OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Thunder have a problem, and it's bigger than they realize. And they realize it's pretty big already. They know they've started each of the first two games of the NBA Finals dreadfully, facing a double-digit deficit in the first quarter against the Miami Heat in both. They know that's unacceptable.
But their problem is bigger than that, because they don't understand why it has happened.
Specifically, Russell Westbrook doesn't understand why it happened. Which is a problem, because Russell Westbrook is why it has happened. And if he doesn't realize he's the problem?
That's a problem. That's a major problem. And the Thunder have problems enough, having surrendered home-court advantage after a 100-96 loss Thursday night in Game 2, a game they had almost no shot at winning after digging themselves an 18-2 hole. It was 18-2, and then it was 25-8, and then it was late it the fourth quarter, and the Thunder still hadn't made it up. They never made it up. They never led the Heat. They never tied them, either.
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"It's tough to make up 17 points," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "When you get down 17, too many things have to happen perfectly for you. I give our guys credit that we did fight, but that's two games in a row. ... We've got to come out better."
Well, sure. That's obvious. What went wrong? Why did the Thunder start so poorly? That's also obvious. At least, it was obvious to me. And to understand how obvious something had to be, to be obvious to me, understand where I was sitting: In the top row of the whole building. So far away, I couldn't tell Serge Ibaka from Kendrick Perkins -- and Perkins outweighs Ibaka by almost 50 pounds. From my seat, Ibaka could be Perkins. Chris Bosh could be Udonis Haslem. Binoculars would help, but I didn't need binoculars to see what was happening in those first few minutes.
Russell Westbrook was happening.
And listen, I didn't want to write this particular story. I swear. I told our main NBA writer, Ken Berger, that I tend to blame Russell Westbrook every time the Thunder lose, and I wasn't going to do it again. Not in Game 2. So as we were discussing story ideas after the game, I didn't bring up this one. I suggested writing on Kevin Durant's mostly magnificent fourth quarter. Or on the Thunder's near-comeback. Or on LeBron James' clutch play late. But while all those were a story, they weren't the story. Not to me.
The story, to me, was the first five minutes of the game, when the Thunder fell and couldn't get up. Why did they fall?
Well, Russell Westbrook is why. And that was apparent from the top row of Chesapeake Energy Arena, where I couldn't tell Perkins from Ibaka or Haslem from Bosh, but I could tell something was wrong with Russell Westbrook.
He was hyper. Distracted. Erratic, out of control. He was doing the one thing he does when he's playing poorly -- he was playing too fast, and this is a guy whose speed is one of his greatest attributes. In the Western Conference finals he chased down Spurs blur Tony Parker, making a play Brooks said couldn't be made by more than two or three guys in the world. Playing fast is what Westbrook does, and he does it well.
Playing too fast? It's also what he does from time to time, and it's his worst quality. He is so quick that he can get any shot he wants, whenever he wants it, but he hasn't learned the discretion to choose wisely. And he chose poorly in the first few minutes of Game 2.
One minute into the game, he was able to create just enough space against the bigger Dwyane Wade for a 14-footer, a contested jumper he missed. Next time down Westbrook again went one-on-one with Wade, shooting from almost the same spot, a near air ball that just grazed the front of the rim.
Next time down, Westbrook saw he was defended by Mario Chalmers and dribbled to the low block, posting Chalmers, spinning himself into an almost impossible angle and trying to bank the shot anyway. No chance. Another miss.
A few minutes later Westbrook attacked the rim crazily, going one-on-one, then two, then three, then four. It was that fourth guy, Heat forward Shane Battier, who made Westbrook realize this just wasn't working. Stuck in mid-air, Westbrook spun and spotted Perkins lumbering to the rim for the offensive rebound. Perkins had been watching Westbrook and guessed -- intelligently, I might add -- that Westbrook was about to hoist another silly shot. Nope. Not this time. This time, Westbrook dumped the ball to Perkins from point-blank range, the ball caroming off Perkins for a turnover that was unfairly given to the center.
The game was almost seven minutes old, and the Thunder had just two points. The Heat had 18. This game? It was Game 1, only worse. And Game 1 was plenty bad, the Heat jumping out to a 10-2 lead, then 20-10. Westbrook did the same stuff in Game 1, starting the game with what I refer to in my notebook as a "90-foot take" -- meaning, Westbrook got the ball in his hands 90 feet away and never gave it up. Not until shooting it near the rim, and missing. Westbrook also missed in the post against Chalmers, and also missed a 3-pointer, and soon it was 10-2 and then 20-10.
That was Game 1. And this was Game 2, the Thunder dissolving into an 18-2 hole. When the score got to 25-8, I jotted this down on my notebook, something I could see from the top row of the arena:
Westbrook in a weird funk early. Hyper, scatter-brained.
See, the stats don't always tell the story. In addition to that turnover Westbrook caused but Perkins got blamed for, Westbrook nearly had another when he threw the ball pretty much right to the guy covering him. Stunned, Wade batted the ball out to midcourt, where Durant ran it down. Westbrook shook his head, as confused by what he was doing as anyone.
Well, he seemed confused at the time. After the game he didn't seem confused at all. He didn't seem worried, either. I know, because I asked him. Even asked him nicely, acknowledging that in his own words, his weakness has been when he plays "too fast." And so, I asked Westbrook, do you think you were playing "too fast" in the first quarter?
"I didn't think so," he told me.
Brooks blamed the slow start on his team's defense and toughness, but neither defense nor toughness was glaring. The Thunder held the Heat to 45.5-percent shooting from the floor in the first quarter and tied the Heat with 12 rebounds. And still the Heat led 18-2, then 25-8 and finally 27-15 at the end of the quarter.
So, what was glaring?
Russell Westbrook was glaring. He took seven shots from the floor and missed six. He got to the line another time, and missed one of two. That's a terrible start. It's an 18-2 sort of start. And it has happened two games in a row.
What happens in Game 3? I don't know, but I feel bad for Scott Brooks. It's hard to fix a problem that has no idea he needs to be fixed.