The Oklahoma City Thunder held a 62-53 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers going into halftime Thursday night, but after a shoving altercation with about six seconds left in the first half—which led to the ejection of Serge Ibaka and Matt Barnes—the Thunder seemed to be on the unfortunate end of a huge momentum swing.
The thing that should be noted is that the Thunder were undoubtedly the losers in the altercation. Each team had one player ejected, but at the time, Ibaka was dominating in the paint with 13 points off 6-of-6 shooting and Barnes was struggling with his shot, going 0-of-5 from the field.
On his ejection, Ibaka said "I will learn from my mistake. All I can do right now is just be focused about the game tomorrow."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) November 14, 2013
Not surprisingly, the Clippers outscored the Thunder 30-16 in the third quarter. The absence of Ibaka opened up the lane for the Clippers bigs and hindered Thunder on the offensive end, which ultimately led to the Clippers topping the Thunder 111-103.
It certainly did not help that the Thunder were already thin on bigs with Kendrick Perkins out due to a death in his family, which let to Hasheem Thabeet receiving his first minutes of the season for the Thunder. And unfortunately for the Thunder, Thabeet was not very successful in filling the void.
Hasheem Thabeet has played his first 12 minutes of the season tonight. And I think those are 12 minutes too many.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) November 14, 2013
If anything, we learned just how important Ibaka is to the Thunder both as an offensive threat and a defensive presence. The wheels fell off for the Thunder in the second half, and the outcome almost seemed inevitable.
But do the Thunder win with Ibaka still in the game in the second half?
Royce Young on DailyThunder.com isn't so sure, but he believes the ejection led to some puzzling rotation decisions from Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
It’s not that Ibaka is that important — though he was playing wonderfully, 6-6 from the floor with 13 points — but it’s more that his absence sent the Thunder’s rotation reeling and Scott Brooks’ head spinning. The fact Gomes was installed as the second half starting power forward says a lot of the lack of plan Brooks had without Ibaka. I can understand not going with Nick Collison, who was in a little foul trouble and needed to be as fresh as possible to battle Blake Griffin down the stretch. But the real headscratcher is leaving Perry Jones unused the entire second half, after he was really solid in the first.
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Collison and Thabeet on the floor. What is that lineup? The comeback was sparked by Brooks finally electing to go small with Durant at the 4 and Collison at center, which came way, way too late. You can’t play Durant the entire second half, especially with another game looming 24 hours later against the Warriors, but why not play Jones at the 4 in a smallball lineup in the third and early fourth? Offense was the issue for OKC because it just couldn’t keep pace with the high-flying Clippers. And as the Clips maintained their offensive pace, the Thunder slipped further and further back.
Brooks was put in a difficult position being without Perkins and Ibaka for the entire second half. He was forced to dig into his bench, but foul trouble (Sefolosha with five, Collison with five, Gomes with four and Durant with four) made the situation even more difficult.
Sure, Durant and Westbrook could have played more minutes in the fourth quarter, but would that have been the right thing to do with a game against Golden State just 24 hours later?
It's still early in the season, and Brooks is still searching for the right rotational strategy for the end of the season when it really matters. For now, it's a trial-and-error process.
Nobody knew 24 hours before the game that the Thunder would be without Ibaka and Perkins in the second half against an NBA title contender, but Brooks made moves he thought would be best for winning the game.
Though he was unsuccessful, Brooks certainly learned something through the experience. Like I already said, it is early in the season. A similar situation may occur down the road for the Thunder, and I would not be surprised if Brooks is better prepared for it.
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