Twelve seconds left in the game and the only way for Francisco Garcia to have gotten any closer to Kevin Durant’s jersey would have been to wear it with him.
This is life now, as far as it goes without Russell Westbrook, for as long as the Thunder can keep going in the playoffs.
OKC has always been a team looking for Durant as the ultimate bailout guy in the final seconds of a game. Trouble is, now the Thunder pretty much need him to be loading, pulling and driving their wagon from opening tip to the final horn.
Yes, Durant got a luxurious six minutes of rest in Game 4 on Monday night, but he still had to make 12 of 16 shots, score 38 points, grab eight rebounds and deal six assists just to give his team an opportunity to flub the final possession.
Without Westbrook on the court, there is nobody else to simply step in and step up and make the plays at both ends of the floor that can change the tide and halt momentum. He couldn’t be a game-changer on defense when the Rockets were scoring 38 points in the third quarter and he couldn’t be the difference maker when OKC was scoring only 19 points in the fourth.
There are no more “Gipper Games” left in OKC’s locker room as it tries to rally round its fallen buddy. Now the Thunder have to live with the reality of being without their unpredictable lightning bolt if they are going to follow through on those plans to get back to the NBA Finals.
“It was a different feeling, for sure,” backup forward Nick Collison said. “I think for us, we have to be able to get over that. Russ is not going to be with us in the playoffs. It can’t always be this emotional ‘Win one for Russell’ for us because it’s too much an emotional roller coaster.
“I think for us we have to focus on what we’re doing on the court, getting ready to play and take a business-like approach to these games. Still have the emotion you need for a playoff game, but really focus on what we need to do on the floor.”
Quite simply, the margin for error to make a serious reach for the Larry O’Brien Trophy is the kind usually familiar to only the bomb squad and the Wallenda Family.
The Game 4 score when the Thunder lineup was on the floor was 31-14 in favor of Houston. The rest of the combinations beat the Rockets 89-74.
A couple of questions: How many times can OKC get away with such insignificant production from the starters? Can the reserves deliver consistently enough to tip-toe through the minefield of four full playoff rounds?
As splendid as he is and as many clouds as Durant may be able to scrape with his soaring talent level, it’s going to take much more Serge Ibaka (eight points), Kendrick Perkins (zero), Thabo Sefolosha (five) and Collison (three) to keep rowing the Thunder ship through the deeper waters. The Rockets are young and athletic and play with the abandon of a shirts-and-skins game on the playground, but they are no real threat to beat the Thunder in a seven-game series. That will come when they have to body up against the bruising Grizzlies or lobbing Clippers in the next round or the much deeper Spurs in the Western Conference finals, if they make it that far.
If the Thunder are going to stay afloat, they have to do it with the unlikely combination of the second-year man Reggie Jackson and 38-year-old veteran Derek Fisher manning the point. Jackson score 18 points before seeming to run out of gas at the end, while Fisher kept advancing the AARP cause by knocking down four 3-pointers.
While playing the point-forward position may give Durant a better view of where he can create his own scoring chances, the Thunder can’t let it come at the expense of not producing enough offense of their own.
Durant is young and willing with the legs and spirit that are capable to play virtually from start to finish every time out from here to June, if that’s what it takes. Nobody doubts that he can deliver individually. But in the end, how he can take them is not in his hands.