, factors that would prove to be the Thunder's undoing later in the series as they struggled to repeat these efforts.
Closing out games in the playoffs is huge. Letting one slip away from your grasp in the regular season is usually forgetting about in a few games. When something like that happens in the postseason, though, you don't have much time to recover mentally and it could cost your team a lot of vital momentum.
OKC definitely had a great chance at winning this series, even if the odds were against them. The absence of Westbrook and his ability to close out games was sorely missed, though, as the Thunder had a lot of crucial mistakes down the stretch in games that swung the series in the Grizzlies' favor.
After winning Game 1, the Thunder dropped four straight games to the Grizz, losing all of these games by six points or less. This really shows how winning this series was very much within reason for Oklahoma City, but it was a lack of execution in crunch time that really hurt the team.
Westbrook's replacement, Reggie Jackson, was definitely a lot better than most people expected him to be. He showed off his athleticism and explosiveness during his first taste of major playing time, but there's still plenty for the second-year guard to learn. It's sometimes tough to pinpoint plays that can negatively shift a series, but not in this case.
Jackson played a lot like Westbrook, but we saw the bad side of that when he was flying down the court on a fast break, out of control, which lead to an offensive foul.
With just 1:31 remaining in a tied game and a tied series, this was a bad and selfish decision on Jackson, who had a cutting Derek Fisher and trailing Thabo Sefolosha as passing options. Memphis ultimately took this game after taking one at home from Oklahoma City, also. So instead of the series being 2-1 in the Thunder's favor, Jackson's play swung it the other way.
It was just one bad play, right? Wrong. Jackson had a similar situation in a very important Game 4. During the overtime period and the Thunder trailing by just one point and 1:21 remaining, Jackson again was too aggressive in attacking the basket and was called for another offensive foul. OKC ended up losing this game as well, increasing its series deficit to 3-1.
I'm not here to attack Jackson or say that he was directly and solely responsible for losing these games. However, he did make crucial mistakes during critical points of two playoff games. It wasn't just Jackson, though. Oklahoma City as a team performed well late in the games of this series. There was time to make up for these bad plays by Jackson, but the Thunder simply couldn't convert on their offensive opportunities or get defensive stops when necessary.
I may have spotlighted Jackson here, but this boils down to an overall team effort here. Durant was doing everything he could individually, but seeing the guys around him struggle may have led to him putting a bit too much pressure on himself which could strain his game mentally. That may have explained Durant missing a shot that is normally automatic.
Whatever it was that caused Durant to miss that shot, he missed it. Plain and simple. There's still plenty of evidence to back up the truth that KD is a great clutch player. However, I think the responsibilities burdened on him by Westbrook's absence really hurt his game this series and with no real second option to defer to, he was forced to take some shots that may have been questionable at best.
Even as great as he is, Durant is but one man. It was the Thunder as a whole that was not executing and not getting stops to close out these games. If they had, this whole series could have very well been taken by OKC in five games. Oklahoma City did not play well late in games, however, and it cost the Thunder the chance at another NBA Finals run.
The silver lining here is that the Thunder team we saw in this postseason had to make a lot of adjustments on the fly and was playing a whole different style of basketball than they're used to. Fortunately, Westbrook will be back and this team is still very much alive as a contender.
The wait will be long this summer, though, as OKC will have to begin the long road once again to the NBA playoffs and to its eventual goal of becoming NBA champions.
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