On the surface, everything is fine and dandy with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On the surface.
Dig a little deeper, however. Examine beneath the cracks. You will still see the glittering 34-12 record, the looming top seed that goes with it and the prospect of the first NBA title in the Kevin Durant era.
Tuesday’s 97-90 loss to the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena may have exposed a flaw that could become fatal if left to fester.
The Thunder have slowly but surely become very vulnerable to physical teams with the size and the depth to score and defend in the paint. As fate would have it, the Utah Jazz are one of those teams. For the entire game Tuesday night, the Jazz picked at that flaw like a scab, taking turns pounding the ball inside to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, drawing fouls on Kendrick Perkins, and closing up the middle on Durant.
It was an all-around performance that bothered the Thunder. Perkins was seen talking to himself angrily during the loss. James Harden left the locker room in 10 minutes, headphones on, without so much as a word to the media.
“I thought the Jazz did a great job of playing physical basketball,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We knew going into this game that they were a physical team and that we had to match that. I thought they did a good job of winning that part of the game.”
The blueprint for playing with Oklahoma City is out: Score a bunch of paint points, don’t let the Thunder score a bunch of points on offensive rebounds, and try to force either Durant or Russell Westbrook to have a tough shooting night.
The latter is obviously easier said than accomplished. The Jazz, however, did all of that and more Tuesday night.
Durant went 6 of 22 from the field, as C.J. Miles and then Gordon Hayward used their length to disrupt his shooting. Westbrook and Harden played well, but the Thunder received just 19 total points from their other three starters.
“Man, I just couldn’t make a shot, especially in the fourth quarter,” Durant said. “I put that on myself. I had a few good looks. Maybe I should’ve pulled up. When you get to the rim, you get charges … it messes with you a little bit. It messed with me tonight, but I still have to be aggressive. I can’t make any excuses. Hopefully, I’ll bounce back tomorrow night and make a few.”
With Utah outscoring OKC 50-20 in the paint, and Paul Millsap taking over down the stretch, the Thunder felt like they let one slip away against the Jazz.
With Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter coming off the bench, OKC’s big men looked worn down by the fourth quarter.
That physical thing? OKC may need to figure it out against Utah. The way things are going, the Jazz may be the first-round matchup for the Thunder.