Another 4th Quarter Flop Ends Thunder Season

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

Another fast start for the Thunder ended with another disappointing finish and this time it wasn’t just the game that ended, that entire season came to a close too.

The Thunder led 22-16 after the 1st quarter but were outscored 33-22 coming down the stretch of what became a 105-99 loss to Houston in Game 5 of their playoff series.

It’s the first time since 2010 (the first year the Thunder made the playoffs) that the team has been knocked out in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

The 4th quarter once again proved to be OKC’s undoing.

Going into the last 12 minutes the Thunder led 77-72 and had held the high-powered Houston offense to just 36.8 percent shooting overall and an anemic 16.1 percent (5-for-31) on threes.

But that five point lead turned into a five point deficit with Russell Westbrook sitting on the bench. When he returned the struggles continued, this time, he didn’t have the magic formula that had saved the Thunder several times during the regular season.

In the 4th quarter OKC managed to hit just 26.9 percent from the field overall while missing all 10 attempts from beyond the arc and half of the tries from the free throw line.

Westbrook, who finished with a near triple double with 47 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, was just 2-for-11 in the 4th quarter and 0-for-5 from three. Russ even missed a couple of free throws.

The Thunder can take some solace in that they seemed to get better as the series progressed, at least from the 1st through the 3rd quarters. And the starters, for the most part, outplayed the Rockets first five.

But when Westbrook was off the court, the Thunder just couldn’t find their way.

During the series with Westbrook ON the floor the Thunder’s plus/minus was plus-15. With Westbrook taking a breather on the bench the numbers fell to the sub-basement, dropping to minus-58.

By comparison when James Harden was ON the floor for the Rockets, Houston’s plus/minus was a plus-19 and with Harden OFF the numbers actually went up to a plus-24 thanks to the Rockets outstanding bench play.

It’s going to be something Thunder GM Sam Presti will have to address in the off-season but with salary cap issues looming it’s going to be a tight fit changing things very much.

As the day moves along we’ll be posting videos of head coach Billy Donovan and players speaking to reporters during the end of season news conferences.

Thunder's Late Game Mistakes Cost Them Once Again In Series

By A. Suave Francisco

Game 4 of the Oklahoma City-Houston playoff series went about the same as Games 2 and 3. A quick start for the Thunder, a third quarter run by the Rockets to make things more interesting and then a coin flip to decide the winner. That coin flipped Houston's way 3-of-4 times this series and now OKC trails 3-1 after a debilitating 113-109 loss at home. 

Once again the Thunder got off to a quick 26-22 lead by the end of the first with Russell Westbrook already halfway to a triple-double. Westbrook got every one of his teammates involved as well, with 7 players scoring in the first quarter. Andre Roberson continued his spectacular defense as well with 4 first quarter blocks to go along with 5 points. 

By the half, Westbrook had a triple-double and the Thunder were rolling, up 58-54. The game's atmosphere began to change, though. Harden's shots weren't falling and he was visibly frustrated after a few shoving matches with Steven Adams and his team followed by example by playing with a ton of energy and physicality as well. Through all the third quarter drama, the Thunder adapted and still persevered, leading 77-73 after the 36th minute. At this point, Harden only had 8 points and a fourth quarter surge seemed unlikely. 

That wasn't the case. The Thunder apparently forgot Nene plays like an all-star against them and for whatever the reason, haven't found an answer for him this series. Nene constantly dominated down low, lead the Rockets in rebounds with 10 and led the team in scoring with 28 points. It was that and the Rockets practicing "hack-a-Dre" (Andre Roberson), that won the game for Houston. Roberson, a player that dominates defensively and may be one of the league's best perimeter slashers, struggles mightily from the line. He shot 42.3 percent for the season and 2-of-12 tonight. This put a ton of pressure on Billy Donovan because if he would've taken Roberson out, Harden would've probably won the game on his own. It was a lose-lose situation. 

Down the stretch, Oklahoma City just couldn't get the job done. Westbrook tried to make it happen but didn't. Teammates weren't getting open in scoring position and because of that, Westbrook took ill-advised shots that played a role in this game's fate. 

The Thunder dropped their third to the Rockets this series and the record is the same as the season series between the two, 3-1. Tuesday night the Rockets will have a chance to close the series out in front of their fans in Houston. OKC has plans to get a hard-fought win so they can return home to the Chesapeake Energy Arena to even up the series at 3-3, forcing a pivotal Game 7 in Houston next weekend. 

Free Throws Cost Thunder In Critical Game 4

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

The Thunder have struggled shooting free throws all season and Sunday afternoon in a critical Game 4 they could hit just barely more than half those unguarded 15-footers.

A lot of grade school teams do better than that.

But what is elementary to some is like college calculus some games for the Thunder and it cost them a contest in which they led by 14 in the 3rd quarter.

The Thunder were 18-for-32 at the line and the Rockets were 28-for-33. Almost the exact same number of attempts but Houston picked up 10 more points in what ended up a 113-109 loss.

It was so bad Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni started having his players intentionally foul Andre Roberson. Roberson has been fantastic at both ends of the floor in this series and he was particularly great going up against James Harden, forcing him into a 5-for-16 shooting day overall and 0-for-7 from deep, he also had five blocks and again scored in double digits.

Roberson has been fantastic on both offense and defense.

But with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter D’Antoni, who said afterwards he’s not a fan of strategy but since it’s in the rules what the heck, started putting Roberson on the line where he missed two, then hit two, then missed four more and Billy Donovan put Jerami Grant in.

Roberson finished the day 2-for-12 at the line, for the series he is 2-for-17. The team is now 74-for-106 (69.8 percent) at the free throw line.

That’ll getcha beat.

It’s especially distressing when you consider the Thunder held the Rockets to 43.5 percent shooting overall and 31.4 percent on threes. Harden had just 16 points. OKC forced Houston into a whopping 24 turnovers.

But once again the Thunder had no answer at all for Nene, the Rockets journeyman center whose played like a Hall of Famer against Oklahoma City.

Sunday he was Sunday he had a career playoff -high 28 points coming off the bench on a ridiculous 12-for-12 shooting. For the series Nene is now a mind boggling 23-for-25. Heck even a lot of Hall of Famers can’t do that.

And the other thing that has plagued the Thunder this series, and really much of the season, is when Russell Westbrook takes a break the Thunder can’t seem to find their way.

It’s not a shock that the efficiency would drop but there have been times when it’s just dropped of a cliff. Westbrook had his third straight triple-double Sunday with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.

During the regular season with Westbrook on the floor the Thunder’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was 107.9 during the playoffs that number has actually gone up to 108.2. But in the regular season with Westbrook off the floor the points dropped to 97.4 and in the playoffs they’re down even more to 94.1.

Westbrook was not in the mood to talk about why that might be accusing The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel of trying to split up the team when Tramel asked Steven Adams what was going wrong when Westbrook sits on the bench.

Seemed like a perfectly logical question but with both players at the podium Westbrook bowed up and refused to let Adams answer, calling instead for the next question. For a while Berry held his ground but finally gave in. The Thunder might have cut his mic off if he’d kept going anyway.

The exchange wasn’t pleasant and in the future perhaps the NBA should look at not having two players at the interview table at the same time, especially those from a losing team. Westbrook was trying to protect his teammates but there was certainly nothing wrong with the question.

Tough questions need to be asked and if the player you’re asking doesn’t want to answer that’s fine, but another player shouldn’t step in.

Things happen when you lose a game you should have won.

It’s elementary...just like shooting free throws.

Thunder Withstand Rockets' Rally To Win Game 3

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

This time there was no collapse. This time the Thunder held off a late Rockets rally to win a must have Game 3, 115-113.

The NBA’s top two MVP candidates, James Harden and Russell Westbrook had another epic game, scoring a combined 76 points but it was Thunder center Steven Adams who had the biggest bucket of the night, a tip-in off a missed Westbrook 3-pointer with 35 seconds to play.

That basket, plus a couple of Westbrook free throws, gave the Thunder just enough breathing room to give this series new life by cutting the Houston lead to 2-1 and giving the hometown team a chance to tie things up on Sunday afternoon.

The Thunder had blown a big early lead in Game 1 and went on to a blowout loss, then in Game 2 they blew another big lead and lost a close one.

Last night they again blew a big lead but this time they didn't collapse when the Rockets huffed and puffed. This time they made a couple of critical shots and got a couple critical stops.

The Thunder have been slowly climbing back into the series after that Game 1 blowout.

“I think we’ve gotten better from game to game,” head coach Billy Donovan told reporters after the final horn.

Donovan and his coaches have been pulling a lot of strings in the process, changing up substitution patterns and rotations. In the first game OKC tried to go mostly defensive against Houston, which worked at times but offensively that grouping couldn’t get out of the 80s.

By last night’s third game Donovan leaning far more toward trying to generate offense, giving more minutes to Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott and benching Semaj Christon for Norris Cole.

He also reduced Adams’ minutes a bit while increasing Enes Kanter’s. Those three scored a combined 24 points and both Abrines and McDermott hit a couple of big threes and Kanter dropped in a big bucket to end a Rockets run.

With so many offensive players on the floor the Thunder HAD to have another great defensive performance from Andre Roberson and they got one. He again made things difficult for Harden. Yes he scored 44 points but 18 of those came at the free throw line, he was just 4-for-12 on threes with seven turnovers. And Roberson again scored in double digits with a dozen points on 5-for-8 shooting and 2-for-3 on threes.

Taj Gibson also came through on both ends. He was dominant in the early going hitting six of his first seven shots and finishing with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting.

The Thunder’s second-leading scorer during the regular season, Victor Oladipo, seemed to get some of his missing mojo back. Dipo had hit just five of his 26 shots in the first two games, but last night he was 5-for-8 and swished a couple of threes to help space the floor and finished with 12 on the night.

Westbrook played a masterful game, under control, getting teammates involved and scoring when he needed to. It all added up to another triple-double, 32 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

“I have an enormous amount of trust in him,” Donovan said. “I have enormous confidence in him because of his preparation and the work that he does. I thought he was unbelievable tonight the way he played from start to finish. He was great. He got guys shots. He took advantage of switches when they switched. He did a lot of different things.”

In Game 2 Westbrook may have tried to do too much by himself, taking 18 shots in the fourth quarter of that loss and making just four. Last night he took 24 shots over the course of the game and didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer until the one he missed in closing seconds, the one that Adams ended up tipping in.

“I had to do a better job at trusting my teammates for 48 minutes,” Westbrook admitted. “Tonight those guys made plays throughout the whole game.”

And now the Thunder have a chance to even up a series that looked to be getting away from them just a couple of days ago.

A Good Start Ends In Heartbreak For The Thunder

By A. Suave Francisco

On the second night facing the Houston Rockets in front of their very supporting crowd, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to figure something out through three full quarters where they led throughout. Things took a swift turn for the worst late in the third when the Thunder's second team allowed a demanding Houston comeback, which turned into momentum, resulting in a fourth-quarter lead that OKC couldn't fully recover from. Despite the foul trouble Houston was in. The Rockets beat the Thunder down the stretch and improved their series lead to 2-0. 

Russell Westbrook got his team off to a great start which is exactly what the Thunder needed, considering how poor their second team is. It was a form of damage control -- they wanted to get a big enough lead over the Rockets to perhaps weather the storm whenever it came. The plan was working in the first quarter for seemingly everyone. Westbrook had 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists, but more importantly, Andre Roberson did his job by limiting James Harden's effectiveness while scoring 6 points of his own on the other end of the floor. 

Taj Gibson's impact in the first half was tremendous, providing the Thunder with something they didn't have in the first game: an inside presence. Gibson forced Houston to pay special attention to the paint, which allowed Westbrook to flourish as the game progressed while also incorporating multiple players in the offense, leading to his 10 first-half assists in addition to his 22 points. Things were looking up. 

Throughout most of the third quarter, things went about the same as they did in the first half with Westbrook picking up where he left off, as did Roberson. Doug McDermott came off the bench and scored 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting as well. However, at the 2:21 mark Westbrook substituted out of the game and Houston went on a 12-3 run, trimming the Thunder lead to 89-86 to end the quarter. Kyle Singler, a player Billy Donovan can't seem to completely eliminate from the rotation, was Harden's primary defender during this stretch and that's when he let loose for 12 third quarter points, including a 3-point dagger to end the period. At this moment, the Thunder faithful felt a significant deal of uneasiness heading into the final quarter. 

Westbrook started the fourth which is unusual for him as he normally sits until around the 8-minute mark. No one saw it coming but seemingly for the first time in his career, he was tired. He got 2:21 of rest, which isn't enough for the motor he plays on and because of that he didn't take good shots down the stretch.  Frankly, he didn't make sound decisions which is very uncharacteristic of his game.  

By the 3:16 mark of the fourth quarter, both Patrick Beverley and Harden were in serious foul trouble with 5, and Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni chose to take his chances by hiding his most productive guards in the post on defense to avoid any contact. The seemingly obvious choice was for Westbrook to either attack the lane, forcing Beverley or Harden to make a decision, or for him to feed the ball into the post, forcing the two to make the same decision. Instead, Westbrook took questionable shots en route to 4-of-18 shooting and 1-of-7 from three in the final 12 minutes of the game. He did become the first player to notch a 50-point triple double in the playoffs though, with 51 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds, but according to him, that doesn't matter because they didn't get the win. 

 

Optimistically thinking, the Thunder played a good 30 minutes of this game and may have discovered some things that may work on the offensive end, while finding a working formula to slow down Harden's offensive onslaught. Realistically thinking, they are down 2-0 in a best-of-7 series. Yes, they return to the Chesapeake Energy Arena for Games 3 and 4 but the daunting task of having to win a game in Houston to advance in this series is still looming over their head. It'll be tough, but after today the Thunder may have found a winning recipe.