HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Had someone asked you a month ago to rank the true contenders in the Western Conference, your list would probably have included the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers — most likely in that order.
But after the whirlwind drama of the past 72 hours (and really the past month), no one can be blamed for taking a moment to rethink that order. In fact, there might need to be a team or two (the Clippers and Grizzlies perhaps …?) added to that list of contenders. It’s come to this, a complete crisis of confidence in our own picks based on the play of all of these teams.
As skeptical as we were of the Spurs early on and whether or not they could maintain their collective health to mount yet another championship run, we have since reconsidered. Their in-season acquisitions, at the trade deadline and elsewhere, changed the game in their favor. They’ve dismantled all comers, when Gregg Popovich feels like unleashing his full arsenal on someone the way he did the Lakers Friday night.
The same goes for the Lakers, who seriously upgraded their operation with addition of Ramon Sessions and apparently Jordan Hill, who played huge minutes in place of Andrew Bynum in the Lakers’ double overtime win over the Thunder yesterday in Los Angeles.
Ron Artest‘s vicious elbow aside, this matchup offered us a telling look inside the psyches of both teams. The Lakers, even when they are shooting like first graders on a 10-foot rim, still have the firepower (and the Kobe Bryant power) to overcome their own failings to steal a game from another elite team. The Thunder, on the other hand, showed us that they still have some maturing to do.
Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman warned us about this on the Hang Time Podcast earlier this month. He told us that we might be crowning the Thunder prematurely after they dispatched the Heat and Bulls on successive Sundays. He reiterated his warning after the Thunder blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and lost their way (and the game) against the Lakers:
“We got cold when we needed to stay hot,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Once again, a severe offensive drought doomed the Thunder. This time, it was a 9-for-36 shooting performance in the fourth quarter and overtime. This time, the Lakers outscored the Thunder 53-29 in the final 22 minutes.
And this time, it all but sealed the Thunder’s fate as the 2-seed in the Western Conference.
“We were taking jump shots,” Brooks said.
And tons of them…obviously with very few of them falling.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to shoot 14-of-56 for the game. In the fourth quarter and overtimes, the Thunder’s All-Star duo went 6-for-28. Durant was 5-of-19 over that span.
“It wasn’t out of poor execution,” Brooks maintained. “We got good looks. Normally we make those shots. And I’ll take those next game.”
With spark plug James Harden nursing a concussion in the locker room from halftime on, the Thunder was missing its best playmaker when it mattered most and struggled mightily as a result. But even without the projected Sixth Man of the Year, the Thunder should have held on to a 79-62 lead with 10 1/2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Had it done so, the Thunder would have wrapped up this five-game road trip with an impressive 4-1 record heading into the final two regular season games.
Instead, the Thunder dropped to 3-2 on the trip, fell 1 1/2 games behind San Antonio for the top seed and, worst of all, now must enter the postseason facing familiar questions about its ability to close out games.
This was the third straight loss the Thunder suffered because it simply couldn’t close the door. It was the second time in seven days that the Thunder collapsed in this building. Last Monday, OKC scored just 25 second-half points against the Clippers in a 92-77 defeat. And in a two-point loss to the Clippers on April 11, the Thunder scored just nine points in the final seven minutes, making just 2-of-7 shots over the final 6 1/2 minutes while turning it over twice.
The inability to close out games has cost teams championships. Just ask the Heat about what went wrong in The Finals last year when they failed to close out the Mavericks in Game 2 and it wound up costing them an entire series.
Failure to close out games is a fatal flaw that could push the Thunder’s championship clock back another season if they are not careful.
And it’s certainly a serious enough issue for us to rethink the Western Conference race, which has shed the Rockets and includes a Tuesday night win-or-go-home showdown between the Suns and Jazz for that final playoff spot.