"They were down. Upset. You look up and say 'How did they climb all the way back? How?' You start beating yourself up. That's when you have a moment. They looked at each other and realized there is still time left and we can execute because we work on it every day. I think it's a great lesson for us because you can tell yourself that but it's another thing to experience it." -- Warriors coach Mark Jackson on their final huddle before Andre Iguodala's buzzer beater to beat the Thunder
Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors gave us everything we'd ever want in a basketball game. Offensive explosions that consisted of brilliant shooting from long range, passes on a dime, crossover dribbles and thunderous attacks at the rim. Defensive brilliance happened, too, with absurd rim protection, timely rotations and crafty anticipation in the passing lanes. It was a beautiful sight to see.
Then, in an instant, Russell Westbrook delivered us the magic that only Patrick Beverley could prevent, a 30-foot bomb that completed the Thunder comeback after being down by 14 earlier in the fourth quarter.
"The play was actually for Andre (Iguodala). They overplayed him. He has a high basketball IQ. He read it, reacted, stayed patient, got the catch and made an incredible shot," Jackson said.
With a 115-114 lead and just two seconds remaining, OKC seemingly was assured to be leaving with a hard-fought victory. It was like getting two cherries on top of a supremely loaded ice cream sundae.
Insert the eruption from Oracle Arena after Iguodala's magic.
Yet and still, with all of the brilliance that was displayed, I kept feeling like both teams left a lot to be desired.
For Golden State, a recurring flaw reared its ugly head again Thursday night. With a 14-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Warriors let their opponent off the hook with poor offensive execution. In a four-minute stretch, Golden State failed to generate an actual play, as Stephen Curry was left to take three contested perimeter shots that didn't come within the flow of the offense at all. The Dubs' poor execution, paired with an improved defensive effort from OKC, caused an 11-1 run and a tense ending. It probably never had to come to this, but this lack of execution has bit the Warriors in the backside before. Just pull up the 2013 NBA playoffs if you need a reminder.
Also, what about Harrison Barnes? Is he nothing more than a specialist in this Golden State system? His abuse of Reggie Jackson in the post in the third quarter made everyone raise their eyebrows, but his chances of brilliance now feel sporadic with the acquisition of Andre Iguodala. Yes, Iguodala is a better player than Barnes, but my belief has always been that Barnes should start so that he could continue to develop and allow Iguodala to lead the second unit as the primary ball-handler and scorer. Who plays in the fourth quarter should be decided by the matchup. (Sidenote: There are some who say keeping Barnes on the bench can keep his future value down, but unless Golden State moves on from David Lee, I can't see the Warriors being able to afford Barnes when his rookie contract is up.)
With Oklahoma City, there are three call-outs that need to be addressed.
ONE: Russell Westbrook is selling out his defense with his recklessness. When engaged, Westbrook might be the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA. His ability to defend both guard positions with relentless pressure is how you would teach defense. But his continual lapses off the ball continually hampers OKC. Helping too much off Stephen Curry (!!!) is inexcusable. Taking your sweet time getting back on defense, then getting pump-faked into oblivion and flying into the stands is cringe-worthy. Golden State made a combined 28 threes and inside shots (five feet and in) compared to Oklahoma City's 18. Many of those were the result of OKC trying to scramble to recover for Westbrook's gambles.
TWO: Understanding deference: There's only one person on that OKC team who's earned the right to look off Kevin Durant. That's Westbrook, and even he had to go through hell and high water to do so. Reggie Jackson? Nope. Why did Serge Ibaka have more shot attempts than Durant? After starting the game by hitting his first four shots, Durant finished 5-of-13. Most of those shots were either forced, early in the shot clock or attempts in transition. I can't believe I'm typing this, but this is why Derek Fisher needs more playing time, just so the pecking order can be clear. It feels like everyone's out to get theirs on OKC, and the best player has that Eeyore-like look on his face. KD just wants to play with the rest of the guys.
THIRD: Too big to fail? I noticed Kevin Durant visibly frustrated between the third and fourth quarter. Saddled with four fouls, mired in a poor shooting performance and being continually looked off by Jackson all night, Durant sat on the padded table on the sidelines near his bench. He said nothing to no one, but his brow was furrowed and stewing. This lasted for 5-6 minutes.
Meanwhile, head coach Scott Brooks was there talking to the player next to Durant like he was the one who would make the difference in the game. That player was Perry Jones. No disrespect to PJ3, but your best player might make a tad more of an impact than your 10th-best player. When the fourth quarter started, it took KD a grand total of 14 seconds to pick up his fifth foul. He was still frustrated and no one went to calm him down. His defense suffered because of it in the fourth quarter and he had to stay saddled on the bench a few minutes longer than was necessary.
There's going to come a point where the finger will need to be pointed at someone. Will it be at Scott Brooks, who can't seem to find ways to generate easier scoring opportunities for his team? Will it be at Sam Presti, who assembled this roster with a surplus of young talent, but still at times lack cohesion? Or, will the finger be pointed at Durant and Westbrook for not putting their foot down with management on something they believe needs addressing?
For better or worse, the Oklahoma City Thunder have always felt like a great team that wins because of their best players and in spite of their head coach and roster deficiencies. It makes you wonder if Brooks is incapable of being fired, because he's led this team from the bottom to the proverbial top. Is he too big to fail?
This is what keeps Thunder fans up at night, or at the very least, makes them want to grab multiple drinks.
A Happy Hour drink recommendation: A Poor Man's Black Velvet. This drink usually calls for a combination of a chilled stout beer (Guinness always works) and champagne, but I bet you don't have any champagne chilling around your house, unless your name is Drake. However, because it's starting to get cold outside, I know you can find some cider at your local market. Pick up a bottle of cider and a 6-pack of Guinness stout, and go to town.