National Basketball Association
It all falls apart for young Thunder
National Basketball Association

It all falls apart for young Thunder

Published May. 24, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

With 40.3 seconds remaining in the overtime period, Jason Kidd hit a three-pointer. The shot provided more than the margin of victory. It epitomized the difference between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks.

Kidd, 38, received the ball from 32-year-old Dirk Nowitzki just behind the line. Russell Westbrook, 22, and quite possibly the greatest sheer talent on either team, closed hard. Westbrook can jump out of the gym, and that’s exactly what he tried to do at the first hint of Kidd’s pump-fake. Then, with Westbrook having sailed clear out of the play, Kidd hit an uncontested shot.

Yes, youth must be served (as Westbrook certainly was). But it’s easily suckered, too. And that’s the moral of this story. As currently constituted, the Thunder have a combination of youth and talent unmatched by any team in the league. There’s Westbrook, Kevin Durant, already the league’s two-time scoring leader at 22, Serge Ibaka, 21, and James Harden, whose vaguely rabbinical stylings belie the fact he’s also just 21. In fact, the oldest guy in Scott Brooks’ rotation is Nick Collison — and he’s just 30. So it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re looking at a potential dynasty here in Oklahoma. Just the same, Brooks’ charges played like silly kids Monday night.

Not only did they blow a 15-point lead at home with 5:04 remaining in the fourth quarter, they managed to do something I’ve never seen, never imagined actually. After four quarters, they had outrebounded their opponents by a margin of 52-28 — 20-5 on the offensive end — and still managed to lose. That can’t be easy to do. Just the same, they’ll have to live with it. And now that they are down 3-1 in the series, they'll have to live with it all summer long.


“It was a tough loss,” said Brooks, obviously crestfallen during the postgame press conference. “If this loss did not hurt you, there’s no such thing as a loss that can.”

The outcome wasn’t due to a lack of effort. “Our guys played as hard a basketball game as you can play,” said Brooks, his claim supported by the rebounding numbers.

Still, maybe his guys relaxed with the big lead?

“Looking back, you can probably say that,” the coach conceded. “. . . We have to learn from it.”

Certainly, his team is in need of an education. And it’s fair to wonder if last season’s Coach of the Year — who’s done a fine job bringing his team this far in less than three years — is the guy to impart these lessons. He’s a former point guard, and whatever the case, or the cause, it’s clear he hasn’t yet gotten through to his. The point guard is supposed to be an extension of the coach, and clearly, that’s not happening.

I’m not arguing this is Westbrook’s fault. He didn’t play the point in college. He was projected as a defensive player. And it’s safe to say that nobody — except Thunder GM Sam Presti, who drafted Westbrook fourth overall — really understood how good he could be.

But at some point soon, he has to make a choice. Does he want to be Allen Iverson, albeit a bigger and stronger version? Or does he want to be the point guard for a championship team? He can do either. But, ultimately, it’s his decision.

“We had the game in our favor at the start of the fourth quarter,” Westbrook said. “We just were not able to close it out. I think we just missed shots.”

For the record, Westbrook was 1 for 5 in that fourth quarter, 0 for 2 from the line, with a couple of turnovers to boot.

Interestingly enough, the most passionate and intelligent defense of OKC’s point guard came from one of Dallas’ big men. “Right now, he’s a great scapegoat for this team,” said Brendan Haywood. “Anytime they don’t win, everybody says Russell Westbrook isn’t passing. Well, he’s the No. 2 option on this team, and he’s been playing this way all year long. For me, I think people are being overly critical of him. . . . Now that it’s the big stage, people are saying he’s not passing to Durant.”

Haywood is correct, to an extent. You shouldn’t get a pass after going 1 for 7 in the game’s final 17 minutes. But Durant has to cut harder and sharper. He has to learn how to move better without the ball. He has to catch the ball with some authority. He has to protect it better.

You want to know how to lose to a team you outrebound? Your main guy has nine turnovers — nine of the 25 committed on the night. It’s worth mentioning what happened right before Kidd’s winning three. That was Kidd stripping the ball from Durant, who had just happened to miss his last six attempts.

“We missed some shots,” said Durant. “Our youth has nothing to do with it.”

One day he’ll know better.


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