Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 3/4/12
There's a growing sentiment nearing a critical mass, even that Oklahoma City and Miami are pretty much locks to reach the Finals. It'd be a sexy series Kevin Durant trying to take LeBron James' title as best player alive, Durant and Russell Westbrook trying to out-highlight and out-swagger the JamesDwyane Wade duo, James Harden and his beard battling Chris Bosh to see who's the "best third best" player in the game. Just a couple of days ago OKC and Miami sported the two best records in the league, both squads on swelling win streaks and the idea of a Finals matchup kept creeping toward inevitability. But then, Friday, Miami moped out of Utah with a last second loss (and more "take the shot LeBron" controversy) and the copycat Thunder snapped their seven-game win streak with Saturday's 97-90 loss in Atlanta. Kirk Hinrich hit a three to give the Hawks a 5-2 lead with about 10 minutes left in the first quarter and the Thunder would trail for the rest of the game, save for a 79-79 tie about midway through the fourth quarter. Still, it was a winnable game for Oklahoma City. The undermanned Hawks without All Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford wouldn't have had a chance against the Thunder in a late-game, shot-making contest, but that's only if Durant and Westbrook were playing like Durant and Westbrook. The two virtuosos looked like they were about to finish off the Hawks after a vintage third quarter where the two combined for 22 points. In the fourth quarter, however, Durant and Westbrook were Clank City down the stretch, right when the Thunder needed their two stars come up big like big-time players are supposed to. Down just 92-90, Durant and Westbrook took OKC's last five shots and missed them all. Meanwhile, Josh Smith scored Atlanta's final eight points. His 35 points, 17 boards and three steals probably constitutes his best game of the season. He carried the Hawks, Westbrook and Durant dropped the ball. Whereas Miami seems like their only true threat to keep them out of the Finals is Chicago (and last year was evidence of what happens when one dude, albeit an MVP, tries to keep up with, arguably, the two best players in the world), the Thunder ball out West where even the ninth and tenth best teams are tough outs. The Western Conference playoffs is no cakewalk, it's more like a murderer's row and OKC is vulnerable to letting the Thunder-Heat hopefuls down not just because of its competition, but because the squad is not without legitimate flaws. Oklahoma City had 21 turnovers against the Hawks. They lead the league, averaging about 17 a game. That's not exactly championship basketball. "We have to fix that," said exasperated Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "We have to figure it out, because it's going to be hard to win night-in and night-out with the way we turn it over. We're an attack team, an aggressive team I understand that. But we still have to be solid with our decisions." That responsibility decision-making, taking care of the ball is usually the burden of the point guard, in this case Westbrook. He's averaging 4.2 turnovers per game (tied with Deron Williams for the league lead) against just 5.6 assists, which is an atrocious ratio for a point guard and easily the worst among his elite peers at the position. It's too easy, though, to use Westbrook as the scapegoat every time something messes with the Thunder's utopia. The guy can't catch a break. When Westbrook stepped to the free throw line in the first quarter, the Hawks crowd chanted "SECOND OPTION," tweaking Westbrook for his real or imagined alpha dog tussle with Durant. But in the case of Oklahoma City's league leading carelessness, it's a teamwide disease. Durant coughs it up a lot, Kendrick Perkins and the sublime Harden, too. It's an issue. "Execution, man," said Harden. "It's going to kill us." The remainder of the season probably stands to only get tougher for Oklahoma City, especially because now teams are beginning to recognize the Thunder's "favorite" status and they're gunning for them. They're not the new kids anymore, they are a legitimate target. Hawks players seemed conspicuously more satisfied and excited about this win than Friday's victory over the Bucks. Westbrook says he's noticing the bull's-eye. "Definitely. Teams are definitely playing us different," he said. "If I had a team with the best record come into our house I'd play them different, too." So, yeah, it goes without saying that the Thunder are far from a Finals lock. Keep that in mind before you go booking hotels in Oklahoma City for mid-June.
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