DALLAS — Few teams can survive a game, let alone amass 107 points, when three players score in double figures and two combine for nearly two-thirds of their total points.
But no other team has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and that makes the Oklahoma City Thunder as unique as they are incredibly difficult to defeat. The Dallas Mavericks realized this Sunday night for a fourth time this season and a third time in late-game, heartbreak fashion, 107-101.
Durant and Westbrook totaled 66 points with Westbrook going for 31 of his 35 through three quarters and Durant elevating an off-night with 19 of his 31 in the fourth quarter. Serge Ibaka plowed Dallas for 18 points and 16 rebounds.
No one else scored more than nine points which brings up the issue of sixth man Kevin Martin. He had the nine points on 4-for-9 shooting but just 1-for-4 from 3-point range, and it has to raise some concern that single-digit games are coming with increased frequency. Of his 15 single-digit games among 65 he’s played this season, Sunday’s was his sixth in the last 16 games, and OKC has won just two of the six with this one easily capable of swaying the other way.
Martin had the incredible good fortune to join the Thunder juggernaut just days before the season started in the stunning trade that sent former third amigo James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Martin says he loves the sixth-man role after being a career starter on poor teams and the effect the decreased minutes per game have had on his body. He said he wants to re-sign when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Yet Martin is well aware that he’ll be served up as the designated whipping post if OKC fails to defend its Western Conference crown, a delicate fact that Martin says means little to him.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Martin said in an interview with NBA.com prior to playing the Lakers on March 5. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and with what I’ve done in my eight years as a professional basketball player.”
The Thunder and Martin got off to such a seamless start to the season that Harden quickly became an afterthought in Loud City as the Beard instantly became an All-Star in Clutch City. Now with the regular season winding down and the final judgment on OKC and Martin getting set to ratchet up, the sharpshooter is struggling to find a consistent shooting groove, and the Thunder’s wins and losses seem to mirror his ebbs and flows.
In the games Martin has scored fewer than 10 points, the Thunder are 7-8. They’re 42-8 otherwise.
Obviously, other factors also account for the final ledger in those games, but since the Jan. 27 loss at the Lakers when Martin scored nine points — he shot 4-for-8 from the field, but missed his two 3-point attempts — OKC is 1-5 against current playoff teams plus ninth-place Utah when Martin doesn’t reach double digits. The lone win came against Chicago, while San Antonio, Denver, Miami, Utah and the Lakers beat the Thunder by an average margin of 9.6 points. All but the Miami game came on the road.
It begs the question whether OKC can survive three rounds in the West if Martin is not a consistent scoring threat, especially from beyond the arc? During this 2-5 spell when Martin scores in single figures, he is 6-for-20 from 3-point range (30 percent), well below his excellent 42.5 percent on the season. In the 15 games (10 against playoffs teams plus Utah in which OKC is 3-7) he’s just 11-for-56 (19.6 percent).
Harden scored his points in a variety of ways. He’s an excellent ball-handler who often initiated the Thunder offense, including in the fourth quarter and crunch time. He can bury the 3 and is a premier penetrator, who this season leads the league in free throw attempts. Martin, averaging 14.3 points, is a pure shooter. He gets his points off catch-and-shoot 3s and on cuts to the basket.
Publicly, Martin’s teammates and coach Scott Brooks have his back. It’s difficult to say if internally there is concern. But, Sunday’s escape from Dallas — the West’s 10th place team had it tied 101-101 with 1:20 to play — served as another example. Martin had seven points in the first half and two in the second that came on a fourth-quarter layup off a Dallas turnover. On the next possession, he badly missed a corner 3 that led to Dallas taking the lead. It was Martin’s lone 3-point attempt of the second half.
“We know Kevin’s going to come through when he needs to,” Durant said. “There’s some shots he’s just missing, wide-open shots he’s just missing that he normally makes. It’s a different role for him. It’s tough to get a rhythm when you’re playing the sixth man and then most of the time you’re on the court with Russell and me. So we’ve just got to find a way to get him going, and we know he’s going to stick with it. Once he gets in the game we’ve just got find him and make sure we get him a good rhythm going.”
Durant makes a salient point. Martin played the final 3:46 of the third quarter, subbing in for Durant. Westbrook and Ibaka were both hot and they took five shots in the final six possessions. Martin didn’t get a look. He played the first 8:37 of the fourth quarter when Durant took over with remarkable isolation play that netted him 15 points in the opening 7:27. Brooks ultimately made the right call lifting Martin. His replacement, Thabo Sefolosha, hit the contested, crunch-time fadeaway with 12.5 seconds left to put OKC ahead 105-101.
It’s a difficult way to strike a rhythm.
“That’s what I’ve had to be most of this year, being a third scorer here,” Martin said in that interview a couple weeks ago. “Some nights there are a lot of opportunities, some nights they’re not. You just have to make the best out of those opportunities.”
After Sunday’s game, Martin, who played 24 minutes, four more than he garnered three games ago in the loss at San Antonio, was quick to dress and exit the locker room. Perhaps he just wanted a good seat on the team bus.
Perhaps it’s nothing to worry about on a team that boasts a double-barreled scoring machine with Durant and Westbrook and has led the league in scoring for most of the season. But in March, Martin’s scoring average has dipped to 11.1 points and his shooting percentages are down to 43.2 from the floor and 36.3 from 3s.
And in those last five losses to playoff teams (plus Utah), the Thunder have averaged 97.2 points, nearly 10 points off their season average.
“We want everybody to be on their game going into the playoffs,” Brooks said. “He’s had maybe eight to 10 games or maybe even less than that where he hasn’t shot the ball well, but I think every player will go through that. And hopefully he’s getting out of that the last few games. But he’s a big part of what we do.”