Thoughts on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s round one win and their upcoming match-up.
Due to the loss of Russell Westbrook, it wasn’t as easy as fans had hoped. After game 5, it looked like the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to be on the wrong side of history. Thank God the games are decided by the players and coaches and not by fans like Royce White.
It was like watching a completely different team in game 6, starting with coach Scott Brooks. Sure he kept the same starting line-up and the Houston Rockets jumped out to a quick lead, but after the four minute mark, the starting five were never on the floor together again. In fact, Kendrick Perkins only played those first four minutes. Brooks, who is usually loyal to a fault with his players, realized that he needed to go with the best guys who game the team a chance at winning and that’s what he did. He’s still not much of a X’s and O’s coach, but he at least proved in this game that he can make adjustments to what the other team is doing.
Kevin Durant was Kevin Durant. He didn’t score much in the first half, but he got his teammates involved and took over in the second half, including a nine point, three assist effort in the fourth quarter.
Durant was never a problem though. He’s as consistent as they come and could always be counted on for at least 25-30 points a game in this series. When Westbrook went out, that’s when the rest of the team needed to step up. They failed in game 5. They delivered in game 6.
Kevin Martin was a completely different person. After going 1 for 10 in game 5, he scored 21 points in the first half of game 6 and finished with 25. The biggest reason for his turnaround was most likely Nick Collison, who played a series high 22 minutes following his series low 7 minutes. All season Martin and Collison have had outstanding chemistry. Their two man game gets Martin a lot of easy looks, and when he makes them, his confidence grows. Martin had his looks in game 5, but he wasn’t knocking anything down and his confidence likely hit an extreme low. With his running mate by his side more often in game 6, he got off to a hot start and never looked back. It’s still a bit concerning that he disappears for long stretches in the second half of games, something that’s happened all season, but a good first half means the defense has to be more accountable for him in the second half, leaving the court a little more open for everyone else. Plus, unlike in Houston where he was their primary scorer, Durant is the closer for this team.
Speaking of confidence, Reggie Jackson is finally starting to take command. Obviously Jackson isn’t Westbrook, but he has a lot of the same gifts when he decides to use them. Jackson’s problem is that he’s never had to use them like Westbrook and was never counted on to use them like Westbrook. Now that he’s the starter, that’s all changed. His confidence has grown each game and we finally saw what Jackson can do in game 6. He attacked the basket and found open teammates for easy looks. He’s not a great shooter, but the team doesn’t need him to shoot the ball well. They need him to get to the rim and finish or kick out to the great shooters. When Westbrook went down, I thought the Thunder needed a sweep so they could have more practice time with Jackson running the show. But the playoff game experience might prove to be more valuable, even if it cost the team some extra rest.
Then there’s ol’ reliable, Derek Fisher. Out of all the players the Thunder threw at James Harden, Fisher may have had the most success. His disrupted Harden’s game with his active hands and clearly began to frustrate the former Thunder sixth man. Along with his defense on Harden, Fisher knocked down shot after shot and kept the team’s confidence high. He wasn’t great in the regular season after the Thunder re-signed him, but Fisher could be on his death bed all year and still get up and give the team productive minutes in the playoffs.
The Rockets were a pesky team, but they were ultimately young, unproven, and relied heavily on jump shots. Now the Thunder faces a team that is the exact opposite in the Memphis Grizzlies.
I thought the Grizzlies were a tough match-up for the Thunder pre-Westbrook injury. Without Westbrook, I believe that the Thunder is the underdog. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will be a handful inside, Mike Conley is a proven point guard, and the Tayshaun Prince/Tony Allen duo will be all over Durant on defense. Perkins wasn’t all that useful against Houston because they went small the entire game, but he needs to be at his absolute best against Memphis with their twin towers. Jackson also needs to continue to be aggressive, attacking Randolph and Gasol and trying to get them into foul trouble.
The Thunder will put up a fight, especially if Brooks coached the way he did in game 6 and the team responds with the same kind of effort. But this is a different kind of series. A series where the Thunder will miss Westbrook and the intensity he brings to the game every single night even more than they did in round one.