Who Will be the Goat if the Thunder Don't Advance?

If the Thunder go from title hopefuls to first-round failures this evening, who will get the blame for things going sour?

In the traditional sense, a goat is a hardy domesticated ruminant animal that has backward curving horns and a beard, known for its lively and frisky behavior.

In sports terms, the word has two very different meanings. One is the acronym G.O.A.T., which stands for “Greatest of all Time” (or “Michael Jordan” for short). The second meaning - the one that gets bandied around the most during the playoffs - is a shortening of scapegoat. That is, when things go wrong, it’s often asked, “Who’s the goat? Who can we blame for what went wrong?”

The Oklahoma City Thunder are growing a list of potential goats so big they could open a goat farm and make a living off the ensuing milk and cheese (perhaps I’m mixing my metaphors a bit, but you get the idea). Not since the first year of the Big 3 in Miami has a team been so scrutinized when things don't go their way.

With a big Game 7 on the schedule tonight against the gritty and grind-y Grizzlies, there’s a legitimate chance that the once mighty Thunder could be sent packing several rounds before most would’ve expected with the likely MVP leading the charge. Of course, as numberFire’s own Brandon Gdula points out, Memphis is a downtrodden squad and the Thunder have a very good chance of finishing things off tonight (the highest odds of any Game 7 victory out of five this weekend at 76.9%, according to our algorithms).

Regardless, this series has been an incredibly close affair and a ball bouncing the wrong way at an inopportune time could spell the end of this year’s Thunder. It was only two years ago that they were battling the eventual-champion Heat in the Finals and looked as though they would be contenders for years to come. After getting bounced by these very Grizzlies last year and now being on the brink of suffering the same fate again, the Thunder are suddenly on the verge of becoming a what-if scenario and the subject of offseason re-tooling.

The question is, if they are unsuccessful in their efforts to advance to the second round tonight, who will be the goat in OKC?

Goat #1A: Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook is far and away the most divisive player in the whole NBA. Some people love him for his aggression, while others hate him for being reckless. He’s adored for his ability to take over a game, but lambasted for leaving others out. He gets infinite praise for his speed and difference-making plays on both ends, but receives limitless criticism for showboating and gambling on defense. Basically, he’s equally loved and hated for more or less the same reasons.

It’s generally accepted (however begrudgingly) that you can’t have one side of Russ without the other. Many people point to his shot numbers and the fact that they come awfully close to and sometimes exceed those of his teammate, Kevin Durant (arguably the best scorer on the whole planet). The discussion of what constitutes a “true point guard” is often brought up, but it might be time to accept that Westbrook breaks many traditional moulds.

Of course, he still handles some point guard duties well. In the current series against the Grizzlies, Westbrook has assisted on an estimated 34.5% of his teammates’ field goals while he’s on the floor, ranking fourth among starting point guards in the playoffs (ahead of notable setup men like John Wall and Stephen Curry, among others). His 6.7 assists ranks him fifth. Yes, he’s taken 149 shots to Durant’s 148, but it’s not like he’s not helping to get his teammates buckets. Truth be told, the Thunder simply don’t have a lot of offensive options outside of KD and Russ and Durant has been admirably held in check by Tony Allen for the better part of the series.

If the Thunder lose, Westbrook will be close to first in line for a large part of the blame. He probably deserves some of it, but certainly not all of it. The Thunder wouldn’t have even been in some of the games in this series without his crazy antics. He could definitely reign it in a bit and his .383 effective field goal percentage in this series is a concern, but for every negative, there’s almost always a positive - his 9.7 rebounds per game from the point guard position for the series is pretty darn incredible, for instance.

Russ will inevitably be Russ, maybe he just needs the proper guidance.

Goat #1B: Scott Brooks

Speaking of guidance, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks is getting a bit of a reputation of lacking in that department. The 2009-10 Coach of the Year has posted a .633 winning percentage in six seasons as the Thunder’s head coach, has led them to the playoffs for five straight years, and has brought them to the Finals once. The Thunder have won their division four straight years, making the idea that Brooks might not be the right coach for this team a bit of a difficult pill to swallow.

That said, the ammunition against him is certainly there. He’s known for being stubborn with his rotations. He's often criticized for playing his veterans far too much (see Fisher, Derek) and he often resists going small when a game dictates the need to. His starting lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha has been a mainstay with the Thunder for years, despite its offensive shortcomings. To wit, it has a -3.0 net rating in 88 minutes so far in this year’s playoffs.

Interestingly enough, Brooks made a very rare change to his lineup in Game 6 by swapping out Sefolosha for Caron Butler, a move that resulted in a 27.1 net rating in 19 minutes of action for that lineup and a 20-point Thunder victory. Maybe he felt his seat getting hot in that crucial elimination game and changed something people have been wanting him to for years.

Another knock on Brooks is his inability to use and control his players effectively. The plays he draws up for late-game situations tend to consist of KD or Russ dribbling until the last possible second and heaving up a long contested jumper. Also, he seems to give too long a leash when it comes to Westbrook over-dribbling and shooting his team out of games.

If the Thunder should fall tonight, Brooks could very well be the first domino to fall. These players are connected to their coach and it might be a tough sell, but there are a lot of talented coaches available that could work wonders with the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at their disposal. The Thunder are in title-or-bust mode and falling short of that might require the most tried and tested action for a GM in need of a shake up: firing the head coach.

Goat #2: Kevin Durant

It seems crazy to say this after so many of us spent the majority of the season talking about Durant as the MVP of the league, but a headline this week has the whole basketball world wondering if he’s been “Mr. Unreliable” in this series. To be fair, he hasn’t been at his best.

As previously mentioned, the Grizzlies (and Tony Allen in particular) deserve a lot of the credit for KD’s struggles, as he’s posting an effective field goal percentage of .453 (down from .560 in the regular season). Of course, lost in the focus on his less-than-stellar shooting (.412 from the field, .250 from deep, .778 from the stripe) is the fact that he’s still putting up averages of 29.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.7 blocks per game, while playing a double-take-inducing 46.9 minutes per contest.

Is he unreliable? Of course not, the man scored 25-plus points in 41 straight games this season. He’s the definition of reliable. He’ll just need to build on a strong Game 6, where he amassed 36 points (14 in the first quarter) and 10 rebounds. This is all part of the growing process. There was a time not too long ago when people considered LeBron James to be a choke artist and we all know how that turned out.

Goat #3: Supporting Cast

The real problem for OKC might simply be the supporting cast. Ibaka is developing well and is growing as a defensive player and the team has some interesting glue guys like Nick Collison to handle the intangibles of winning basketball games.

The true thing this team needs is a consistent third scorer to take the pressure off Durant and Westbrook and perhaps to even take them off the ball a bit more. We’ve seen flashes of that being Reggie Jackson, but who knows if Brooks will ever put him in the starting lineup and take ball handling duties away from Russ. Either way, the big-game potential is there, as evidenced by his 32-point performance in Game 4 and his impact is obvious in that he’s averaged 19.0 points in the three OKC victories in this series and 4.0 in their losses.

Otherwise, GM Sam Presti might need to work some magic this offseason (as he’s been known to do) and get his core some help while they’re still gripping to their respective primes. The Kendrick Perkins era might be winding down and maybe Steven Adams can grow into a more refined replacement (at least one that’s equally annoying to opponents). Some people are close to writing off players like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, but maybe there’s still something to be had there.

Of course, this all might be moot if they win tonight. Winning does cure all, as they say, and our algorithms still have them as the fourth most likely title contender at 12.95%. If they don’t pull it off, however, maybe we don’t even need to find a goat at all. Maybe the missing piece is out there in free agency or through a trade and they should continue to move forward with what has been (relatively) successful in the past.

If only they had a James Harden type, all their problems would likely be solved and the criticism would probably subside. Wait. . .