When you lose to a Laker team coming off of its worst loss in franchise history, it’s time to get concerned. When you allow a career performance for the second-straight contest, it’s time to get concerned. When you not only lose an 18-point lead, but then proceed to give up one yourself, it’s time to get concerned.
Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins weren’t the only missing pieces, as it looked as though the Thunder’s heart didn’t even bother to take the two-game road trip either. Both games were plagued by not only a lack of communication on the court, but an overall lack of effort that suggested complacency, as though their 43-13 record before NBA All-Star Weekend made them entitled to an NBA Finals appearance. As Sekou Smith writes in his blog at NBA.com, the small market fantasy NBA Finals between the Thunder and Pacers looks to be more of a long shot as the All-Star weekend gets farther in the rear-view mirror.
The Thunder’s 114-110 loss to the Lakers now has them officially a half-game behind the Spurs for #1 seed in the West at 46-17. Although despite a big win, the Lakers only improve to 22-42, which still has them tied with the Jazz for the West cellar. The Rockets will be looking for their sixth straight victory at “The ‘Peake” tonight, as they are only two games behind the Thunder, and are neck-and-neck with the Clippers for the Western Conference’s 3rd seed. There is a lot more than just bragging rights riding on tonight’s game, as the Rockets pull within a game of the Thunder with a victory. If losing the number #1 slot, potentially losing their footing on the #2 seed, and suffering a morale-crushing defeat on their home court isn’t enough motivation to yield an inspired performance from the Thunder defense, then this Thunder team may not be the championship contenders I had them pegged for heading into the All-Star break.
There were six Lakers who scored double-figures, led by Jodie Meeks’ career-high 42-point performance. Pau Gasol even double-doubled, as he added 11 rebounds to go with his 20 points. Ryan Kelly posted 12 points, and Wesley Johnson added 11. Even Jordan Farmar and Kent Bazemore got in on the score-fest, combining for 23 from the Lakers bench (Farmar: 12, Bazemore: 11).
The Thunder’s big three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka all managed 20 or more points, with two of them even registering double-doubles (Durant: 27 pts, 10 rebs. Ibaka: 21 pts, 15 rebs. Westbrook: 20 pts.). Reggie Jackson even posted 14 points off of the Thunder bench. But despite scoring 232 points over the last two games, including 110 at Staples Center, the offense still has its issues. Not only are untimely turnovers killing momentum, but shooting entirely too many 3-balls, as opposed to setting up easy buckets can often spell the difference between a win and a loss. The Thunder have lived and died by the 3-ball throughout the OKC era, but they are built to drive the lane at this point.
Even Westbrook’s numbers at Staples Sunday afternoon somewhat reflect the argument (5-of-13, or 38.5% inside the arc vs. 2-of-10, or 20% outside) that the Thunder take more 3s than they really need in games. The difference in Durant’s numbers show it better than anyone else’s (4-of-8, or 50% inside the arc vs. 4-of-11, or 36.4% outside.), yet the front-runner for the NBA scoring title played as though he either didn’t notice, or didn’t care at all (and at times it really looked like the latter). I can simply use these two to make my point.
In this argument, we’ll assume that both players would have shot similar inside-shooting percentages if every one of their shots were from inside the arc. Westbrook would have gone 9-for-23, or 39.1%. This nets him 4 additional points, which alone would have forced overtime assuming there is no change to the Lakers’ final score. This means that Durant hitting just below at 9-for-19, or 47.3% would have ended in a 116-114 Thunder victory. But even with that argument, allowing 242 points over a two-game road trip makes the real problem not only very obvious, but rather glaring as well.
And the Rockets are hoping the Thunder bring their defensive woes back home, as they’re down 2-0 in the season series, with a 2-2 split now being the best they can achieve. The Thunder took a 117-86 victory sans Westbrook on Dec. 28th, and also managed without him at Toyota Center on Jan. 16th, where they claimed a 104-92 victory. But both games were before All-Star weekend, which prompted the Thunder to lose 5 of their last 8. The Rockets’ current 5-game winning streak includes victories over the Heat, Pacers, and most recently the Blazers, which at least helps the Thunder on their quest for another Northwest Division Title. Fortunately for the Thunder, all 5 of those Rocket victories came within the confines of the Toyota Center, so the Rockets have yet to prove they can take this impressive winning streak on the road. Also, despite being 3-5 over the last 8 games, the Thunder’s 3-game home winning streak is currently active, so the Thunder are actually looking at a 4th straight home victory if they just left their heart here, and hit the court tonight with a sense of urgency and purpose. Will they get it done? Find out tonight at 7pm CST via Fox Sports Oklahoma, WWLS The Sports Animal, or NBA TV.