Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hack and Lose

Fear The Beard
I don't mean to overreact to this, because it's just one first round playoff game between two teams that won't likely advance past the second round, due to injuries and inexperience. There's a very real chance that no one will think very much about this later, and that I'm just dealing with the ugly visual of a Game Five loss at home, in a series that now looks like it has historic possibilities for choking.

But I can't shake the idea that tonight was the night where the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant saw the other side of the arc, and started down, down, down. If this team spirals back to mediocrity in future years, or if Durant starts giving off more of a Dominique Wilkins or George Gervin vibe (i.e., the great scorer who doesn't get the ring)... well, this is where Scott Brooks and the Thunder stopped playing beautiful basketball, and started trying anything possible to win. And his team knew it, and lost all enthusiasm for the game.

Down in the fourth by a reasonable but not insurmountable amount, the home team started intentionally fouling Rockets center Omer Asik, a 57% shooter. Asik made 9 of 14 down the stretch to make the questionable strategy fail, as it usually does. Durant had 36, but didn't score in the fourth, picked up a technical, and deferred to guys who didn't make shots. The crowd died and the series went 3-2, Thunder, and right now the Rockets are totally playing with house money, with James Harden (7 of 8 from the arc tonight while fighting off the flu, ye gads) looking like the best player on the floor.

The problem with hacking isn't what it does to your defense. In general, a possession in basketball is worth a point, and the real edge of the hack is that it happens in seconds, and effectively 15 to 20 seconds per possession back the game. But the real issue is what it does to your offense, since you never get the ball in open court, never face the opposition's worst defense (since they can use the timeout to swap offense for defense), and usually can't overcome the karmic wound that you are inflicting on the game.

There's a reason why last minute possessions usually fail. Guys get off rhythm, over think the shot, have too much energy to make the jumper long, and just know that this is wrong. TNT showed iso footage of Durant just walking through a set with 3:40 left and down 9, and they were absolutely right to do so. When your coach doesn't think you are better, you tend to believe him.

The loss of Russell Westbrook is immense, of course, but RW should not mean that the team's interior defense should go to hell, or that the other Thunder players should all look scared as hell, especially at home. Kevin Martin was terrible on a near comedic level, and the simple fact of the matter is that when you go to intentional hacking, you are basically admitting that you have a lesser squad... and right now, it's hard to argue with that assessment.

And if Durant can't get a single win in four chances against an 8 seed, independent of any other factor... can he really be as good as we think he is?

Game 6 is Friday, in Houston, in a series that just fascinating, if not all that much fun to watch. I'd expect something big from Durant, but at this point, the Thunder might be better off if the big game came from Serge Ibaka.

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