It's taken several hours, but I feel like I can finally remove myself from the emotion involved in last night's 110-105 overtime loss enough to find some meaning. What went wrong? What went right? Who (if anyone) is to blame? Let's discuss.
Let me start by saying when you're up by 5 with 42 seconds remaining, you have to win the game. Bar none, it needs to in the W column. There are no excuses. If you feel bad about the loss, you should. In no way am I trying to take away the sting of the loss. I'm not even going to break down the final possessions too much. Iguodala was out of control and he did commit the charge. Durant hit an insanely difficult baseline jumper after Iguodala sent him to help on the drive and Brand provided as much help as anyone in the league could have. On the three, Turner should've either switched or doubled Durant. Make someone else take the shot. I don't believe in fouling on the perimeter in that situation, though I understand the debate. There, that stuff is out of the way.
First, let's e clear about this. Vegas may have had the Sixers as 1.5 point favorites, but they really shouldn't have been considered favorites to win the game. OKC is a better team, and they were well-rested while the Sixers were on the second night of a back-to-back. Those two factors should more than make up for the home court advantage.
Now, let's take a look at how the Sixers hung with the Thunder and set themselves up for what should've been a win. A few keys:
- Jrue vs. Westbrook - I'm sure ESPN will run endless highlights of Westbrook's athletic finishes and dazzling drives, but in my mind Jrue unquestionably won this matchup. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 5 boards and 12 assists. It took Westbrook 23 shots and 5 trips to the line to get his 27 points, and he turned the ball over 7 times. Those turnovers were a direct result of Jrue's defense. I thought he did a great job on Westbrook tonight, no matter what the line tells you. He was moving his feet and cutting off the angles. There's only so much you can do against a guy like Westbrook, especially when you have absolutely no shotblocking behind you. Jrue wasn't perfect defensively, not be a long shot, but he did play Westbrook well. On the other end of the floor, Jrue did whatever he wanted when he was running the show. His penetration was the best offense the Sixers had all night and I thought he should've been given the ball more. I'll take 22 (on 8/16 from the floor), 4 boards, 8 assists, 3 steals and zero turnovers over 27/5/12 and 7 turns any day of the week. Winning this matchup was a key to the game, and Jrue did win it. If you want a positive takeaway from this game for the future, take this. I'm 100% confident Jrue can and will play with the best point guards in this league on the biggest stage when the time comes.
- Taking away their strengths - OKC leads the league in Free Throw Rate (FT/FGA) at .307. Those free points add up and getting into foul trouble makes things much easier for the Thunder nearly every time they take the floor. The Sixers didn't let them play that game tonight. They were only 12/16 from the line on the night, and their Free Throw Rate was only. Durant and Westbrook went to the line 10 times combined. They average almost 19 FTA/game between them. I'm certain this was Doug Collins' gameplan going in, and if you want another takeaway from the game, it's this. Collins set a point of emphasis, the team executed to perfection, and it was nearly the deciding factor in the game. This is a very, very important thing to keep in mind when the playoffs start, because there will be one game in the first-round series that's decided because Collins made an adjustment and the team was able to execute what he asked of them.
The defensive rebounding last night, for the most part, was atrocious. Two factors played into it. (1) The Sixers have a gaping hole at the center position. (2) The way the Sixers usually compensate for this is by playing solid, fundamental, man-to-man defense and being in proper position to team rebound when shots go up. Last night, they were doing a ton of doubling, especially on the pick-and-roll. That left a lot of guys out of position for rebounds, especially the big guy setting the screen. This wouldn't be such a big issue if not for the first weakness. When you have a guy like Dalembert who can simply drift and out-jump everyone for a board, he'll clean the glass no matter what's going on with the other four guys. When you don't have a big who's a vacuum, it takes a team effort.
This game clearly meant as much to the Sixers as it did to those of us who suffered along with them, and I think that was part of the problem. It was part of the problem for a couple of guys throughout the night, notably Thad, and it was a big part of the problem for the entire team at the very end. Thad wasn't himself tonight, and it had nothing to do with the back-to-back, he was too geeked up for this game. It was pretty easy to spot, every time he touched the ball, he was rushing through his moves. It's sounds like an oxymoron, but Thad's game is about deliberate quickness. When he gets the ball in the post, he's always got a quickness advantage, but his moves are well-rehearsed. It's like a ballet when he spins through the lane. Tonight, he was catching the ball and spinning immediately. He wasn't getting his feet under him, he wasn't balanced at the end of his moves and he was rushing his shots. The results weren't pretty.
For the team as a whole, they kept up the intensity, the fed off the crowds energy and their intense desire to take down the Thunder right up until they thought they had it in the bag. When Lou Williams hit a three with 2:18 left in the game, everything changed on the offensive end. From that moment on, they weren't playing to beat the Thunder, they were playing to hold on. Just hold on. That meant too much dribbling. That meant tough jumpers to "end it" instead of running solid offense or making a move to the hoop to take advantage of the Thunder being in the penalty. As the shots failed to find the bottom of the net, the Sixers got increasingly nervous. The pressure mounted and finally, it changed to "don't lose." By that time, the game was over.
What's the lesson here? Well, ultimately the lesson is that they're a young team. The lesson is that they need to learn these lessons, and sometimes the hard way is the only way. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have been in these situations before. They knew the game wasn't over when they were down by 5 with 42 seconds to go. In overtime, they knew that you don't close games by holding the ball and hoping the buzzer will sound before the other team can catch up. You never stop trying to win and start trying not to lose. You learn that certain games might be bigger, but the game is always the same between the lines. You learn there are no shortcuts when the game is on the line. A "dagger" three early in the shot clock is a much lower percentage play than getting to the line later in the shot clock. Holding the ball until there are 8 seconds left on the shot clock precludes you from running anything but the simplest of plays.
There were literally an endless number of lessons to be learned from this game. You hope a couple of the hard ones stick, and you hope the positive ones, like "hey, we have a point guard who can go out and win a game for us," or "If we just listen to coach, and execute what he tells us to, we can beat anyone," don't get overshadowed.
This game should've been a loss before it started. Two more minutes of the same execution they showed in the first 46 would've made it a win. Now it's time to regroup, get in the gym, and get ready to turn another paper loss on Friday into a win on the hardwood. Don't forget last night, learn from it.