If anyone needed a reminder on how good Russell Westbrook is, just watch the tape of last night's Rockets-Thunder tilt again. It's not that the Thunder lost. It's how they lost. After Durant, they were outclassed by every Houston player 2-7. It's how when the offense grinds to a halt, there is no threat of Russell careening to the rim and making something good happen. It's how the team, including Durant, was left taking hurried, pull-up Js (the same ones we criticize Russell for). It's how the Houston defense didn't get more creative than: you stick to Kevin and we'll cover the rest of the court.
There are effects that an injury like Danilo Gallinari's had on the Nuggets depth (more on that later), then there are these injuries that change the entire complexion of a team. And lest anyone forget, though the Thunder did win 3 straight games to start the series (the last without Westbrook), two of those were very close. This wasn't an easy series even with all of there guys. Now it's a dogfight. I still think OKC wins because it's still hard to beat someone four straight times, but the whole complexion of the team changes, and it certainly won't be easy. They looked barely better than a .500 team last night, a 6th seed at best. Is that the Russell Westbrook difference? Is he the difference between 50-60 wins? He's a top 10 player, right? Top 7? Surely not top 5?
I think the system has something to do with it. When the Bulls lost Derrick Rose, they adjusted to play harder defense and "ugly up the game," in the words of coach Thibbs. When the Heat lose Wade, they throw another 3-point shooter out (yeah and they have LeBron). But when Russell is down, the already unimaginative Thunder offense grinds even more to a halt. We are already used to seeing guys standing around in the fourth, Durant not able to get the ball, a lack of transition. Now without Russell's individual genius, the offense was even harder to watch. Kevin Martin was a cooked hot dog. Derek Fisher a ham sandwich. Deandre Liggins a tenderloin steamrolled by the Harden machine.
Finally, let's talk about the fouling. I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. Team stagnant, down double digits, 5 minutes left, and they have a 56% guy there? Why not? But it went on too long. First, when a team shoots free throws, it's easier to set up the defense. Bye-bye, transition. And it completely took the crowd out of it. OKC has a fantastic crowd. You know how to get them involved? Make a shot, good defense and a rebound, another made shot, timeout Houston. Chesapeake would be rocking! But for too long (3 minutes in crunch time), there was no flow, no chance to run. The only times it flowed were when OKC missed and they didn't foul (beats me why). Finally, when it became pretty apparent that Asik's stroke didn't abandon him and that he'd make at least 1/2, the fouling should have stopped. 1 point / possession is pretty average NBA offense, but when you're up by 8-9 with only a few minutes to go, it's enough. After the Thunder cut the lead to 8-9, the fouling should have stopped.
It wasn't like OKC was struggling as a team defensively; it was the offense that needed help. Yeah the D on Harden was horrible. OKC needs to realize: a foul line off-the-dribble jumper is probably the worst shot he can take. He probably makes it at about the same % as when he rocks back for the three, but the three is worth 50% more points! And off-the-dribble Js are the worst in basketball. And he was 7-7 behind the line. And he looked wide open on several of those-the defender just wouldn't/couldn't/didn't close out. But outside of Harden, the defense was solid. You can live with Patrick Beverley Js or Francisco Garcia shooting. They just need to tighten the D on Harden.
The ironic thing is: if they keep Harden, they probably draw the Jazz in this series, and probably win even without Westbrook. Would a washed-up Kevin Martin really not be available during the summer? Regardless of the outcome of this series, where Houston has a real shot (35%?), the Thunder look like they screwed the whole Harden trade up. It's easy to have hindsight, but was trading a top 20 (15? 10?) player for a one year Kevin Martin rental, a lottery pick that can't get on the court (Liggins, Beverley, Chandler Parsons all played), and another pick in a weak draft really that good a deal?