Posts Tagged ‘Derek Fisher’

Durant And Thunder Bow Out Of Playoffs Quietly, But Both Will Roar Again

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Series hub | Game 5: Notebook | Box score

OKLAHOMA CITY – This wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Not this game. Not this series. Not this postseason. Kevin Durant’s historic offensive regular season came to a cringing, clanging conclusion Wednesday night, smothered for a fourth consecutive game by a focused Memphis Grizzlies defense.

Only the sixth player in NBA history to finish a season shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 from 3-point range and 90 from the free-throw line, Durant went down like this: 5-for-21, 0-for-4 and 11-for-15. Even his auto-dial free throws betrayed him in this series, 13 alone failing to go down in the final three games, likely flattened by fatigue as he played all 48 minutes in Wednesday’s Game 5 and 229 of 245 in all, and swarmed by defenders to the bitter end.

His first six shots failed to drop in the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder’s 88-84 defeat, just like his last one with 4.9 seconds left. It was a good look from 16 feet away, the kind he makes in his sleep, but this one caught a chunk of rim and had no prayer of rolling through like the mesmerizing, high-bouncing 3 that beat the Rockets in Game 3, the first game OKC played without Russell Westbrook.

And so there will be no Finals return. No revenge matchup against the Miami Heat. And for Durant, at least, there is no remorse, no regret.

“I gave all I have for my team. I left it all out there on the floor,” Durant said. “I missed 16 shots, but I kept fighting, kept being aggressive, and that’s all I could ask for. It is what it is. It’s tough to swallow right now, but I’m sure we’re going to look back on this down the line and really appreciate this tough time. It’s something we’ve got to embrace and get better from. It’s tough to lose your last game in the playoffs so you’ve just got to move on.”

On the other side, Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph came up large in the biggest game of his career. He went to work in the low post early and finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. He missed two free throws with 11.3 seconds to go to leave the door cracked for the Thunder’s late surge that closed an 80-70 deficit to 86-84 and a fifth consecutive game that came down to the wire. (more…)

Grizz Grind Step Closer To West Finals

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some of the new owners of this franchise now treading on historic playoff ground leaned up against the wall outside the Memphis Grizzlies’ locker room. Hair was frazzled, faces were flush and breaths were still coming heavy as if they had just outrun the Boogie Man.

In some respects they had.

Monday’s 103-97 overtime victory over the shorthanded and succumbing Oklahoma City Thunder turned scary from the jump. Kevin Durant set the early tone, animated, vocal and doing his thing. Serge Ibaka suddenly rediscovered his shooting touch, Kevin Martin was hitting and young Reggie Jackson was doing his best Russell Westbrook impression.

The visitors had the bounce and the confidence early. The Grindhouse crowd grew restless, boos came down when Durant buried a 3-pointer, his third without a miss, to put OKC ahead 46-29 with 4:26 until halftime. They’d since seen this horror flick before. Game 4 against these Thunder two years ago was a hot topic at practice the day before. OKC was then the team that trailed by 17 and came back all the way back to win it in triple-overtime to tie the series and eventually win it in Game 7.

Games 1 and 7 at home last season against the Clippers. Series over. Season wiped out.

To not take this Game 4 by the throat, to walk off the floor with tails tucked between their legs in front of a sellout crowd, to drag a 2-2 tie instead of riding a 3-1 lead back to Bricktown would have been a travesty.

“Our whole mindset was get it to 10 by halftime and we got it to eight,” Tony Allen said. “Coach [Lionel Hollins] came in the locker room. He’s good with those speeches. We wanted to respond.”

These Grizzlies, more mature, more clutch than any incarnation before, refused to let it happen. Tayshaun Prince and Allen clamped down on Durant, who missed 17 of his 27 shots, missed all four in overtime and missed his third clutch free throw in the last two games. Mike Conley scored 24 points and for a time matched Durant 3-pointer for 3-pointer. He played 48 minutes, 40 seconds — 21 ticks more than Durant and turned the ball over exactly once.

Then it was big Marc Gasol, with 23 points and 11 boards, swishing the game-winning jumper from the foul line. Then it was Allen, the original grit-and-grinder who was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team earlier Monday, making the game-sealing steal. It was his 10th of the series, this one on Derek Fisher‘s crossed-up inbounds pass. (more…)

Jackson’s Challenging Crash Course

 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Reggie Jackson is on the accelerated learning program. It did not come by design.

In the course of his sophomore season, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was twice sent to the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League in December after averaging 6.9 mpg in 14 games with OKC, and came back and beat out Eric Maynor (eventually traded to Portland) for the right to back up Russell Westbrook.

“When you’re playing behind an All-Star point guard, the minutes are tough,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But we somehow managed to give him 15, 16 minutes a game.”

Those minutes, mostly all spent directing the second unit, are invaluable now as Jackson has stepped into the unenviable role as the injured Westbrook’s replacement, logging more than 30 pressurized playoff minutes a game.

Jackson’s task is to lead the Thunder offense, seek a balance between being an aggressive playmaker and driving to the paint, feeding — and also getting out of the way of — MVP runner-up Kevin Durant, defending Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley and not melting in the glare of the postseason klieg lights.

Jackson’s studying more film and being coached harder. The three-day break between Games 2 and 3 in this semifinal series, knotted up at 1-1, might have been most beneficial for Jackson as he processes information from multiple angles and sources.

“Oh yeah, Coach Westbrook is doing a good job, watching the game, observing,” Jackson said, breaking into a smile. “He’s definitely on me a lot about pedal-to-the-metal and just trying to make plays for others and myself, try to take the load off Kevin.”

Yep, pedal-to-the-metal sounds like Westbrook. Of the many injured stars out of the playoffs, perhaps none is as uniquely dynamic for their squad as Westbrook is for the Thunder. He’s the bullet-train engine that powers OKC’s high-paced offense and keeps defenses backpedaling with powerful bursts up the floor and a pogo-stick, pull-up jumper. His active perimeter defense can be equally as fierce.

“I’m definitely talking to Reggie a lot more, but I also want him to learn and get better,” Westbrook said Thursday during his first public appearance since undergoing knee surgery on April 27. “You don’t want to tell a guy to go out there and do all these different things, you kind of want him to learn, and it’s a learning process for him as well as for me.”

And so, arguably, none of the players filling in for injured stars are being asked to fill quite the vacuum as the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Jackson.

That grand-canyon sized leap he’s making from hold-the-fort reserve to starting  point guard on a team with championship aspirations is intense and potentially mind-spinning. That it came with little time for Jackson and the team to absorb the full magnitude of Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, to indoctrinate Jackson into the starting lineup and for Brooks to tweak his rotation, is a tremendous challenge. Fortunately for the Thunder, 38-year-old Derek Fisher, signed in late February, has been hot off the bench, easing some of Jackson’s burden.

“I had 24 hours, that’s good enough,” said Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2011 draft out of Boston College. “But it’s basketball. Remember, I started at some point in my career. I understand that coach trusts me, obviously, enough to play me in this moment and to take a new role. He sees something in me; my teammates do, they’re always on me, encouraging me, so I just got to go out there and have fun and just play basketball.”

Jackson, who said his name bears no lineage or linkage to baseball’s Mr. October — which could have come in handy in this situation — is averaging 30.9 mpg in the playoffs, more than doubling his 14.2 regular-season minutes. He averaged 21.0 mpg in the first two playoff games with Westbrook playing, and 31.2 mpg as a starter. He took 11 shots in the first two games. He’s averaging 11.6 since.

He averaged 14.0 ppg in the six games against the Rockets and shot a healthy 46.2 percent from the field. He has produced six consecutive double-digit scoring games. However, against the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense, Jackson has found the space on the floor shrinking and multiple, wide-body blockades in the paint, two vast differences from playing the wide-open, up-tempo Rockets. He’s averaged 11.0 ppg on 43.8 percent shooting against Memphis.

“He just has to play within what his capabilities are,” Brooks said. “If there’s openings, he has to attack. If he has that in transition, great. If he has that in the halfcourt, great. I think he is better when he does attack, he’s a great finisher around the rim.”

And then there’s the other end of the floor. Under normal circumstances, Westbrook and Conley would be facing off in a fascinating duel, and Jackson would mostly be sticking to the streaky shooting Jerryd Bayless. But now the sixth-year and ever-improving Conley, who has juiced his stats to 17.9 ppg and 7.8 apg in the playoffs, is Jackson’s responsibility.

The youngster took Conley’s explosive fourth quarter in Game 2 that nearly netted him a triple-double and pushed the Grizzlies to a 99-93 victory, as a personal affront.

“I can’t let that happen again,” Jackson said. “I feel that great players always take things personal, their matchups, and since Day 1, I always said that I want to be great. I have to do a better job of slowing him down and not let the head of the snake bite us next game.”

Going Small Key For OKC & Golden State?

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.

The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.

We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.

So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…

The drop-off in Indiana
The most-used lineup of the playoffs should be no surprise. The Pacers’ starting lineup of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert have been getting it done on both ends of the floor and were a terrific lineup in the regular season as well. Though Indy ranked 19th defensively overall, this lineup scored at a rate that would have ranked fourth, playing the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league.

It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.

Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.

Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.

If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).

With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.

That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).

*The best defensive lineup with a minimum of 35 minutes played was actually the Thunder’s original starting lineup, which allowed the Rockets to score just 73.1 points per 100 possessions in the first two games of the first round. But Russell Westbrook‘s injury puts that lineup out of commission.

Small works in the other West series too
Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.

It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.

Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.

A change of fortune in Miami
The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.

Offensive struggles in New York
The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.

Durant Wins It, But Not Without Help


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OKLAHOMA CITY – News that All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the entire playoffs rippled across the NBA like an earthquake tremor. The epicenter was Oklahoma City where the shock was sudden and the aftermath is fueling new opportunities for a team that still aspires to win it all.

“It was kind of a gut-punch initially that day at practice, and the whole day you could tell guys were disappointed and down,” reserve forward-center Nick Collison said. “Of course we’re at a deep disadvantage without him, but I don’t think we work that way really. We do a good job of seeing what’s right in front of us.”

As the Memphis Grizzlies frustratingly discovered on Sunday afternoon, count out the Thunder at your own peril. Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on its own home floor, rallying from 12 down late in the third quarter to take a 93-91 decision on a go-ahead, pull-up jumper by Mr. Clutch, Kevin Durant, with 11.1 seconds to go.

“My teammates did a great job of setting me up all game,” Durant said. “I missed some easy ones, some chippies, and I was able to hit that one.”

Let the box score show Durant with a game-high 35 points on 13-for-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, six assists, a couple blocked shots and a steal in 44 exhaustive, mandatory minutes. Yet the opportunity for OKC’s Big One to put his team ahead for good was supplied, as much of the Thunder’s gusto on this day was, from role players coming up big in Westbrook’s absence.

As OKC continues to adjust and tweak on the fly, it is discovering what lies beneath.

They’re finding a resilient Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points, 15 in a critical second-quarter stand when OKC scored 33 points without Durant attempting a shot. Martin’s game, which also included a season-high seven rebounds and a late fourth-quarter swat of Quincy Pondexter in the lane, came on the heels of scoring 26 in the clincher at Houston after being left for dead and his OKC future being questioned, following his Game 5 stinker.

Derek Fisher proved he can still bring it in the clutch at age 38, hitting both of his 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first to start the period with OKC down nine. Then he’s making the defensive play of the game with 20 seconds to go, stripping driving Memphis guard Mike Conley from behind just before he can ascend to the rim and triggering a rush the other way for Durant’s big bucket.

The moment once again didn’t swallow second-year guard Reggie Jackson, who starts in place of Westbrook but watched from the bench while Fisher played down the stretch until the final possession when Memphis had to foul with 3.5 seconds to go — a sequence set up by Thabo Sefolosha’s deflection of an errant Marc Gasol pass. Jackson calmly sank both free throws, as he did against Houston, to make it 93-90 with 1.6 seconds left.

Fisher and Jackson totaled 20 points with a couple of assists and just one turnover. Conley, coming off a big series going toe-to-toe with All-Star Chris Paul, finished with 13 points, three assists and two turnovers. The final one cost Memphis the game.

“We got a nice little flow going right now,” Martin said. “I think we settled in, realizing that we’re not going to have Russell, and guys are stepping up.”

How about Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who absorbs criticism at times for stubbornly sticking to lineups? When he deployed a small unit for the first time in the game as he sensed it getting away at 70-58 with 1:57 left in the third quarter, the momentum shifted drastically in OKC’s favor. A 15-5 run — with three of the Grizzlies’ points coming on Pondexter’s halfcourt heave at the end of the third — cut Memphis’ lead to 75-73 with 10:10 to play.

And his trust in Durant to take the turnover created by Fisher’s poke of Conley uninterrupted by a timeout proved masterful. The ball came to Durant who pushed it up at his coach’s insistence. With Memphis trying to get back, Durant pulled up from 19 and banged it home.

It was a game the resolute Thunder could have lost and one the Grizzlies believe they should have won.

“I feel like we gave it away, honestly,” said Zach Randolph, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds.

But that’s not giving the Thunder enough credit. OKC’s big men, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, were atrocious offensively, going 2-for-16 from the floor, and Perkins nearly blew OKC’s chance altogether when Durant’s routine inbounds pass slipped through his hands, leaving Durant rolling his eyes and Memphis with the ball up 90-87 and 1:07 to go.

But the Thunder’s inside duo made Memphis’ Randolph and Gasol pay a physical price in the paint. Perkins played 34 minutes, the most of OKC’s starters other than Durant, and played big in holding the inside-oriented Grizzlies to just 32 points in the paint and four second-chance points on eight total offensive rebounds.

It wasn’t always pretty — OKC missed its first 10 shots and scored 31 points in the first and third quarters combined — and it won’t be the rest of the way. But in taking Game 1, the Thunder, down a star, are coming up with alternatives.

“We know what Russell brings to our team,” Brooks said. “He’s an amazing player and an incredible leader that has been missed, there’s no doubt. But we’ve changed in different ways. We’re different, but we’re still a good team and on both ends of the floor we present problems.”

Thunder Happy To Keep Goin’ Fishin’

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HOUSTON — It’s not just the words, but the way you say them. It’s not just the results that find you on top of the mountain, but all the steps it took to get you there.

That Derek Fisher is still playing in the NBA 17 years after he arrived from Arkansas-Little Rock is no more of a surprise than the fact that he helped finally close the door on the young and restless Rockets. Slammed it. Bolted it. Then hammered in a couple of nails for good measure. It’s what he does.

Maybe part of the reason the 38-year-old Fisher is never looking toward the end of his career is because he’s always been so busy working on the end of games.

– 0.4 seconds left at San Antonio in 2004.

– Running out of the tunnel and onto the floor at Salt Lake City in 2007.

– The pair of clutch 3-pointers at Orlando in the 2009 NBA Finals.

– Game 3 of The Finals at Boston in 2010.

If there’s a loop of basketball video highlights playing on a loop somewhere in eternity, you can pretty much bet that Fisher will always be front and center, hitting shots, making plays, making his team better just by being on it.

You could argue that Fisher was the second-best Thunder player in the series behind Kevin Durant.

“I’ve been around a lot of guys and heard them talk to the team,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “There’s usually a lot of eye-rolling and things like that. But with Derek, it’s different. He has a way.”

Fisher’s way was to pull the Thunder back from the brink on Friday night in Game 6 just when things looked like they could be getting away. When he checked into the game with 5:48 left in the third quarter, Oklahoma City was down by 10 and 12 minutes later the Thunder were up by 13. Fisher scored all 11 of his points in the final 13 minutes of the game.

“It really makes no sense for me to defend Fish, what he brings to the team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It seems like I have to defend him. But I’ll tell you what, when we brought him in last year, it really helped us. Thank God he was available and we made the trade … but he has made our team better.”

That’s always been his knack, whether he’s standing in the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant in L.A. or Durant or Russell Westbrook in OKC.

It’s not just the big shots on the court, though there are many. It’s the small talk in the locker room and on the practice floor, where he nurtures them all as if they were his kindergarten class and gives a second-year point guard like Reggie Jackson some extra care.

When Westbrook tore the ligament in his knee and was lost for the series, it was Jackson who inherited the burden of filling his sneakers. It’s been a heavy lift, but you could see Jackson flex his muscles and eventually get the whole thing off the ground as the series continued because Fisher showed him how to handle the load.

“He brings tremendous confidence to this team and to me,” Jackson said. “He is a great mentor. You can’t tell he’s the oldest guy on the team. …There’s a mental battle to this game and things start to slow down and your body starts to wear and tear, but mentally I haven’t seen anybody prepare like him.”

Fisher scored eight points, shot 3-for-3 from the field, knocked down a pair of killer 3s and made two big steals in the fourth quarter. He also shadowed James Harden defensively through the final period, cutting off driving lanes, challenging shots. In other words, all of the things that he’s been doing for nearly two decades in the league, which have earned him five championship rings and a level of respect in a locker room atmosphere where frauds and self-promoters are easily exposed and ignored.

“He’s like another coach, only he’s one of us right here as a player,” said Collison. “He has a way of talking to you that makes you want to listen.”

They are common sense things, nothing magical or mystical in what he’s saying.

“I’m just reminding them that it’s about us, about our group,” Fisher said. “That accomplishing something special requires you to give more than you receive.”

Now with a harder-than-expected first round series behind them, the road only gets tougher for the Thunder against the rugged Grizzlies and — down one freakishly talented shooting guard — they’ll need all of his wisdom and their wiles to keep moving forward.

They listen to him because he’s done it. They respect him and they shake their heads at him because he keeps right on doing it. And all the while, he’s never lifting up his head to take a peek at the end of a career.

“No, I don’t,” Fisher said. “I really don’t. It’s a state of mind. As long as you’re willing to physically work hard and be focused on the discipline…you don’t have to look at age as the end. As long as you can find ways to impact your team and be helpful, why not keep going?”

The kid Jackson has his thoughts from across the locker room.

“I think they should sign him to a four-year (contract),” he said.

Fisher laughs and shakes his head. The end is coming, but that doesn’t mean he has to greet it.

Blogtable: Are The Thunder Cooked?




Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 27: Thunder’s chances | Will Lakers contend next season? | Boston relevancy


The Thunder without Russell Westbrook: Is OKC’s chance at a title done?

Steve Aschburner: I didn’t think they could get past Miami regardless, but yes, this clinches it. The potential for breakout offensive mayhem that Westbrook always has embodied is just one reason. The energy dip of Oklahoma City overall without him on the floor is another. But I see a third one — the Heat or whomever OKC plays going forward in the West bracket won’t have to work as hard defensively, conserving more energy themselves for their own attacks. Meanwhile, defenses can load up on Kevin Durant as never before. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the absence of James Harden this postseason (well, till now).

Fran Blinebury: Westbrook’s loss doesn’t mean the Thunder’s chances are completely wiped out. But it does make the margin for error as narrow as the edge of a razor.  With Kevin Durant playing at his max level, they still need guys like Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to have very, very good nights. They were always going to be underdogs to Miami if they got to The Finals. Now, I don’t believe they can get there.

Jeff Caplan: There will be no parade in Oklahoma City come June. Not that OKC was getting past Miami anyway, but they were my pick to at least get back to the NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook just brings more intensity to both ends than can be sufficiently replaced by the current roster. We’ve seen the offense completely stagnate at times in two games at Houston, and the Thunder will see much better better defenses than the Rockets.

Russell Westbrook (by Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

Russell Westbrook (by Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

John Schuhmann: Yes. Right now, the Thunder are playing a team that ranked 16th defensively, and they’ve still scored at a pretty efficient rate in the last two games. But they will likely be facing a top-3 defensive team either in the next round (Memphis) or in the conference finals (San Antonio). And it’s when you face a great defensive team in the playoffs that you really miss your second scorer (just ask the Knicks). Those teams will take away your first option and make you beat them with secondary scorers and secondary plays. The Thunder will also miss those easy transition buckets that Westbrook gets. Of course, they never had much of a chance against the Heat (who have beat them six straight times) anyway.

Sekou Smith: They were not my pick to win a title with a healthy Westbrook, so there was nothing to kill, so to speak. It’s hard to imagine the Thunder running through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoff race and then facing off with the Miami Heat (or whoever comes out of the East) and winning it all without Westbrook. They couldn’t get past the Heat with Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden last year. This notion that Durant will be able to get back to that point and beyond this season without the other two seems a bit far-fetched to me. That’s too much heavy lifting for a lone superstar in this day and age.

Lang Whitaker: To channel Lloyd Christmas, So you’re telling me there’s a chance? Sure the Thunder have a chance to return to The Finals without Russell Westbrook, but there’s obviously a much slimmer margin of error. And as awesome as Kevin Durant can be, when defenses load up and send everyone after him, at some point guys like Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher are going to have to start knocking down the mid- and long-range jumpers they were missing against Houston in Game 4.

Ball In Durant’s Hands, Fate In Others

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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.

Series hub: Thunder vs. Rockets

Durant Will Wear Extra Minutes Well

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HOUSTON — Scott Brooks
says there’s a reason he sometimes wears glasses to TV interviews.

“I’m trying to look smarter than I am,” joked the Thunder coach.

That said, after playing Kevin Durant for all but 44 seconds of Game 3 on Saturday night against the Rockets, Brooks won’t be foolish enough to wear out his top dog.

Durant will likely have to bump up his scoring a bit in the absence of the injured Russell Westbrook from the lineup. Durant will have to handle the ball more, get the offense started and carry more of the overall burden. But that doesn’t mean he’ll become a marathon man.

“We’ll keep an eye on Kevin’s minutes and not try to just wear him out right down to the floor,” Brooks said. “It worked out that we needed him to play a lot of minutes the other night, but that wasn’t my intention.

“Actually, I wanted to get Kevin out for a rest in the first half for about five or six minutes. But Fish (Derek Fisher) got this third foul and Reggie (Jackson) already had fouls, so I needed Kevin to stay in the game to run the point.

“The other thing you’ve got to remember is that Kevin’s a player, a basketball player, and he just loves to play. You see that every time he steps onto the floor.”

Anyone could see that on Sunday afternoon at Tudor Fieldhouse on the campus of Rice University, where the Thunder arrived for a light practice and Durant chafed at not being allowed on the court.

“I feel great,” Durant said. “I really want to practice right now, but they told me I can’t.”

The Thunder will try to keep a rein on Durant on off-days and Brooks will try to plan his in-game rests around the TV timeouts that are usually longer during the playoffs. But taking him off the floor through a full timeout with several commercials, Durant can often get five to six minutes of real-time rest while minimizing the time he’s out of the games.

The truth is Durant has been a high-volume player in the five years the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City. The 38.5 minutes per game he averaged in the regular season this year is the lowest since was a rookie in Seattle and Durant still played the second most minutes in the league.

“Ill try to get as much rest as I can and when the game rolls around just press on the gas and get ready to play. Whatever, if he decides to pull me or to keep me in the game, I’m cool with it. I’m just gonna give it my all.”

Oh, to be 24.

Series Hub: Thunder vs. Rockets

Just A Start To The Thunder’s Challenge

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HOUSTON – It was 44 years ago when Don Nelson’s foul-line jumper kicked improbably high off the back of the rim, fell right down through the net and kept all of those celebration balloons trapped up there at the ceiling in the Forum.

That was an ending.

Nelson’s shot gave the Celtics the two-point margin they needed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for another championship over the Lakers.

Kevin Durant’s shot with 41.9 seconds left on the clock took Nelson’s little tap dance on the rim and turned it into an entire chorus production. The first bounce kicked so high off the back of the rim that it cleared the top of the backboard, then teasingly hit the front rim and then the back rim two more times before sliding down into the basket, a Tibetan prayer wheel offering that was answered immediately.

This was just a beginning.

Before the Thunder get to jubilantly race off a court somewhere to celebrate a championship, there will likely have to be many more nights like this, where they sizzle and fizzle, where they thrive and survive, where they just grind on.

It was the first time in five years — and 440 games — that Durant ran out onto a basketball court wearing an Oklahoma City jersey without running mate and buddy Russell Westbrook at his side.

The lightning rod point guard was back at home watching on TV after having undergone surgery Saturday to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. That means the road to the top of the mountain just got far bumpier and more treacherous.

“It feels the same,” Durant said. “I just go out there on the court, and I knew I had to give it my all no matter what. That’s what I’m going to do for however many games we have to play…I’m going to give it my all no matter what and not worry about missed shot, turnovers or anything.”

But Durant knows that the margin for error just got slimmer than a supermodel’s waist. No more nights when Westbrook and all of his inherent idiosyncrasies and flaws will be able to bail out the Thunder with his bodacious talent and his sheer audacity.

Now there will be far more nights like this one where wilo-’o-the-wisp Durant has to go the virtual distance, getting all of 44 seconds to rest on the bench while putting up 30 shots to equal his career playoff high of 41 points.

Now there will be more nights when the Thunder will have to rely on the combo of second-year Reggie Jackson and 17th year Derek Fisher to hold down Westbrook’s position at the point.

Now there will be more nights when Serge Ibaka has to be the leaping, dominating monster at both ends of the floor with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two official blocked shots and about a dozen more altered.

The Thunder built a 26-point lead early in the third quarter and had to hold on to the final tick of the clock because they’re now missing one of the legs they usually stand on.

“It definitely was an emotional time the last 48 hours,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We all love what Russell is about. The guy has probably the biggest heart I’ve ever been around. He’s done a great job of putting us in this position.”

But now the season-ending injury puts the Thunder in the position of having to, if not reinvent themselves on the fly, at least make a major adjustment.  So here they are against an inexperienced No. 8 seed in Houston — the youngest team in the NBA this season — getting burns on the palms of their hands as the rope slips through.

If it wasn’t a case of being physically spent, then OKC had to be mentally exhausted from battling all night to fill in the gaps. Brooks had said before the game that it’s just a matter of getting everybody to do “a little bit.”

However, in playoff games that little bit can become a quite heavy lift.

There were the Rockets, playing with few expectations and not much to lose, roaring back. Here was picking up a loose ball that Kevin Martin seemed to lose as the shot-clock ran down and Ibaka flicking it up over his head and off the glass with 1:25 left in the game. Here was the untested-in-the-playoffs Jackson, standing at the foul line and draining two nervy free throws with eight seconds remaining and then leaping up and latching onto the final rebound of the game when Carlos Delfino’s 3-pointer missed just ahead of the horn.

“We learned Russell was going to be out at practice (Friday),” said forward Nick Collison, “but eventually we have to get over it. You have to be able to move on and play. We’re basketball players and we’re in the playoffs and we have to get ourselves ready to play.

“Our problems were more execution and a lot of that has to do with playing without Russell because we rely on him for a lot on the court.”

It took the Rockets missing numerous opportunities down the stretch — open shots that clanked off the rim and turnovers that were fatal – for the Thunder to escape.

For a team that entered the playoffs with its sights set strictly on playing all the way into June and getting back to The Finals, now each game, every day, each ensuing round will be a challenge.

They will need to learn to get by without the nonpareil talents of Westbrook to pull them out of the fire, get things done with pure execution or enough similar fortuitous bounces as Durant’s improbable 3-pointer, a tantalizing dance-of-the-seven-veils shot that pulled them back from the brink of what could have been a crushing defeat, giving birth to recrimination and doubt.

“The Lord was with us,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking. I knew as soon as that shot hit the back rim, I was thinking, ‘Not again. Tough 3 shot. Maybe I should have drove. Maybe I should have got a foul.’ But it was able to bounce in and all because of the good Lord. I really can’t say too much else about that. I’m glad we made it.”

A happy ending for now. But really just the start of a grind.

– Series Hub: Thunder vs. Rockets