If you saw Game 6 of the LA-OKC series, you’d know the answer to that question. Coaches will always tell anyone who asks (especially media members) that there are many possessions in a game that determine the outcome. “It’s not the guy who, with our team down one with less than a second to go, missed the one-and-one who is to blame. There were so many other plays that determined the outcome of this game,” is something a coach might say after a close loss.
And that coach is absolutely right - in not throwing that player under the bus by scapegoating him. Keep in mind that somewhere down the road that same guy might be in a similar situation. The coach needs to protect him. Plus, it’s placing too much blame on a single individual and a single event. Yet, the fact remains that had the kid knocked down the FT - and the subsequent bonus he would have earned, the team would have left the court victorious.
Therefore, while it’s a wise coaching decision (as well as a sensitive response for a guy who has probably given a great deal of effort to his team - or else why would he be out there in crunch time) to put the game in that perspective, don’t think for a second that the player who missed isn’t running that shot over in his mind, wishing he had another opportunity (a do-over, as it was called in an earlier lifetime). And he’s not the only one. Although every miss during the game counted the same number of points had it gone down, that last freebie is the one being relived - over and over.
All of that rhetoric leads to this one play in the Laker-Thunder game. It’s not the three-pointer Russell Westbrook missed late that would have all but sealed the game for Oklahoma City, nor is it the short baseline jumper he couldn’t put down on the ensuing offensive possession - although you can bet he’ll be ruminating those two attempts on many occasions throughout the, now, long off-season.
The play I’m referring to is the last Laker possession. Thunder coach (and NBA Coach-of-the-Year) Scott Brooks decided to let Westbrook handle Kobe Bryant all by himself, a move he undoubtedly would have been crucified for by all the second guessers (especially those who write game summaries and columns for a living). Had Kobe knocked that shot down, you can almost hear the pundits: “Brooks must have been the only person in the building - no, in the world - who didn’t know that on the last possession of the game, with the Lakers down one, Kobe Bryant wasn’t going to take the last shot. He’s arguably the best player in the game and, not arguably, the best closer. Brooks ought to return that Coach-of-the-Year award. Only a fool would allow the game to be decided by Kobe Bryant!”
Yet, Brooks, as it turned out, made the right decision - this time. Except a couple of his players violated the Cardinal Rule of defending off the ball when a shot goes up. They followed the flight of the ball. After watching the replay several times, you can see that neither Nick Collison nor Serge Ibaka had the discipline to put a body on Pau Gasol, who came in untouched from the weak side wing to grab the miss and lay it in with a half a second to go. Collison had left Gasol, the man he was guarding, to rotate to the ball in case Westbrook needed help on Kobe but failed to make an attempt to locate him after seeing Bryant rise and shoot. Ibaka actually had a better opportunity to get into Gasol as he was coming down the lane and should have been looking for an offensive player to check.
Did that one play lose the game? No, of course not. There were so many others that, had they been made, would have forced a Game 7. But, yes! that play did lose the game - in that, had it been executed properly, both teams would be headed to the Staples Center. That’s why it’s been said:
“The two saddest words in the English language are IF ONLY.”