If the Oklahoma City Thunder had their way, they’d have no doubt left the Pepsi Center Monday night with a hard-fought victory against the Denver Nuggets, resulting in a commanding, decisive and message-sending 4-0 series sweep.
After a confounding 104-101 Game 4 loss to Ty Lawson and company, though, coach Scott Brooks’ team will have to settle for a golden opportunity to close out the series at home and leave the first round in the dust at a sure-to-be raucous Ford Center on Wednesday night.
Even taking last night’s setback into account, there may not have been a more impressive team over the postseason’s first ten days than Oklahoma City.
Facing a rejuvenated, post-Carmelo Anthony Nuggets squad that many experts saw as a dark-horse Western conference threat, the Thunder have looked like championship contenders.
With the February acquisition of C Kendrick Perkins, OKC has seemingly every ingredient needed to make a sooner-than-expected title run.
Size on the interior? Check. Athleticism? They’ve got it in spades. Shooting? No doubt. Defensive stoppers? At both levels. Quality depth? Maybe more than any team in the league. Star power? Say hello to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The one thing the young Thunder truly lack, then? Tangible buzz-words like “experience” and “decision-making,” traits that are perhaps overvalued during the regular season grind, but completely necessary once spring and summer finally roll around.
At the heart of the issue is Westbrook, OKC’s dynamo lead-guard, and that fact has never been more evident than in the critical moments of his team’s loss in Game 4.
Throughout the season, some lamented that Westbrook’s ascent to stardom hindered the development and play of Durant, himself a young player that has growing to do despite his already-gaudy career accomplishments.
As Westbrook improved, it was obvious he’d want the ball in his hands more and more. After all, this is a guy that only started playing point guard two seasons ago, and—like contemporary Derrick Rose—whose first instinct is to score rather than set up his teammates.
Problem is, with an alpha dog like Durant already rightfully established as the team’s best player, there is only so much ball to go around.
Getting to the point: Over the final minutes of OKC’s loss, Westbrook’s score-first, “I got this” mentality doomed the Thunder.
Beginning at the 4:43 mark with a missed 20-footer, he used eight possessions down the stretch, only capitalizing on two of them. More troubling than his inefficiency, though, was the way he went about it.
Westbrook, a still-developing shooter with a lightning quick first step, missed four long jumpers, committed a senseless charge 20 feet from the basket, and on multiple occasions passed-up open teammates—and the league’s top scorer, Durant, no less—to go one-on-one.
There was a lot of dribbling by Westbrook, and a lot of standing by the other OKC players on the floor, as if they knew they weren’t getting the ball.
A perfect microcosm of Westbrook’s overall performance were OKC’s final two possessions: Down three with eight seconds left, he raced up the floor, stopped on a dime, and pulled up from deep, the end-result a hopeless air ball.
Just seconds later, the Thunder clinging to hope down three again on the heels of a Durant trey, Westbrook eschewed advancing the ball with a pass despite just four seconds remaining in the game.
Instead, he once again dribbled furiously up the sideline before getting off a desperation, 35-foot runner that clanged hard off the glass.
Westbrook’s me-first approach becomes ever clearer when you consider what PG peer Jason Kidd did in a similar last-effort situation over the weekend.
Kidd secured a defensive rebound with four seconds left on the clock and his team down two. Instead of taking it himself, he immediately looked up and fed an open Jason Terry—standing just outside the three-point line—for a game-winning attempt.
Though the result was the same as Westbrook’s, the point is obvious: Kidd got his team a good shot by making the play a point guard should—giving the ball up to a teammate with a better chance to make a play.
Westbrook, on that final play and throughout the game, rarely did the same.
This is not meant to bash Westbrook; other than Durant, no Thunder player is more influential to OKC’s success. He’s one of the brightest young talents in the game, and will only improve as his career wears on.
For the sake of the Thunder’s fortunes this postseason and beyond, however, it’s pertinent he realizes his role as a secondary option to Durant and the limitations of his own game.
Durant, after all, had 31 points on 18 shots including two threes in the game’s final minute. Westbrook, on the other hand, had 30 points on as many attempts, half of which were jump shots that he routinely struggles to make.
If Westbrook learns from the Game 4 loss to Denver, honing his shot-selection and decision-making, one thinks the Thunder won’t mind having to close out the April first round series in five games rather than four; because as a result, they could be playing another in June, the NBA Finals.