The Oklahoma City Thunder are probably still going to win their Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers. They’ve been the better team through four games. They have the better superstars. (Sorry, Chris Paul, but it’s true.) They’ve regained home-court advantage. Los Angeles’s role players — specifically those called upon to shoot well — can’t hit three-pointers with any consistency whatsoever.
Put it this way: Oklahoma City can play the way it’s been playing and expect to win this series. Los Angeles cannot play the way it’s been playing and expect to win this series.
The Clippers, despite being thoroughly outplayed in each of the past three games — their only superb performance came in Game 1 — are even with the Thunder. They’re in a best-of-three competition despite woeful performances over the past week from their knockdown shooters. J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Jamal Crawford, Danny Granger, and Matt Barnes have all been unable to provide both steady and efficient perimeter production. A 2-2 series is a minor miracle.
Yes, Oklahoma City really blew it on Sunday in Game 4.
Many will say — quite reasonably, too — that a number of conspicuously inadequate plays by the Thunder enabled the Clippers to come back. Kevin Durant threw an awful pass with three minutes left to give Darren Collison a breakaway dunk. A few moments earlier, with 4:28 left, Russell Westbrook imprudently gave a fifth foul on a separate Collison breakaway with Oklahoma City leading by seven. The Thunder hit the clutch jump shots they took in the final minutes of Game 3 on Friday, and they didn’t hit as many of them down the stretch in Game 4. Players did fail, as is always the case when a team gacks up a 16-point lead with roughly nine minutes left in regulation.
Why, then, was this a “coach’s loss” more than a “players’ loss” for Oklahoma City? Is it fair to say that Scott Brooks lost this game more than anyone else in the Thunder camp? Why should a coach take the blame for the breakdowns and lapses committed by a bunch of professional veterans in a high-stakes situation?
5 – BROOKS USED TIMEOUTS FREQUENTLY IN THE FOURTH QUARTER
It’s not as though Brooks didn’t have — or use — chances to talk to his team in the midst of the Clippers’ comeback. Brooks called timeouts at the 8:11 and 6:13 marks of the fourth. He called two timeouts within two minutes of scoreboard-clock time.
You know this as a television viewer: NBA coaches don’t reinvent the wheel during timeout huddles. They often choose a few basic points to emphasize while their players rest and refocus. In late-game situations, coaches draw up plays and make defensive assignments, among other things, but their encouragement to their players often acquires the most basic forms. “I could tell players to box out and display energy on the court,” you might tell yourself when ESPN/ABC/TNT shows a sound clip.
What, then, was Brooks telling his team during these timeouts? Oklahoma City steadily drifted away from an attacking offense as the fourth quarter moved along. It was only after another Brooks timeout with 2:57 left that the Thunder regained an edge on offense, scoring on four straight possessions after that particular timeout. If the 8:11 and 6:13 timeouts couldn’t impart more structure into the Thunder’s offense, it’s more than fair to question what’s being communicated in the huddle (and how Brooks is communicating).
4 – RUSSELL WESTBROOK HAD ESTABLISHED AN ABILITY TO GET TO THE RIM
Sometimes, a defense simply elevates its level of intensity. An offense tips its cap and acknowledges how well the opponent performed. This was not one such game. Doc Rivers might be an elite coach, but he has struggled to improve the Clippers’ defense this season and in this series as well. Oklahoma City has scored at least 52 points in each of the four first halves in this series. The Clippers have usually looked overmatched against the Thunder’s offensive skill set.
At the heart of Oklahoma City’s superiority at the offensive end of the floor has been Russell Westbrook’s ability to get to the rim by beating his man off the dribble. Westbrook missed a few five- and six-foot shots in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, but getting into the paint was rarely if ever a problem for him. Settling for jumpers, even in the final seconds — when two more power dribbles or a pass by Westbrook could have given the Thunder a much better look — represented not just a choice on OKC’s part. This was an intentional way of proceeding.
Settling for jumpers against a tough defense is one thing. Settling for jumpers against a defense that never fully proved it could stop the basketball is quite another. Yes, that’s on the head coach.
3 – GAME 3
It’s not that complicated, but it’s bitterly ironic for Brooks: In Game 3 on Friday, Brooks flatly outcoached Rivers. His maneuvers on offense outflanked the Clippers’ scrambling and tardy defense. Middle screen-and-rolls with Kevin Durant as the ballhandler produced the corner/sideline threes by Caron Butler that helped put the game away for the Thunder.
Very simply, then, the structure seen from Oklahoma City’s offensive sets late in Game 3 only magnifies the extent to which such structure was absent late in Game 4. Brooks deserves credit for Game 3 — plenty of it — but Sunday’s endgame is something he must own as well.
2 – THE THIRD QUARTER WAS NOT EXACTLY A MASTERWORK FOR OKC
Lost in the shuffle of the Thunder’s fourth-quarter collapse was the fact that in the third quarter, the Clippers — down by 11 at the half — scored only 17 points. Oklahoma City should have blown L.A. out of the Staples Center in that period, but the Thunder were careless with the ball. They played with little energy, as did the Clips. An 18-point quarter actually did increase OKC’s halftime lead by one point, but the quarter still represented a missed opportunity for the Thunder.
Here’s the point to emphasize about that mediocre third quarter: The fact that Oklahoma City struggled in that quarter meant that this was not a situation in which the players on the floor established a high standard for the balance of the second half, only to falter on their own at crunch time. The Thunder were consistently poor in the second half.
Not until the final 2:30 of regulation did the Thunder play with the fluidity they demonstrated in the first half. OKC scored on three consecutive possessions only twice in the second half, and it hit field goals on consecutive possessions only twice in the second half as well. All this occurred with Blake Griffin in foul trouble for much of the half, and with Chris Paul guarding Kevin Durant. Should the Thunder have needed 21.5 minutes to finally run crisp sets on offense? Who was minding the store?
Is this truly an unreasonable line of criticism, especially in light of everything Durant (40 points) and Westbrook (27) still managed to achieve?
1 – THE CLIPPERS PARADED TO THE RIM AND THE FOUL LINE
Usually, a 16-point comeback in the final nine minutes of regulation is built on the backs of multiple three-point shots.
On Sunday, the Clippers needed only one three (from Jamal Crawford at the 1:23 mark), and yet, that detail tells a very small part of a much larger story.
In the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Clippers made only two field goals beyond four feet from the tin: Crawford’s three and a Darren Collison 19-foot make at the nine-minute mark with OKC leading, 82-66.
If you think that’s a crazy stat, try this one on for size: Los Angeles scored 35 points in the final nine minutes; 28 of those points came from layups and free throws. A single four-foot floater from Chris Paul was the only other non-layup field goal the Clippers made in the fourth quarter, in addition to Crawford’s three and Collison’s jumper.
What adds to the enormity of OKC’s collapse is that the Thunder had been wisely daring the Clippers’ struggling perimeter shooters to make shots. J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes were unable to develop any sort of rhythm. Crawford continues to score well for the Clips, but his points come at the expense of far too many shots.
All Oklahoma City had to do was to stop the ball as it approached the paint. Giving up some paint touches and foul shots to Blake Griffin, a legitimate star, is one thing. That’s going to happen, because Griffin has made himself into a highly improved player.
Getting beaten by Darren Collison, though? What’s the excuse there?
Collison did score four points on breakaways (a dunk and two made foul shots) before the final 2:30 of regulation. At that point in time, Oklahoma City still owned a 90-89 lead. No one on the floor expected Collison to be a central catalyst for the Clippers, so let’s be reasonable and concede that those four points (not counting the 19-foot make at the nine-minute mark) were just part of the flow of the game.
Entering the final minutes, Oklahoma City no longer had an excuse for failing to account for Collison. Yet, the journeyman backup earned two more foul shots with 2:12 left. He then torched OKC’s defense for a layup with 59 seconds left. He got free in transition for yet one more layup with 32 seconds to go.
Failing to stop the ball or play zone.
Failing to have proper floor balance, time and time again.
Failing to protect the rim.
Oklahoma City’s total loss of focus on defense was not the product of one player’s gaffes or an unlucky bounce of the ball. The Thunder, who had been using a simple formula — force Matt Barnes and other Clipper wings to hit jumpers — completely lost sight of that formula.
Isn’t a coach supposed to say something at some point… and get through to his tested playoff veterans?
If this wasn’t a “coach’s loss,” what exactly would be?