Every game has been close. Every game has been decided in the last five minutes.
By all accounts, the Thunder and the Grizzlies are comparable and evenly matched.
It’s a 3-1 Memphis lead and it could be the other way around. Which is fitting, because for the Thunder, it’s a “What-If” kind of finish to a season that fairly recently didn’t require a question at all.
Game 5 is Wednesday in Oklahoma City, and it could be the final time we hear, “What If Russell Westbrook would have been healthy.”
And while that remains the most compelling and most topical question facing the Thunder, really there’s a series of issues and questions related directly and indirectly to Westbrook that are also worth examining.
And those are the questions that will determine if the Thunder will get more than just one more game before their season ends.
Before the Westbrook injury, the only question was whether the Thunder would have enough to get past San Antonio and figure out a way to solve Miami in the Finals.
But since Westbrook’s injury, the Thunder are just 3-5, and the questions have piled up as quickly as the losses. It’s easy to say this series against Memphis and this season would be a lot different with the all-star’s 20-plus points, assists, leadership and any other combination of boxscore fillers you want to consider. And while Westbrook was consistently blamed after losses for shooting too much, he’s now being pointed to for these three losses in a row to Memphis. If only he would have been able to play. Things wouldn’t be like this.
There wouldn’t be a discussion about Kevin Durant, that’s for sure. Well, not in the way we’re talking about him now – having to do too much, too often in too many minutes.
Durant said before Game 2 there was more he could do. Said the same thing after Game 3 as well. But aside from Game 1 when Durant made the winning shot, what Durant has done is falter in the closing minutes. What-if? Yep. Give Durant a pass on this one. No Westbrook means a lot of minutes and a lot of energy expended.
Durant went to the free throw line just three times in Game 4, suggesting he wasn’t going to the basket with the same regularity as he normally does. He is averaging 8.2 free throws per game in the playoffs, but with the spike in minutes – now playing five minutes more than his average in the regular season – comes the inability to get to the basket. It’s tiring carrying a team. He needs help.
He was 10-for-27 Monday night, but just 2-for-13 in the fourth quarter and overtime combined.
Since Game 1 when Durant went five-for-six from the field in the fourth quarter, he has followed it up with an 0-for-3 in the closing minutes in Game 2, 3-for-11 in the second half of Game 3 and then the struggle in Game 4. All losses.
Despite all that, Durant has put up a lot of points, getting 27 Monday night and averaging 31.8 in the playoffs, but what if he had Westbrook? He’d certainly have something to count on and he’d certainly have help.
Any amount of help, despite no Westbrook, means a Thunder win. Because what if Kevin Martin shows up for Game 2 and 3 when he went a combined 8-for-28 from the field? Martin was great in Game 4, going for 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, but his absence was notable in the middle two games. Anything consistent from Martin means the Thunder probably win one, if not both of the two games.
Same goes for Serge. Ibaka was great in Game 4, but since his layup missed in the final seconds at Houston in Game 4 of the first round, he hasn’t been an offensive force, combining to go 12-of-39 in the first three games against the Grizzlies. Anything consistent from Ibaka and the Thunder probably win another game.
What if Durant didn’t feel the need to say he could do more, or what if Durant didn’t try to take it all upon himself?
What if the rest of the Thunder players, brought in to be complementary pieces to Durant and Westbrook played better in the playoffs, not inconsistently, or worse?
Yeah, what if.
Instead, Memphis with all its pieces is ahead of Oklahoma City 3-1 and the Thunder are down a pair of game and questioning about everything the way this season has played out.