OKLAHOMA CITY – Russell Westbrook popped up on the big scoreboard at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday night and promptly got the biggest cheer of the night.
The All-Star guard was watching the game from a suite, bum knee and all, but it looked like it was the rest of the guys on the court who were the ones hurting.
Undoubtedly, the Thunder miss him. It’s shown in the past two games as the eighth-seeded Rockets have won a pair and now are back in Houston on Friday night for a Game 6. But what hasn’t become obvious is the simple fact that this team is good enough to not only get past this Rockets team that is only semi-interested in defense, but good enough to get back to the NBA Finals.
Yeah. This year. Yeah. Without Westbrook.
Yet, here the Thunder are treading, but taking on, water. The sanctuary of a 3-2 lead is comforting as is the fall-back position of knowing there is a Game 7 back in Oklahoma City on Sunday just in case, but it should never get that far.
“One of the things we take pride in is figuring out ways to put ourselves in position to win,” coach Scott Brooks said Thursday. “Last night’s game got away from us, but hopefully that was our bad game.”
It was bad, but the Thunder only need to be mildly better to move on. Not an overhaul, just a combination of not fouling on defense and finding a warm body on offense.
The Thunder did neither Wednesday against Houston in the 107-100 loss, deciding to essentially give up on defense, by fouling Omer Asik for a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter instead of trying to stop open 3-pointers.
“We weren’t playing good defense,” Brooks said. “No question. We wanted to change the rhythm and the complexion of how they were playing.”
And instead of trying to change what his team was doing, the Thunder started fouling. It didn’t work. Asik made 11 of 16 free throws in the fourth quarter. Combine that with the fact that offensively Durant was alone. He got very little help, so when he went scoreless in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City went stagnant.
Brooks said the fix is as easy and simple as “just playing better,” a phrase he uses liberally, like an unimaginative cook with salt and pepper, sprinkling it in with no real purpose or direction other than someone said it’s necessary.
So, how does this team play better in Game 6?
Easy. Take Kevin Martin and start him. Take Nick Collison and play him. Take Kendrick Perkins and bench him and take Serge Ibaka and praise him. Do any amount of the above and it’s enough.
Martin has been beyond dreadful in the series, highlighted by a 1-for-10, three-point showing Wednesday, so while it’s hard to say he needs to shoot more, it might be the only option. Change things up by starting him for the first time this season. Get him the ball often. Get him some confidence early, like Durant suggested late Wednesday night. The better Martin plays the better it will be for Durant. Martin, like Durant and Reggie Jackson, can create his own shot. Tell him to get to work on it.
Then there’s the case of Collison. He provided a necessary contribution in the first half, going for six points, two rebounds and two blocks in six minutes. In the second half, Collison didn’t play. When asked if he felt like Collison should have played more, Brooks responded with, “I wish we would have gotten more stops.” But that wasn’t a possibility either as Brooks decided against playing defense, choosing to foul instead.
Perkins isn’t a fit for this series against the smaller, guard-oriented Rockets, so playing the quicker Collison seems to make sense. Meanwhile, Ibaka had 14 points and nine rebounds Wednesday but managed just five rebounds and eight shots in Game 4. He has to be counted on, not to carry the team, but to just show up.
Someone. Anyone. If the Thunder get a player besides Durant to be offensive-minded and contribute with some regularity, then this team makes it back to the Finals.
“If I could pinpoint one guy making a mistake, we’d have to do something about it,” Brooks said. “It was five guys. We started the game and made seven mistakes in eight possessions. I wasn’t going to take all five guys out. Maybe I should have. Maybe that’s the next thing. I’m joking on that one.”
Not really funny, though. Oklahoma City was bad on offense Wednesday, yeah, but it was worse on defense, allowing a 37-point third quarter from Houston when the Rockets shot 70 percent from the field.
“We just have to play better,” said Brooks, going with the old standby line. “We have to play tough-minded, defensive basketball. The defensive things we have to clean up. When you give open 3s and mistake 3s to a good shooting team you’re going to have a tough night. We did that too many times.”
And too many times Durant was trying to do it all. He shouldn’t have to.
“We know we have to play better,” Brooks said. “We also know we’re up 3-2. Our focus is on re-grouping and figuring out some of things that we can improve on and do it for 48 minutes.”
It’s a simple fix. Get some help for Durant and show up on defense.