Why OKC Thunder and Chicago Bulls were eliminated from NBA playoffs
The fate of the Oklahoma City Thunder's season was in Kevin Durant's hands on Wednesday night, not just because he was their best player but because there really weren't any other options since the loss of point guard Russell Westbrook. Down two points to the Memphis Grizzlies with 10 seconds left in regulation, Durant had the ball and the chance to tie or win Game 5, at the very least a chance to delay the end of the season by at least five minutes of game time. Durant, perhaps over-anxious, attempted a 16 foot jumper that bounced off the rim only to be recovered by Memphis's Tony Allen, who was immediately fouled. Two successful free throws later and .
A few hours before the Thunder were eliminated, the Miami Heat knocked off the Chicago Bulls in a contentious Game Five. The Bulls came back from a rough start to build an 11 point halftime lead, before a revitalized Dwyane Wade helped push the Heat to a 94-91 victory. It's probably fitting that both the Bulls and the Thunder were eliminated on the same night. In a year where injuries drastically altered the makeup of these playoffs, it could be argued that the absences of the Bulls' Derrick Rose, recovering from an ACL injury he suffered in the first round of last year's playoffs, and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook, who , were the biggest.
In fact, in some alternate dimension where these two players stayed healthy, the Bulls and Thunder could have conceivably faced each other in the NBA Finals. Instead, the Oklahoma City Thunder's realistic title hopes basically vanished when they lost Westbrook and no one else on the team stepped up. Meanwhile fans have been in full on "Waiting for Godot" mode since somewhere around the All-Star Break, hoping that Rose would return from injury and also be 100% for the playoffs. The first hope never materialized and the second hope was never really possible in the first place.
Interestingly enough, although both the Bulls and Thunder ultimately fell for the same reason, the loss of an irreplaceable star player, the two teams went in exactly opposite directions to address the problem. Without Rose, the Bulls played a very physical brand of basketball in the playoffs, especially in their series against the Heat. In the first game of their series they managed to pull off an upset over a Miami team that had been resting for nearly a week after sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks. Having snapped their 27 win streak in the regular season thanks to a , they went back to that well in the first game of their series catching a still-rusty Miami Heat team off-guard after a week's worth of rest (considering how they cruised through their series against the Milwaukee Bucks, you could say they had two weeks of rest).
The problem with that strategy was that the Bulls could only really use that once. The Miami Heat, now properly motivated by the Bulls' upset victory, got revenge and then some and the Bulls never quite recovered. it wasn't part of some in-game strategy, it was a sign of boiled-over frustration on the part of Chicago. After Game 1, the Miami Heat were just too good and the Chicago Bulls were just too depleted. Although the Bulls didn't win Game 5, the fact that they were able to erase an early 18 point deficit and keep the game close until the end was probably a fitting way for this resilient Bulls team to end their season. While losing in five games in the second round of the NBA Playoffs doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment, for this particular Bulls team .
The Bulls were luckier than the Thunder, they had an entire season to see what they had without Derrick Rose. The Thunder had a handful of playoff games to figure out life without Russell Westbrook, who had never missed a game until his ill-timed injury. Even if the Thunder had some additional time, it's quite possible, likely even, that they would not have come up with a better strategy than "get the ball to Kevin as much as possible". As many have pointed out, the Thunder team that lost to the Grizzlies was very similar to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers teams: one transcendent superstar surrounded by role players, question marks and journeymen. It didn't work for Cleveland and it didn't work for Oklahoma City.
Not that this is Durant's fault, until his last few games against the Grizzlies, . Without Westbrook, Durant really did step up his game and it definitely seemed like he was capable of carrying his team for most of the game, but only most of the game. At the end of their games against the Grizzlies, a clearly mentally and physically exhausted Durant would struggle, leading to blown leads and missed key shots. Again, this is not entirely dissimilar to how LeBron James got stuck with the labels of "choker" and "not a winner" before last year's championship.>
Chicago's final game of the season was a fitting end to the Rose-less Bulls in a positive way, a moral victory, the last game of this year's squad has no such silver linings. Wednesday night's game was like watching a racing car stall out inches before the finish line. The Thunder spent their fourth quarter trying to pull off one last comeback, cutting down a 12 point deficit to two points in a matter of minutes before getting the ball to a clearly exhausted Kevin Durant. Durant, playing his 48th minute of the game and in the midst of a dismal shooting night that neither he or his team can afford, takes his team's last shot. We've seen this script before, we've seen his last second baskets and buzzer-beaters but this one feels off as soon as it's out of his hands and it just flat out misses. This shot may haunt Durant for a while but it really shouldn't. It's hard to hit a jumper with the weight of a franchise on your shoulders.