HANG TIME, Texas — There’s little debate that Oklahoma City’s chances of holding a victory parade in June took a hit the moment it was announced that Russell Westbrook would be on an operating table instead of in the starting lineup for Game 3.
But there is no question at all when the Thunder ceased to be championship contenders in 2013.
There was exactly 5:51 left on the clock in the fourth quarter of Game 5 when Serge Ibaka ran up and clamped a hungry bear hug on Omer Asik.
It was that split second when Thunder coach Scott Brooks went to Hack-Asik and announced to the world that his club doesn’t have the stuff to go the distance through four rounds of the playoffs.
It smelled of gimmick and positively reeked of desperation for the No. 1 seed in the West against the No. 8 seed that approaches every game with a style and an attitude that is more Shirts v. Skins than the playoff wars.
Here were the mighty Thunder, virtually without an offensive clue that wasn’t named Kevin Durant, admitting that they had run out of bullets and ideas.
Never mind that over the course of the next 3 1/2 minutes Asik stepped up to the line and knocked down 8-for-11 free throws. It wasn’t simply the result that allowed the Rockets to get out with a 107-97 win that cut OKC’s lead in the series down to a scary 3-2 that made a statement. The real message delivered is that it’s only the first round of the playoffs and the Thunder already are out of answers.
Intentionally fouling a 56.8 percent free-throw shooter is legal and has proven through the years to be occasionally effective against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. But in this case, it was a Brooks waving a white flag.
What we have seen now in the three games without Westbrook is one thing we knew and another that we suspected: 1) there is very little anyone can do to stop Durant from getting his looks and getting his points; 2) the rest of the OKC roster is more of a crapshoot than a back alley dice game.
Durant finished with 36 points and poured in 18 in the third quarter, but was held scoreless in the fourth. Until Reggie Jackson tossed in a handful of buckets when the Rockets were holding them at arm’s length, the Thunder didn’t really have a second offensive option. Ibaka mixed drop-off dunks with thoughtless jumpers, Kevin Martin was a why-bother 1-for-10, Thabo Sefolosha scored just nine points, Derek Fisher eight, Nick Collison six and Kendrick Perkins two.
The idea that the Thunder can survive with Durant playing point forward and distributing the ball from the top of the offense only is valid if his teammates can consistently make shots. And they can’t.
Funny isn’t it, how all of the howling about Westbrook’s wild and crazy game and penchant for mind-altering shot selection has suddenly become as quiet as the so-called Loud City itself?
Even if the Thunder can pick themselves up off the floor and get past the Rockets — and history says they will — there can be no strong belief that OKC can keep trotting the same “KD-and-a-prayer” attack with success as the competition level gets stronger.
If that wasn’t apparent before, it came clearly into focus with 5:51 left in the game when Ibaka wrapped up Asik.
It was the moment the Thunder ran out of real answers and stopped being a 2013 championship contender.