OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook owned his mistakes at the podium.
“You need to find ways to move the ball around and that starts with me,” he said. “I’ve gotta do a better job of leading into the next game.”
Westbrook’s words were sincere. He understands 31 points isn’t a good thing when it comes on 10-of-31 shooting. He knows the five turnovers, including one particularly brutal one where he dribbled too wildly around Kawhi Leonard and had the ball stolen, are too many for a point guard tasked with running the team. But the Thunder have thrown around many sincere post-game comments and yet the ultimate problem doesn’t go away. When the game gets close, the offense disappears. In Game 3, the same thing we’ve seen for years happened again.
Through the seasons in Oklahoma City, the reasons for this spread across the entire spectrum. Sometimes it’s Westbrook or Kevin Durant hijacking the offense for isolation play. Sometimes, their teammates passively stand by, encouraging that. It has even come straight from the coach. Great defense like the Spurs subtly encourage it, knowing one player dribbling on an island against a defender like Leonard will always work out for them in the long run. Sometimes it works out, with Westbrook and Durant’s individual excellence standing out above the rest! But usually, it plays out more like this.
On Friday, Westbrook’s brash, domineering style showed its worst side. He missed out-of-control layups at the rim, took contested jump shots early in the shot clock, and flashed his tantalizing promise without actually dominating the game like he could nightly.
Durant also had late-game turnovers, notably a cross-court pass to no one in particular that skipped out of bounds when Westbrook couldn’t save it with a dive. Westbrook and Durant both missed huge threes, although Westbrook kept the Thunder in the game briefly by putting back Durant’s miss with a foul. With 2:06 left in the game, Oklahoma City trailed 92-89 with a chance to tie the game. Three possessions later, the Spurs’ lead had expanded to seven.
“Yeah, those definitely hurt us in that situation because it gave them some run outs, it allowed them to score,” Billy Donovan said.
Donovan singled out other possession, specifically the decisive offensive rebound given up to Leonard when the Spurs led 96-94 and 23 seconds remained.
“It was a back breaker,” Durant said. “(We) were down seven with a minute to go and cut it to two. We made him miss his shot and the ball kinda fell in his hands.”
There’s any number of plays you can point throughout a game, regardless of where they fall. But the final minutes are the most glaring, and the Thunder’s devolution into an offensive absent for the opening 46 minutes is telling. This problem isn’t knew. They’ve seen it before. Yet here it is, sending them tumbling down 2-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals against a team they can’t afford to mess up against.
– Tim Cato
Channing Frye is the perfect fit in Cleveland
Credit Cavaliers general manager David Griffin for a shrewd pickup at the February trade deadline. Frye was rotting on a rebuilding Magic team and seemed to be past his prime, but Griffin was willing to spend the money and sacrifice a future first-round pick in hopes that playing with LeBron James would revive Frye’s career. That move paid dividends down the stretch and especially mattered on Friday, as Frye stroked seven three-pointers to finish with 27 points in a comeback Cavaliers victory in Atlanta.
Eleven of those points came in the fourth quarter, when the Cavaliers unleashed a devastating offensive lineup featuring Frye at center alongside Kevin Love, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith. That five-man unit outscored the Hawks by 15 points over the final seven minutes of the game, raining threes when James and Irving drew defenders while spacing the floor for their drives. Al Horford admitted that frontcourt combination caught the Hawks off guard.
Al Horford on @cavs‘ Love/Frye combo: ‘We didn’t prepare for that’
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) May 7, 2016
That’s a damning indictment of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, but it also underscores the Cavaliers’ depth. If they want to play traditionally, they can start Tristan Thompson and watch him dominate the glass. If they want to play small, they can slide Love to center and feast like they did in the first round against the Pistons. If they want to play super big, as they did in last year’s playoffs, they can dust off little-used Timofey Mozgov. If they want to play super small, they can always swing James to center, though they haven’t tried yet.
But if they want to split the difference, they can pair Love and Frye together and watch the three-pointers fly. Frye is not a rim protector, but he can do a decent job defensively in the middle. Meanwhile, pairing him with Love allows the Cavaliers to surround James with four three-point shooters, an impossible task for defenses to stop. Just ask the Hawks.
Maybe the Hawks really do need that star
The Hawks’ embarrassing defensive performance in a must-win game to save their season will get most of the attention, and rightfully so. One game after allowing an NBA-record 25 three-point makes, the Hawks merely surrendered 21 this time. Their three-point defense has been a vice all season, and they’ve been unable to fix that in this series.
But their offense down the stretch didn’t exactly set the world on fire either. With eight minutes and 17 seconds left in the game, Jeff Teague floated in a runner to give the Hawks a 103-99 lead. Their only points during the competitive portion of the rest of the game came from a Kyle Korver long two-point jumper and one Teague free throw. That’s it. During that stretch, the Hawks went 1-9 from the field and committed four turnovers.
It was a sign of how far the Hawks’ offense has fallen since its heyday in the middle of last season. Back then, Atlanta zipped the ball around, dazed teams with constant motion and maximized the sum of many flawed parts. There was a sense that they didn’t need exceptional offensive talent because they had a system that elevated players like Teague, Horford, Millsap and Kyle Korver. But teams eventually perfected methods to stop that flow, and all the Hawks had left at that point were those very flawed parts. In those moments, a go-to guy must step forward, but that’s not how the Hawks operate.
That doesn’t mean Teague, Millsap, Horford, Korver and Kent Bazemore are bad players. It just means that they’re insufficient against elite opposition like the Cavaliers.
– Mike Prada
Play of the night
3 fun things