DENVER – Perhaps it’s good that the Thunder got a game like this out of their system now, because it won't cost them anything. Oklahoma City’s 104-101 Game 4 loss to Denver leaves the Thunder in no great peril, as they still lead the best-of-seven series 3-1 and can close it out on Wednesday in front of their raucous home crowd.
But the Thunder did display weaknesses that need addressing if they’re serious about challenging for the Western Conference crown. The perimeter defense was too lenient, the role players too invisible, the first-quarter energy too low, and the reactions to the refs too hot-headed.
Despite all those shortcomings, Oklahoma City still would have completed an impressive four-game sweep tonight were it not for the most glaring weakness of all: Poor offensive decision-making, particularly from point guard Russell Westbrook.
Don’t get me wrong, Westbrook is a fantastic player, and at 22 he’s going to be one for a long time. But he’s a fantastic player with a Colorado-sized chip on his shoulder, and his quest to leave his imprint on every possession of every game often takes him racing past the nuances that could make him a better point guard and a better basketball player.
There’s a tension here, because this mindset isn’t something you necessarily want to corral if you’re Oklahoma City. It’s that mix of moxie and fearlessness that makes Westbrook a potent, if unnatural point guard; in fact it’s what allows his supreme talent to so often overshadow his still-shaky decisions.
Yet it also serves to keep the ball out of Durant’s hands on many nights, even though he’s clearly the more efficient of the two as a scorer. This game was a perfect example. Westbrook scored 30 points, but needed 30 shots to get them – 15 of which were the jump shots that he struggles to convert. Meanwhile, Durant was methodically ripping the Nuggets for 31 on just 18 shots, but was starved of possession at times while Westbrook fired away.
Westbrook made only 35.4 percent of his shots from 15 feet or greater this season, according to ESPN Research, and just 4 of his 15 attempts from there tonight. Seven of those tries were 3-pointers, including three in the final 30 seconds; none went in.
The most egregious of the bunch came with eight seconds left and the Thunder down by three; Oklahoma City eschewed a timeout, Westbrook raced up the right sideline and tried a pull-up three, and his shot hit nothing but air and fell harmlessly out of bounds. He’s a 27.4 percent career marksman from distance; that ball needs to find Durant or James Harden.
That decision was par for the course, however, with one three-trip sequence late in the fourth quarter typifying the evening. On the first trip, Westbrook dribbled for 19 seconds without ever getting into the paint before eventually launching a contested jumper. On the next trip, he ignored an obvious swing pass to a free Harden on the weak-side wing; instead he faked the pass and ran over Ty Lawson for an offensive foul. And on the third, he drove to the hoop – good so far – but was incensed about not getting a foul call. He jawed at the refs and jogged back on defense, leading directly to a wide-open Danilo Gallinari 3-pointer that was taken with Westbrook just ambling over halfcourt.
And then there’s the Thunder’s worst possession of the night – one where the blame, it should be said, is far more widespread. Trailing by two with 51 seconds left, the Thunder achieved the double whammy of awful clock management and a terrible shot. They used 22 seconds off the clock to eliminate a 2-for-1, and ending up with Westbrook shooting a contested 3 over Danilo Gallinari that rimmed out. When his shot missed, the Thunder were left having to intentionally foul.
Westbrook is off the hook for that shot, though – he was put in a tough spot after an unusually passive play from Durant, who was isolated on the wing against the much smaller Raymond Felton but opted to kick the ball back to Westbrook at the top of the key.
If it sounds like I’m being too harsh on Westbrook, let’s take the glass-half-full angle. He played admirably well in the first three games before unleashing his inner World B. Free in this one, and it says something for both his talent and his team’s that he scored 30 points and the Thunder nearly won despite myriad poor decisions.
Denver, of course, helped in that pursuit with another shaky performance from the free-throw line. The Nuggets missed 13 of their 44 freebies, including two in the final 15 seconds by Raymond Felton to keep things interesting. They prevailed anyway largely because of a breakout game from the backcourt — Lawson scored 27 points and repeatedly broke down the Thunder defense off the dribble, Gallinari snapped a slump with 18 second-half points, and J.R. Smith had his best game of the series with 15.
Nonetheless, the big takeaway from this game, and from this series, is of the ongoing struggle to maximize Westbrook’s jaw-dropping athletic ability without running roughshod over the rest of the Thunder’s offensive game plan. Thus far, the Westbrook vs. Westbrook battle has been far more interesting than the Thunder vs. Nuggets contest.