After running out to a 3-0 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, the Oklahoma City Thunder let down their guard a bit in Monday night's Game 4. Not only was star guard Russell Westbrook roundly criticized from all angles for shooting his team's chances away, but there were also testy on-court exchanges between Westbrook and top scorer Kevin Durant, as well as Westbrook and second-year big man Serge Ibaka.
A lot of "Westbrook" in that opening paragraph, you'll notice. Which leads to a worrying thought.
Russell has been criticized all season for looking the other way when it comes time to feed Kevin Durant for his 30th and 31st point of the game, and RW's shot selection down the stretch was as bad as we've seen any good player come through with this season. Is this guy going to take down everyone's favorite feel-good team?
Yes, Westbrook missed 18-of-30 shots, and those long twos and unnecessary threes in the fourth quarter of Game 4 showed a shocking lack of hoop know-how for someone as gifted as him. But this has to be expected from a 22-year-old who is only in his third NBA season, someone who only got into organized basketball in college, and a player charged with closing out his team's first-ever playoff series while on the road.
To hear Durant tell it, well … get over it, guys:
"We've been doing that all season," Durant said. "That's a part of a basketball team. You're not going to always be happy all the time. … Sometimes you have to scream at guys for them to get the point. That's what we were doing.
There's 15 guys, plus the coaches, that have to stay together," Durant said. "One or two guys can't stray away from the group because you're upset. We all have to stay together. That's all I was stressing, and that's what Russell was stressing."
There are cracks in the armor, but this is how it goes when you look like the best thing the Western Conference has going for it over a two-month stretch. From March onward, the Thunder peeled off a 19-5 record to end the season, ranking first in the NBA in offensive efficiency during that term to go with a top-10 ranking on the defensive end. And though the Denver Nuggets were probably the second-hottest act to enter the Western playoff bracket, the Thunder had beaten them soundly in five attempts (including two regular-season duels) over the last month before Monday's loss.
Monday's loss included some needless strong-arm tactics from Kendrick Perkins, on-court yelling between Westbrook and Durant and then Ibaka, along with an embarrassing batch of ref-bugging from RW that allowed Ty Lawson to beat Westbrook down the court for an uncontested 3-pointer.
But this is how it goes when you grow up in public. And it would still be worth your while to invest in this team.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks thinks so, as well:
"I have no problem with it," Brooks said. "I like that stuff. Whether it gets heated, it's never personal with our team. It's always about trying to figure out ways to get better.
"We have quite a few of those conversations during the game, whether it's one-on-one as a team is shooting a free throw or during a timeout or at halftime or at the end of a game."
And to hear Durant tell it, Westbrook has already moved on. In the right direction, in Kevin's eyes:
"He wants to do so well all the time. He's so hard on himself. He's his biggest critic. He might miss a shot or get a turnover, and sometimes he lets that affect him a little bit. But he's getting past it. He's been working on that. And as teammates, we got to do a great job of helping him out and encouraging him. That's all we've been trying to do."
These are pups, relative to the rest of the NBA. Not only is it the first round of the playoffs, but it is Oklahoma City's figurative first round. And they're figuring it out. Yes, those jumpers were terrible, but it's early, and nobody will remember that this post even needed to be written in three weeks' time.