Before the Houston-OKC series popped off, the Thunder’s superiority was as obvious as knowing fire burns when you touch it.
The 29-point shellacking in Game 1 already had NBA fans assessing the dynamic possibilities of a LA Clippers-OKC Western Conference Semifinals battle.
LA is one of the few playoffs teams that can match OKC at the point, in athleticism and in pace. It should be a dunk-a-thon of a series.
No doubt Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is looking for every edge, as he tries to figure out a way to successfully attack the Thunder’s “Baby-faced Assassins.”
Houston was able to hang with the Thunder in the first half, fall behind and then make a late blitz because of three key deficiencies in OKC’s game.
Offensive rebounding and paint presence:
Houston missed 17 shots in the second quarter but got 9 of them back on the boards, resulting in 32 first-half points in the paint, compared to just 14 points for OKC.
When Houston went on its 18-2 run to take a fourth-quarter lead, Center Omer “the Turkish Hammer” Asik was running rings around Serge Ibaka by grabbing offensive boards and hitting multiple put-backs.
Erratic shooting and poor shot selection:
The Clippers have to lull Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into a three-point shooting barrage. Those cats are unstoppable when attacking the cup, but when they get enthralled with the trey, bad things eventually happen.
OKC was just 6-22 from the arc when they took the largest lead of the game at 74-64, after a 13-0 run in the third quarter. Instead of securing the big lead with high-percentage play, Durant and Westbrook kept launching ill-advised jumpers and Houston kept getting quick rebounds. James Harden started cashing pesos and the Rockets' streaky shooters started draining some threes of their own. All of a sudden, it was a game again.
Westbrook’s temperament and control:
Westbrook’s game is built on speed and violent aggression, but he really needs to lighten up. You can’t let a second-stringer take you out of your comfort zone, like Westbrook did after he was tripped up and hit in the knee by Rocket guard Patrick Beverley as he was going to call a timeout. Westbrook was vexed and slammed the scorer’s table. He later retaliated with an elbow and got caught. Then he began ignoring Durant – as he often does – and seemed to make the game a personal thing against Beverley, who was also getting his (16 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists) as a novice starter in the Rockets backcourt. For a stretch, Westbrook was launching and missing jumpers from the Chesapeake Energy Arena parking lot.
Houston was able to storm back because of Westbrook’s questionable shot selection. RW can't let a cat that bounced around leagues in Greece, Russia and the Ukraine get all up in his dome when the stakes are so high.
“It’s the playoffs,” Westbrook, who hit just 10 of 26 shots and one of seven three-pointers, told the Miami Herald. “You can’t help it. You can’t help but get excited.”
To be a champ, you have to help it. In a crucial series, Robert Horry-Steve Nash moments help swing fortune’s pendulum in the antagonists’ favor.
Knowing this, Del Negro’s probably feeding Matt Barnes (the ultimate antagonist) a strict hot sauce and pepper diet in preparation for the Thunder, whose shaky poker face is giving opponents some insight into derailing their playoff mission.