Can Thunder bounce back in Game 4?
After being benched in Game 2, Russell Westbrook started Game 3 slowly but played 42 minutes and finished with 30 points in a disappointing home loss for the Thunder.
So is all OK in OKC now? Are there deeper issues with Westbrook? Is he the solution to their problems? And what's up with Kevin Durant?
While the Thunder sort out the Westbrook situation, the Dallas Mavericks survived a subpar Game 3 from Dirk Nowitzki to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Game 4 is slated for Monday night in OKC (ESPN, 9 ET).
To help us get a handle on the series, let's play Fact or Fiction with five writers:
1. Fact or Fiction: The Westbrook issue started and ended with Game 2.
John Hollinger, ESPN,com: Fiction. It burned hottest in Game 2 and might not flare as brightly again this series, but the pilot light is still on. Once Westbrook emerged as an All-Star force this season, the fitting of his talents into the bigger picture inevitably became a pressing question. I suspect it won't go away until the Thunder get a ring.
Rob Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. By playing 42 minutes in Game 3, Westbrook seemed to put the Game 2 issues into history's dustbin. But ... despite his 30 points in Game 3, Westbrook had only four assists and committed seven turnovers. Combine this with his silly tech in the third quarter, and I think it's proper to question Westbrook's deeper issues -- decision-making and maturity -- in this series.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Fact. Westbrook undoubtedly was frustrated that he watched the closing act of Game 2 from the sideline, but he's a better teammate than most sensational headlines let on. Westbrook's play won't always be perfect, but he'll play his part, even in frustration. I see no reason to expect his Game 2 benching to create any kind of substantive problem between Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder crew.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. The "issue," as we're calling it, will go away when OKC wins a championship with this group or trades Westbrook for a floor leader (and more) who complements Durant better. This team, by virtue of its quick success, is under the microscope like never before. The downside is that many more people are watching and asking questions when the Thunder don't win. It's something they're learning how to deal with on the fly.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fiction. Or I guess I should say trick question. Because there never was an actual issue. Westbrook wasn't really benched, as people are saying. It was more just that Scott Brooks didn't want to mess with a unit that was playing really well together. Westbrook understood that the whole way, and there never really was a problem.
2. Fact or Fiction: Kevin Durant has to play much better for OKC to win.
John Hollinger, ESPN,com: Fact. OKC won't beat Dallas with an off night offensively, and the best way to assure that doesn't happen is to have its leading scorer making a decent portion of his shots. Durant has a bad habit of giving up on plays off the ball (as does James Harden) and has to keep moving.
Rob Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm:Fact: With the exception of scoring 40 points in Game 1, Durant hasn't had a transcendent performance in this series. He's been putting the ball into the hole (90 points in three games), but he's been awful from 3-point range (2-for-18). Durant's ability to stretch a D is part of what makes him dangerous. He hasn't done that in this series.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Fact. The Thunder nearly managed a comeback in Game 3 even though Durant shot poorly from the field, but that game wasn't very indicative of the dynamics of this series. Nowitzki typically won't score so few points, Westbrook won't be quite as efficient and Durant, for his part, will have to be better to put his team in a position to win.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. Durant was too passive in Game 3, especially at crunch time. Throw in an eight-point second half in Game 2 that didn't stop OKC from stealing a game in Dallas, and Durant is working on a streak of six subpar quarters. The Thunder's margin for error can't withstand any more struggles.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. The Thunder rely greatly on Durant for offense. In truth, OKC is a mediocre offensive team. But because of two elite players in Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder score the ball without good offense. Of course, that's assuming that Durant actually, you know, scores.
3. Fact or Fiction: Westbrook and Durant are the main concerns for OKC.
John Hollinger, ESPN,com: Fiction. I would argue that the biggest wild card for the Thunder throughout these playoffs is James Harden. It's no accident that the game in which he destroyed Jason Terry was the only game the Thunder have won in this series. They're 5-0 in the playoffs when Harden scores at least 15 points, but he too willingly surrenders the spotlight to Durant and Westbrook. Twice in Game 3 he was so tuned out that he was surprised by a pass from Westbrook; that can't happen.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Fiction. Durant and Westbrook are obviously crucial to OKC's success, but a bigger concern is the lack of impact from one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. Nick Collison is the only Thunder big who has been able to play consistently well in this series; Kendrick Perkins is a nonfactor, Serge Ibaka has been limited on both ends and Nazr Mohammed hasn't seen much floor time.
Rob Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact: I believe so because they're the Thunder's stars. When they're not playing well or playing together or playing well together, there should be concern. They combined for 54 points in Game 3, but team leaders don't let their squads get behind as the Thunder did in that game. They need to set the tone from the start.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact. OKC doesn't have others it can turn to for game-changing beyond Harden on his good nights, as highlighted by the idea that none of the Thunder's big men are a threat to score. Durant and Westbrook haven't played well in the same game yet. It's a virtual must in a must-win Game 4.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fiction. Westbrook and Durant both not playing well is a rarity. Where the Thunder are concerned is with getting help from other places. In Game 3, only two bench players scored for a total of 16 points. That must improve.
4. Fact or Fiction: The West finals are now the Dallas Mavericks' to lose.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fact. Because it owns home-court advantage, has a 2-1 series lead and seemingly presents more scoring options than the Thunder can handle, Dallas has established the upper hand. Teams in the Mavs' position advance 84 percent of the time.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Fiction. Dallas is the favorite and now holds a slight advantage, but Oklahoma City is far too formidable to be disregarded. The Thunder still have the potential to turn this series by outplaying the Mavs in a few games; when clicking, OKC is fully capable of winning the Western Conference finals outright.
Rob Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction: It's a 2-1 lead, not 3-1. Yes, the Mavs have home-court advantage, but the Thunder have shown they can play the Mavs tough in Dallas. I'm not sure I can say that one team is in control of a seven-game series until that team has a 3-1 or 3-2 lead. If the Mavs win Game 4, the series will be theirs to lose.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. Not "now." This was Dallas' series to lose as soon as OKC was confirmed as the Mavs' Western Conference finals foe. The Mavs are playing too well (starting with their sweep of the Lakers) and are too vet-savvy to lose to a team so bereft of inside scoring as well as experience. This was always Dallas' series to lose.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. They've recaptured home-court advantage, so all they have to do is take care of business in Dallas. Easier said than done, of course, but having home-court back means that they have the edge, so it's their series to lose.
5. Fact or Fiction: OKC will tie the series in Game 4.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fact. I said Dallas would need seven games to win this, and the first three games were close enough that there's a reasonable expectation that the Thunder can tie it on their home floor in Game 4. They won't shoot as badly as they did in Game 3, certainly, although Dallas probably won't, either.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Fact. The Thunder are too good on their home floor for anyone to expect a Game 4 loss. The Mavs are still more than capable of taking Game 4 and a decisive 3-1 series lead, but if we're playing the odds, I'll take Durant, Westbrook & Co. on their turf.
Rob Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction. Game 4 is a must-win for the Thunder for the simple fact that they can't head to Dallas down 3-1. I have a feeling OKC won't come out as flatly as it did in Game 3, but I think the Mavs, fueled by great ball movement, have too much firepower on offense, while their underrated defense has the Thunder playing tentatively. Mavs will win.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fiction. The Thunder seem tentative and unsure of themselves, while the Mavs, as they so often have in the past two regular seasons, are suddenly playing with greater focus on the road in the playoffs than they have at home. I just have a feeling that they'll swipe this game, too, and give themselves a chance to close things out at home in Game 5.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. The Thunder are one of the league's best bounce-back teams. Including the postseason, they're 26-6 after a loss. It's obvious that Game 4 is pretty much do-or-die time for OKC. Lose, and the Thunder will face elimination in Dallas. They have a response to Game 3's disaster ready.
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