If you weren’t trampled to death at Walmart earlier today, you lived long enough to watch another regular season classic, one that had the basketball world once again drooling at the prospect of a Western Conference Finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That endgame sequence was crazy enough to wonder whether divine influences follow the NBA and were sending a message: when these teams play, the fun times ensue.
Overtime, 112-110, Warriors. Russell Westbrook, after a miss by Serge Ibaka, jumps over Jermaine O’Neal — playing for a fouled-out Andrew Bogut — to knock away the rebound. Thabo Sefolosha incredibly saved it from going out of bounds with an over-the-head pass back to Westbrook streaking toward the corner, who corralled the ball moving away from the baseline (which moved a defending Harrison Barnes away from between Russ and the basket), spun back toward the baseline, and drained it clean. As Jackson said postgame: "Russell just wanted the ball more than anybody else on the floor."
As mildly epic as this game was, it was also one of those frustrating close losses that enable to you look back at earlier possessions that didn’t swing the right way, and reach up to yank your own hair while saying, "Why didn’t they just/why couldn’t they/ugh but that was so close/refs what are you doing/Jackson, are you serious?"
One such play was directly preceding the climax, in which Klay Thompson and Ibaka fought for a rebound as it was heading out of bounds. It was ultimately called off of Klay, and it was close enough that we’ll never really know if that was the right call. But Thompson clearly had the opportunity to grab the ball before it went out of bounds, which would have taken the referees out of the equation. (How often do players let rebounds go out of bounds when they have a chance to add one more to their stat sheet? C’mon Klay, get greedy!)
Another such play was every damn play involving a David Lee post-up isolation on Ibaka. Mark Jackson’s faith in Lee is… well, it’s something, but it’s also failing to pay off in repetition. It’s also spread to Jermaine O’Neal this season. I like to imagine there’s a tactic-within-a-tactic thing going on that I don’t understand — something to do with managing personalities, building confidence, etc. — but those things are hard to accept when you lose by a point in overtime. And Lee on Ibaka is just a bad matchup that isn’t hard to identify. There were a few other offensive play-calling issues that I can only hope are part of the learning curve in the first half of a season. Let’s monitor that situation closely.
Also, free throws. Lots of them. The Warriors went 20 for 29, while the Thunder went 35-42. The free throw attempt discrepancy is nothing new for us, but leaving nine points on the line isn’t acceptable for a team that has such good shooters. Klay missed three, Steph missed one, Lee missed a couple — this team isn’t good enough at getting to the line to also get away with not making them when they do get there.
And yet, the Dubs lost by just one in overtime against the Thunder on the road, without the previous game-winning-shot-maker Andre Iguodala. Let’s face it: without Iguodala, this team is just not as good as last year’s team. Even with a healthy Bogut (who honestly didn’t look all that healthy tonight — good offense early on, but his energy and hustle seemed to wane significantly as he picked up silly fouls), without the offense that Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry brought, Jackson gets stuck with some appalling lineups. They all involve Marreese Speights.
This wasn’t a bad loss. The Warriors didn’t shoot very well, but generally played good defense on both Durant and Westbrook. Durant, defended quite well by Barnes for much of the night, scored 25 on just 7/22 shooting; Westbrook had a monster 34 points, but only on 10/25 (and five of his makes came in the first quarter, all on the exact same pick’n’roll elbow jumper play). The defensive plan was good, and executed well — and would have led to a victory if they hadn’t also fouled the living hell out of both of those guys, who made a combined 23 free throws.
No, it wasn’t a bad loss. It just feels like it. Because it could have been a win, in a dozen different ways and times. Tonight, in one way and one time, Westbrook wanted it more, and he took it.
As tempting as it is to give the award to Curry, as it is on almost any other night, Harrison Barnes deserves it tonight. He was confident and decisive on offense, making mismatches pay off; he made a few plays for teammates, which is an area of his game that he can only improve on; and he used his body to excellent advantage on defense, making things tough for Durant. He kept the team close in the first half, was completely ignored by Jackson in the third, and still had the moxie to come back and make four of five shots in the fourth. In absence of Iguodala, the Warriors need Barnes to play well on both ends of the floor, for a ton of minutes. He finished with a career high 26 points on 10 of 15 shooting, including a beautiful go-ahead reverse layup in overtime. Really looking forward to watching Harrison have more of these outings.
And I'm looking forward to destiny being fulfilled: Golden State/Oklahoma City, 2014 Western Conference Finals. Let's do this, divinity. You know you want it.