But all that went for naught as the Rockets took off the last 5 minutes of the game, exposing serious flaws in the Oklahoma City defense. Without Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder played Ibaka at center and Durant at power forward. The Rockets simply brought Ibaka out of the paint on screen and rolls, leaving the rim unprotected as they continually knifed into the lane. What sets the Rockets apart, however, is the extra pass they make to the perimeter for open three’s. This is where defensive discipline is tantamount, since they will find the one guy who hasn’t maintained correct position and he will knock down that shot.
While the Thunder are still the favorites to represent the West in the NBA Finals, there is still enough of a concern with Scott Brooks coaching and Russell Westbrook’s decision making that put this prediction in a hazy light. The numbers back up that Scott Brooks’ offense works, as the Thunder are ranked 2nd in overall offense. But time and again, Westbrook’s temper influences his decision making, and against the very best teams, it is his downfall.
In this game, in transition defense, Westbrook twice picked up the wrong man and it led to matchup issues that allowed the Rockets to score. Granted, the Rockets push the pace and it is not unusual to get those mismatches, but if the Thunder truly want to be considered elite, they must be better at adhering to a sound defensive philosophy. This goes more towards Brooks and his defensive philosophy. Right now, there is some evidence that the players understand how to defend together as a team, but it is not nearly consistent enough to beat teams like the Spurs and the Heat in a 7 game playoff series.
The Rockets, on the other hand, are poised to reach as high as the 6th spot in the Western Conference. While trading for Harden gave room for hope in Houston, it is still a pleasant surprise to see so many young players develop so quickly. With Lin getting more and more comfortable playing alongside Harden, and Chandler Parson developing into an outstanding forward, the Rockets have a nucleus of a team that can do damage. Kevin McHale has put them into a system where they can flourish by pushing the pace, yet they have a sound half court defensive philosophy by forcing their men to the baseline. Against Kevin Durant, they were able to harass him effectively by playing a one man zone, while the Thunder had no movement to take advantage of this.
It remains to be seen if the Thunder, under present circumstances, have the ability to rise to a higher level. Right now, it seems clear to me that they are not in the same class as the Heat and the Spurs. I’m not sure Russell Westbrook will ever make the next step from other worldly athlete to cerebral point guard, or if that is even necessary. But I have seen players at this level hold their team back by playing with such a burning and intense anger, it clouds their decision making. Scott Brooks is so infrequently pushed to coach, since the talent level in Oklahoma City overwhelms so many other NBA teams, that it’s unclear if he can get this team to play up to the few teams that can match them. This all makes for an exciting second half of the season, one where we’ll keep our watchful eye out for signs of improvement by the Thunder.