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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma City Thunder made a transformative trade on Thursday, one that puts them one giant step further along in their rapid makeover from doormat to title contender.
Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible of us to suggest that now they can just ride off into the title-contending sunset. While the additions of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed added some badly needed muscle to Oklahoma City's frontcourt equation, the trade didn't come without a cost. We saw those weaknesses laid bare in a 23-point loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday, and again in Sunday's 90-87 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's hard to become negative about the defeat when the three players they acquired -- Perkins, Mohammed and Nate Robinson -- didn't play a single minute and they still nearly sent the defending champs to overtime. Only after last-ditch 3-pointers by Kevin Durant and James Harden rimmed out -- the latter coming after a brilliant tap-out of Durant's miss by Nick Collison -- did the Lakers emerge victorious.
"It was as intense as a regular-season game can be," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. The memory of last season's riveting playoff series has Lakers-Thunder teetering on the brink of becoming a genuine rivalry.
Nonetheless, we have the beginnings of a pattern here, too, and it's not a good one for the Thunder. Whatever you think of Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, they allowed Oklahoma City to play an offensive style that often had the middle empty to open driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. In the first two games without them, we've seen how the dynamics have changed.
The Thunder committed 19 turnovers against a packed-in Laker defense and scored only 31 points in the second half, stats that would be easier to attribute to the opponent were it not for the fact that the same thing happened to them on Friday in Orlando -- when they came out of the break with a 40-point clunker and shot 33.3 percent for the night.
"That's something I have to figure out," Brooks said. "Thirty-one points in the second half is not good."
With L.A.'s big men able to stay at home, Russell Westbrook committed three offensive fouls -- the most crucial coming on a crash into Pau Gasol with 17 seconds left and Oklahoma City down by three. Westbrook finished with seven turnovers.
"I thought they did a good job of blitzing his pick-and-rolls and making his decisions tougher," Brooks said.
At least Westbrook was able to get the ball. Twice in the last two minutes, plays for Durant blew up because he couldn't free himself from Ron Artest. On one play he was so badly manhandled that he stayed pinned at the far block; on a second, Artest hounded him across court and forced a pass to deflect off Durant out of bounds.
Perhaps all those things would have happened if Green and Krstic had played too. It's only two games, after all, and we love to overreact to What Just Happened. If it weren't for the trades, consecutive losses against the Lakers and Magic wouldn't even register as a blip on the radar.
Additionally, this was a tough one for both offenses given how rarely offensive players on either side got the benefit of the doubt from the officials. I had no problem with it because it was fair to both sides, but it definitely impacted the scoring rate. Kobe Bryant, for instance, didn't earn a single free throw out of his 22 field-goal attempts, including one during which he was body-slammed by Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka on a drive with 1:05 left.
For the game the two teams earned only 34 free-throw attempts, and it's not like they were indiscriminately jacking up 3-pointers. In fact, those tries were unusually rare (32 combined) until the last five seconds. Meanwhile, five offensive fouls were whistled. In sum, let's just say the conditions weren't ripe for scoring 115.
I'll add two other caveats for Oklahoma City. First of all, adding Mohammed and Perkins will improve the offense somewhat, at least with the second unit. Rookie center Cole Aldrich played a combined 24 minutes in the two games but didn't score a point (or even attract a defender). Both Mohammed and Perkins are more apt to convert offensive boards into buckets than Collison.
Perkins' bone-jarring screens may also help Durant quite a bit. He shot just 15-of-42 over this two-game stretch, and certainly could have used some help getting away from Artest on Sunday. Durant also looked tired at points in the second half, perhaps from having to bang in the paint so much -- Oklahoma City used him extensively at the 4 in this game, and Durant said it was the longest stint he'd ever had on the front line. Once the Thunder's big man rotation is in place, they'll need to do that less often.
Finally, the Thunder also acquired a dynamic guard in the deadline deals in Robinson, and at some point the Thunder may use him to replace struggling Eric Maynor. Maynor missed all six attempts today after going 1-for-7 against Orlando; none of the misses were particularly close.
Perkins is out three weeks with knee sprain, but Robinson and Mohammed were available Sunday; they didn't play because they've yet to have a full practice with the team. Brooks indicated they'd be more likely to see time after the team has full practices on Monday and Tuesday.
"I wasn't tempted to change it up tonight," he said, "but in the future there's definitely opportunities."
Oh -- and the opponent was pretty good, too. The Lakers won their fourth straight game and essentially terminated any discussion of Oklahoma City passing them for the No. 3 seed. Bryant, though hounded into an off night by Sefolosha and Harden, gave L.A. a three-point lead with a difficult corner fadeaway late in the shot clock. (But take note, Henry Abbott: Bryant also missed three long, contested jumpers in the last 2:30.) Additionally, big men Gasol and Andrew Bynum took advantage of their height advantage en route to double-doubles.
The hope in Oklahoma City is that Perkins and Mohammed can help neutralize L.A.'s size edge, and that part of the equation is probably true. Had they been present Sunday, even if they'd had no impact whatsoever offensively, it's possible we'd be talking about a riveting 87-80 win as proof of the trade's impact.
But we're not, and we're unlikely to be doing so for at least three weeks while Perkins' knee heals. Until then, Thunder fans will be looking for some evidence that the team can maintain its offensive potency despite the frontcourt shake-up. It's a miniscule sample size, so let's not jump to conclusions just yet. But the first two data points haven't been encouraging.