Oklahoma City Thunder: Three Scapegoats for First-Round Struggle

Jared Porter@@JaredPorter_BRCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - April 29, 2014:  (L-R) Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Richard Rowe/NBAE via Getty Images)
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder can officially hit the panic button for their postseason. Better yet, they should probably call for an Amber Alert, you know, since the players who showed so much promise in the regular season seem to be missing right now in the playoffs. 

After Tuesday night's 100-99 overtime loss to the Grizzlies, the Thunder are now down 3-2 in the series and on the brink of elimination. 

I could sit here and make excuses for the Thunder's controversial defeat in last night's game.

I could blame Joey Crawford—notorious NBA official of Tuesday night's game—for icing Kevin Durant at the foul line just to scold scorekeepers for having an inaccuracy on the scoreboard.

I could blame Mike Miller for shooting lights-out from three—something he seems to consistently do in the postseason against the Thunder.  

I could, again, blame Joey Friggin' Crawford for shorting the Thunder a couple tenths of a second in their final possession of the game after reviewing an out-of-bounds turnover on the Grizzlies. Which, by the way, would have resulted in Ibaka's game-winning putback actually counting.

But truth be told, the Thunder deserve to be in the position they're in. They've had plenty of opportunities to right the ship in this series, but come up short time after time. And with the amount of struggles the Thunder are having on both ends of the court, it may be too little, too late to dig themselves out of the Mariana Trench-sized hole they've dug themselves into.

So what exactly has gone wrong for OKC? What catastrophes have developed in this series that have put the supposed title-contending Thunder six inches from the edge of a cliff of disappointment and despair? 

For a team to have success in the playoffs, two things are needed: ability and good fortune.

The Thunder have proven to possess the ability with their performance in this year's regular season. They acquired 59 wins, earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, had a presumed MVP season from Durant, rehabilitated Westbrook to full health just in time for the postseason, blah, blah and blah. 

The problem, however, is the fortune. A first-round matchup with the Grizzlies is tough. They're not your typical No. 7 seed. And if it weren't for a few injuries during the regular season which masked their true status as title contenders, the Grizzlies could easily be a top-3 seed in this year's playoffs.

Albeit, there's still no excuse for the Thunder to fall in the series. Many would agree that the Thunder are the superior team. They simply haven't performed like it. 

And while I'm not the kind of person who typically looks for a single scapegoat when things go awry—especially in a team sport like basketball where many things have to fall in place for success—I believe there are three big player developments in this series that have led to the Thunder's brink of elimination. 

Russell West-Brick

Uncredited/Associated Press

You have to take the good Westbrook with the bad. To sum up Westbrook in one sentence: He is the epitome of a wild card. 

And a wild card he has been in this year's playoffs. 

Tuesday night's triple-double performance from Westbrook was a perfect example of his unpredictability. Looking at the box score causes confusion and headache. He led the Thunder in scoring with 30 points, but it took him 31 shots to get there. 

Despite going 1-for-7 from deep and 3-of-17 from outside the restricted area, Westbrook showed no remorse for his aggression in shooting the ball (Hat tip to Royce Young on DailyThunder.com for the quote): 

I can get better ones (shots). But sometimes, you’ve just got to attack regardless of what’s going on or the time in the game. You’ve just got to stay in attack mode. If they’re giving you a 15-footer, I’ll make that nine times out of 10, so I’m going to shoot it.

Basically, Westbrook believes he is shooting 90 percent in mid-range jumpers. Someone may need to show him the stats. 

If this sounds a little familiar, it's because it is. Westbrook has been criticized for his out-of-control play, particularly because he often takes shots away from Durant. 

But demanding a change in demeanor of Westbrook is about as useful as beating a dead horse. It's simply who he is. Some nights he's going to explode for triple-doubles and win the hearts of Thunder fans. On other nights, he's going to force too much, fail to involve his teammates, take low-percentage shots and leave Thunder fans scratching their heads. 

This first-round series with the Grizzlies has been no different for Westbrook. At times, he's taken over games when the team needed him. And at times, he has taken shots that leave people saying, "What the **** was that?" 

Overall, Westbrook has shot the ball dismally, and it has hurt the Thunder in this series. But that's just what you get with Westbrook. His will to win can't be criticized. He's going to give it his all every night. You just have to hope the good he brings outweighs the bad.

So far this series, it hasn't. 

Where Are You, KD?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - April 29, 2014:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on April 29, 2014 in Ok
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Remember that one guy who set historical records and locked up the MVP in the regular season? 

Where is he?

Maybe it's Tony Allen. Maybe it's fatigue. Maybe it's the pressure. Either way, Kevin Durant has looked average. 

So far this postseason, Durant is averaging 28 points, which looks good. But factor in the fact that he's shooting 40 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from three and 71 percent from the foul line, and you can see just how much Durant has been struggling. 

For most players in the NBA, getting criticism for being average in the postseason could be construed as unfair. Players like Durant, however, carry the burden of high expectations. He's a superstar in the NBA and is expected to perform as one. 

In Tuesday night's game, Durant had the opportunity to tie the game late in the OT period with two free-throw attempts. After sinking the first attempt, his team was down one.

Then something odd happened. 

As Durant held the ball getting ready for his next attempt, Joey Crawford inexplicably ran to Durant and took the ball away from him. Apparently, Crawford saw something wrong on the scoreboard and felt the need to disrupt the flow of the game to fix it. 

After icing Durant for a few moments, the problem was resolved. Durant then missed the game-tying free throw. 

As I said earlier, it would be easy to make the excuse for Durant that Crawford had no business stopping the flow of the game. Still, it's Kevin Durant. You would expect him to shake something like that off and pull through for his team. 

But he didn't and it ended up being the difference in the game. 

That sequence perfect sums up the series Durant has had thus far. He seems a little shaken up mentally. But if the Thunder are to have a shot at surviving this series, Durant has to play like the superstar he is. He has to step up. 

Scotty Doesn't Know

Uncredited/Associated Press

A little over a week ago, I wrote a piece on Scott Brooks possibly being on the hot seat if the Thunder are to face an early playoff exit. 

Brooks has received a lot of blame for the Thunder's postseason struggles, and rightfully so. With a team consisting of two All-Stars and numerous capable role players, Brooks has no excuse for his team's stagnant offense and lack of discipline this postseason. 

And that begs the question: How effective is Brooks really as a head coach? 

Sure, he's been a part of the Thunder's rise to elite status in the past six years. But when you have the good fortune of acquiring players like Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, such an ascendency is almost a given. 

If Brooks didn't have the talent to work with what he has now, would he still be the Thunder head coach? 

That may be a question that needs answering if the Thunder wind up losing this series to the Grizzlies. Brooks stubbornness with his lineups and offensive scheming (if he actually has one) has Thunder fans and followers questioning his ability to lead a team to an NBA title. 

For example, in Tuesday night's game, the Thunder had the opportunity in the OT period to win the game with 2.9 seconds left on the clock. Moments such as this are typically when head coaches draw up plays that give their team a high-percentage shot. 

Everyone in the arena knew the ball was going into Durant's hands. It's his team, and he has taken that responsibility time after time—as he should. I don't fault Brooks for putting the ball in Durant's hands. I fault him for the way he drew up the play. 

Down one, Durant received the ball 25-feet away from the basket and hoisted a three immediately after the catch. Unsurprisingly, he bricked.

It doesn't matter that Durant gets the final shot if he has to hoist up a contested, low-percentage shot. 

After the game, Daily Thunder's Royce Young quoted Brooks on the strategy behind that play. 

“He has opportunities to catch and drive,” Brooks said. “He had three seconds. I give KD that decision to make a play. Tough shot, no question it was a tough shot.”

OK, so Brooks didn't really draw up a play. 

That quote pretty much sums up Brooks' coaching philosophy for the Thunder. Rather than having his team run set plays, he gives the players the freedom to do things their own way. It's no wonder this team is being questioned for their lack of discipline. 

Truth is, there's a lot riding on this year's playoffs for the Thunder. Their window of opportunity could very well be closing as Durant approaches free agency in a couple years, and Westbrook continues to have issues with his knee. 

Brooks should be feeling a sense of urgency right now. As a head coach, he's supposed to have his players prepared for the playoffs. But from what I'm seeing here in the first round, he's not coming through for his team. 

The case may be that Brooks is simply inept in leading this team. He has all the tools necessary to make a title run, but at times, his players seem unmotivated, confused and lacking confidence. 

I'm hoping Brooks can turn this around quickly, because the Thunder are running out of time. It's moments like this that challenge a coaches leadership. We'll see how Brooks handles his business in the Thunder's must-win game Thursday night in Memphis. 

Follow @JaredPorter_BR for more Thunder news and analysis. 


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