All postseason, Oklahoma City has closed out games in grand fashion. The Lakers, in Game 4, simply became the latest victim of the Thunder and its ability to storm back from a fourth-quarter deficit and secure a win.
That trait, not Westbrook’s explosiveness or Kevin Durant’s daggers or James Harden’s surgeon-like precision in the pick-and-roll, has been the most impressive thing about the Thunder’s playoff run thus far.
Oklahoma City is now all grown up.
“To beat the Lakers, you have to play well. To beat ‘em, you have to do a lot of things well. You have to prevent them from doing things well. They’re a great team, a great organization. We know we have a big challenge ahead to close out a team. Nobody wants to go home early. We know the Lakers are a championship-level team. They’re not just going to give us game four. We have to win game No. 4. We know it’s always tough to close out a team, especially a team with championship DNA. A guy with Kobe on their team is not going to give up.”
To James Harden, who gave us the most important moment of Round 1: Game 4 in Dallas, when Harden drove the dying Mavs to the veterinarian’s office and put them down himself. Oklahoma City’s ceiling before that game: “If Westbrook and Durant aren’t making jumpers, there’s no Plan B.” Oklahoma City’s ceiling after that game: “Actually, there is a Plan B — they can just turn things over to Harden, let him create for everyone else and keep going to the rim.”
Oh, and just in case you worried that performance was a fluke, Harden repeated it against the Lakers in Game 2. That spawned an “Is Harden an original prototype?” e-mail thread with me and two die-hard NBA buddies — we finally decided that he has a chance (repeat: a chance) to become Ginobili 2.0, an even more athletic/durable/potent lefty two-guard who gets better when it matters. It’s in play.
It was Durant at his cold-blooded finest, stepping up to meet the moment, in the face of adversity on the road, firing daggers at the opponent. But he was so wrong.
No one able to pass a competency hearing is going to criticize Durant for taking a terrible shot. That wouldn’t happen on any serious level, not with all the good will he has built up with his lethal offensive game and his personality. It’s not taking shots that will get him into trouble.
Durant has made commendable strides this season as a distributor, expanding his arsenal of ways to water board an opponent. The Thunder love it because the new look makes them tougher to defend and create a third playmaker, along with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. It’s just that every other team likes it more.
Anything that gets Durant out of scoring mode is a good thing for the rest of the league, and it is impossible for Oklahoma City and even Durant himself to deny he is still trying to find the right balance between being unselfish and being too unselfish. On those nights when too unselfish becomes blending in the background while waiting for teammates to seize a moment, the Thunder have real problems.
Bryant has tired of having to prop Gasol up time and again. Bryant did it often last season in pursuit of a third consecutive title on a bad knee and before Bynum was ready, offering the compelling Natalie Portman-inspired narrative that Gasol is too often the “white swan” instead of the “black swan.” Like the movie, it didn’t end well.
This season, Bryant has still believed that Gasol can come through when it matters most. Bryant’s public request that the Lakers stop dangling Gasol in the trade market was him believing Gasol needed that support to persevere. When I was comparing the very night before the March trade deadline the emerging Bynum and Bryant to the regular one-two punch of Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, it was Bryant who digressed to say: “We still have Pau.”
On the flip side, Durant’s heroics will obscure a larger and more important story for the Thunder: the continued emergence of James Harden as a crunch-time weapon. Harden wiped out Dallas down the stretch of Game 4 in the Thunder’s first-round sweep, and when Durant wasn’t dunking or hitting floaters in the final minutes of last night’s game, the Thunder leaned on Harden to create out of the pick-and-roll. On the three Oklahoma City possessions that sandwiched Durant’s clutch steal-and-dunk, Harden blew by Bryant and Bynum (jumping too early against the screen) on one pick-and-roll for a layup, got into the lane on another before missing a shot at the rim and scored a layup in transition.
Russell Westbrook scored 37 points while teammate Kevin Durant added 31 in the Thunder’s 103-100 win at Staples Center. It was the first time two teammates scored at least 30 points in a playoff road win over the Lakers since June 12, 1991, when Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan scored 32 and 30, respectively as the Bulls wrapped up their first NBA title with a win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Great Western Forum.