These are hard, painful lessons for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They are the hard, painful lessons virtually every championship team has had to learn. Michael Jordan and his Bulls were knocked out three straight years by the Detroit Pistons, teaching him hard lessons. It’s true of champions since. Even the two-time, soon-to-be-dethroned Lakers had to not just lose but get crushed by the Celtics in a closeout game to understand the final steps they had to take.
Championship teams learn from these lessons and come back better for it. The Thunder started that process last season, lessons learned from the energy the Lakers responded with when challenged last season helped propel the Thunder to the Western Conference finals
This season, the Thunder are taking tougher courses. The new lessons all focus around execution. Particularly execution under pressure. About finishing off games on the biggest stages.
These are painful lessons, especially when they come on the end of a loss where you were up 15 points with less than five minutes to go.
The lessons are that to win close games in the playoffs requires you create space for your stars by having other threats the defense has to respect, having good play designs and then executing those plays. The Thunder had none of those at the end of Game 4.
“We struggled at the end with execution, and we struggled throughout the game with turnovers,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said in his postgame interview, broadcast on NBA TV.
Some of the lessons the Thunder are being taught:
• With the game on the line, your best shooters have to get looks or set up other scorers. Meaning if Kevin Durant is going to see a hard double-team — and he will every time — then Thabo Sefolosha is not the guy who should be the outlet for the three. He shot 27.5 percent from three this season and is a career 30 percent shooter from deep. Yet he was the guy taking a key late three because he was open. He was open for a reason. Jordan learned the pass the ball with the game on the line but Steve Kerr was a knock down shooter (career 45 percent from three). It’s not just making the pass, it’s making the pass to the right guy.
Which brings us to another lesson…
• A team needs to have some good end of play sets. A chunk of this falls to Scott Brooks, who at one point late in the game had his team come out of a timeout to run a Westbrook isolation. There was no clever play drawn up to free him.
When things got tight late the Thunder reverted to a Durant/Westbrook pick and roll that was easy to defend, basically forcing an isolation play. Look what happened on that second-to-last play: Dallas did not respect as a threat anybody else on the court so they had three guys up and defending the pick and roll, which was really more of a handoff to Durant then Westbrook slid out of the way. So Durant tried a 30-foot shot that was still blocked by Shawn Marion. The play had no chance of working because there was no execution.
“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Durant said of the play. “I caught the ball I was at the half court line, there where three Mavericks in front of me and three seconds on the clock. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to run into their defense and had another shot.”
The play had no other good passing options, no guys moving off the ball, no getting the ball to Durant in the post or a spot he likes on the floor. It wasn’t even a good clear out play.
The way that went down brings us to another lesson…
• The front office needs to get more shooters and scorers. They rightfully love the way this team has come together in Oklahoma City. This is a good group. But once James Harden went out — once a third serious scoring option left the floor — the Thunder become predictable. They don’t pay the price for that much in the regular season because Durant and Westbrook are such serious talents, but in the playoffs against a good team it doesn’t work.
• The Thunder need to be able to defend better at the end of games. This is pretty self explanitory. It’s not just on offense, the best teams can get stops late, not make key fouls. This, however, is a little harder to pin on the Thunder at the end of Game 4 because Dirk Nowitzki is one of the great scorers the game has and sometimes you can’t stop him. Also, that foul on Nick Collison guarding Durant late could have gone either way (we’ve all seen that both called and ignored at the end of close games, it was borderline).
• Westbrook has to learn to better use his explosiveness to set guys up, Durant has to learn how to better play in traffic and get inside late in games.
The jumpshots Durant was settling for at the end of the game looked like Kobe Bryant’s pull up jumpers late. And that is not a good sign. You want to be more like Kobe circa 2001, the guy who would attack the rim late in games. Durant has to find a way to be a bigger threat in traffic and not just settle for pull-up jumpers.
Westbrook has taken a lot of heat this series, and certainly some of it is deserved. He has to find a way to strike a better balance with his teammates — like he did in Game 7 against Memphis. He is a young point guard — he didn’t play the point until the pros and he is only 22. He is learning, figuring out when he has to attack and when that attack should be to set others up. But under pressure he reverts to wanting to score because that is what he did for so long. He does not think pass first — he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.
Which is sort of where all the Thunder are — close but not quite there yet. Another small couple of pieces used better, both by the coach in better sets and the stars as release valves. Just better execution under pressure.
The Thunder are learning hard lessons. But they are lessons champions have learned and grow from.