Thunder's Grit and Determination Key in Round 2

Each Playoff series and each Playoff game has a personality of its own, a fact of NBA basketball that was evident during the Thunder’s 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.

After focusing on the little things and using attention to detail to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in four games in Round 1, the Thunder bested the Lakers through a deep-seeded level of grit and determination. From digging down to uproot its best effort in a fourth quarter comeback in Game 4 to executing and hustling on both ends of the floor in Games 1 and 5, the Thunder put together a set of five games that it can build upon.

Guard Russell Westbrook was one of the many crucial contributors in the series, averaging 25.6 points per game during the series and controlling the flow of the game. After the series clinching Game 5, Westbrook discussed the difficulty of the series and the depth to which the Thunder had to fight in order to shake free and move on to the Western Conference Finals.

“That was a tough team,” Westbrook said. “They were not laying down. We had to come together as better teammates and we did that tonight. From the middle of the third quarter till the end of the game, we all did our jobs.”

In addition to Westbrook’s scoring punch, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ Thunder squad excelled in four other key areas, all of which had to do with concentration, devotion to team concepts and the will to battle for 48 minutes:

Kevin Durant's Defense

As Brooks and the rest of the Thunder re-iterated throughout the series, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA, so it was no secret that the Thunder would need to throw out the kitchen sink to slow him down. Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden did a lot of the difficult defensive work during quarters one through three in the series, but in most of the games in this series, Brooks turned to forward Kevin Durant to defend Bryant.

During the four fourth quarters in this series that Bryant played, he averaged 8.3 points, but those came on 32.4 percent shooting. In addition, Bryant did not make a three pointer in the fourth quarter and only averaged 0.8 rebounds and 0.5 assists. Durant’s commitment to continual improvement on the defensive end allowed him to defend Bryant effectively late.

“Kevin (Durant) has really improved as a two-way player and I think that is what over the last three years has taken our team to a different level and it takes his game to a different level,” Brooks said. “Kevin has length, he has foot quickness, and he has the ability to do a good job contesting and challenging shots. I thought he did that tonight.”

Post Rebounding and Boxing Out

While the Lakers may have had a 4.5 rebounds margin per game over the Thunder through the first four games of the series, Brooks’ bigs inside nearly turned the tables completely in Game 5, a summation of the effort and energy it displayed on the glass all series. The Lakers boast two seven-footers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, a formidable duo that helped the Lakers become one of the best rebounding teams in the Playoffs and the NBA. In Game 5 the Thunder set the tone early, as Serge Ibaka hauled in five offensive rebounds in the first quarter and Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant combined for 21 rebounds on the night.

In all, the Thunder out-rebounded the Lakers by 16 on Monday night, and despite showing a deficit earlier in the series, that edge was simply a payoff from all the hard work the Thunder bigs gave all series. The Lakers may have gotten some rebounds, but none of them were easy, and when the Thunder sensed the series within its grasp, the energy level ratcheted up to an even higher level.

“The Lakers’ bigs are as good as any bigs in basketball,” Brooks said. “They’re big, they can score, they block shots and contest the paint. The way Perk (Kendrick Perkins) battled, obviously he’s coming off of his injury and competing every day with it. We’re all proud of him. Nick (Collison) and Serge (Ibaka) did a good job. When Naz (Nazr Mohammed) was in the game, he did a good job also. They’ve always been our unsung heroes. They compete on the defensive side of the floor and they help our guys score on the other end by setting good screens on the offensive end.”

Ball Protection and Distribution

All Thunder fans need to know about the ball control and crisp passing in this series against the Lakers is that while Brooks’ team struggled in the regular season with turnovers, it found ways to mitigate those “catastrophic” giveaways in Round 2. In fact, led by Russell Westbrook’s astonishing 23-to-4 assist to turnover ratio in this series, the Thunder had 84 assists to only 45 turnovers against the Lakers, good for a 16.8 assists to 9.0 turnovers average.

Whether it was sharing the ball with triangle passing amongst the bigs down low or spacing the floor so that drive and kick opportunities weren’t cluttered with arms and jammed passing lanes, the Thunder delivered the ball appropriately. Aiding in the sharpness of the passing was the fact that the Thunder rebounded and ran with the ball, leading to open-floor fast break opportunities, where the likelihood of turnovers decreases and assists increases.

“Our offense was good and we didn’t turn the ball over,” Brooks said. “We did a great job taking care of the basketball. That’s one of the things that we talked about all year and we’ve really done a good job of that.”

Crunch-time Execution

Lastly, the Thunder’s poise and determination in the later stages of the game were crucial all series long. While Game 1’s fourth quarter was played completely by reserves, the final 12 minutes of the Thunder’s Game 2, 4 and 5 victories were all marked by Brooks’ crew’s desire to get stops and find open looks at the basket.

In Game 2, the Thunder trailed 75-68 with 2:08 remaining before it embarked on a 9-0 run to close out the game, ending on a Kevin Durant baseline floater. During that stretch, the Thunder forced two turnovers in a nine second span and finished off possessions with transition buckets. In Game 4, the Thunder used a 25-9 burst to turn a 13-point deficit with 7:45 remaining into a three-point victory. It started with a Derek Fisher three pointer, continued with nine straight points by Russell Westbrook and ended with a Kendrick Perkins tip-in and a Durant dagger three-pointer. In addition, the Thunder held Kobe Bryant to 2-for-10 shooting during the quarter. Finally, in Game 5, the Thunder started its run a bit earlier, with a 20-4 explosion preceded by an absurdly acrobatic finger roll bank shot by Westbrook while being wrapped up, and punctuated by back-to-back three-pointers by Durant.

In those scenarios, the Thunder realized that it was never out of the fight, even when looking up at large deficits. The never-say-die attitude of the team, combined with the mental focus and energy to make the right play on both ends were the biggest factors that led to those magnificent Thunder rallies.

“Well, we know that is the most important part of the game,” Durant said. “I think we kept our composure in the fourth quarter and made plays on the defensive end as well as the offensive end. And we believe, even if we’re down or even have the lead, we still wanted to play the right way and the right basketball.”