For 46 minutes, Oklahoma City was the best team on the floor.
Every big shot, every big rebound, every big possession, went the way of the Thunder. Maybe it was pressure, maybe it was inexperience or maybe it was bad luck, but in the last two minutes OKC folded like Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot (hello Ari Gold) in an 89-85 loss to the Atlanta Hawks (5-0).
But honestly, this was probably the best, most complete game OKC (1-5) has played this year. The bench was great, Kevin Durant was solid and there was fight in the team for four full quarters – well, more like three and half, but let’s not be too picky. If you don’t walk away from this one being encouraged, you’re either a Sonics die-hard or didn’t watch the game.
With the score tied at 80, the Thunder failed to do the little things to win. Russell Westbrook, who was terrific tonight, made a bad decision and threw the ball into traffic. Joe Johnson hit a runner in the lane to take a 82-80 edge and Oklahoma City just didn’t have an answer. That answer probably should’ve been Durant and something that bothered me was the fact that Kid Delicious didn’t take one shot down the stretch. Now, I realize he had the ball in his hands and made a few nice passes to open men, but in the second half he was near unstoppable, though for some reason under two he didn’t try to put the team on his back. Whether that’s Earl Watson’s fault for not getting him the ball in better scoring situations or KD’s for not taking the initiative, I don’t know. The fact is, he played 40 minutes (woo!), scored 20 points on 9-21 shooting, was overall great but didn’t take over in crunch time. All part of the learning process I guess.
Something though that is becoming a little apparent with Durant is his slight deficiency in ball-handling. In traffic he has trouble controlling the ball and as a result, has trouble driving and pulling up for a shot. I may be wrong, but most of his sweet jumpers seem to come off one to three dribbles. Maybe he needs to bulk up a little to take the bumps and pushes that come with driving into the meat of a defense or just plain get a little stronger with the rock. Or maybe just keep popping those gorgeous one-dribble jays from 20. Whatever.
I don’t want to be the guy that complains about officiating, so I won’t. But let’s put it this way – Hawks: 33 free throw attempts, OKC: 20. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’. But even without that, the main problem was the Thunder just didn’t have an answer for Joe Johnson. He had 25 and Atlanta’s offense was clearly going through him down the stretch, but yet OKC couldn’t step up and get the stop.
Back to the bench. Joe Smith was excellent. Just excellent. He had 14 points, nine boards off the bench and played the lane pretty well against the Hawks’ bigs. Robert Swift made his first appearance of the season and was a huge boost. He could be a total game changer this season. He is so big and strong and looks like he could control the middle. If he turns out to be everything they thought he would, he could seriously elevate this team to a higher level. I look forward to more foul trouble by Johan Petro so we can see more Swift on the floor. Chris Wilcox left early with a knee sprain. Hopefully it’s not too serious as he was playing pretty well tonight before it happened. Desmond Mason is playing wonderfully off the pine as he had nine points and seven boards in 27 really good minutes.
Again, Russell Westbrook was very good tonight. He had 15 points (career high) and ignited the sluggish offense in the first half, finishing with 11 at the half. And that dunk. Oh, that dunk. Probably my favorite moment of this young season. I plan on seeing that on SportsCenter later this evening and rewinding multiple times with DVR as Scott Van pelt says, “Oh, that was siiick young fella!” Too bad he didn’t close better, but hey, that’s just part of it. You take the good with the bad with a rookie.
The Thunder didn’t shoot the ball well again tonight (39 percent) but luckily, the defense was good again. As mentioned in the pre-game story, Atlanta plays good defense, so the fact Oklahoma City matched them on that side of the floor was the main reason it was in it. There has really been major strides defensively, which is great. There’s lot of effort, lots of talking and the rotation is solid.
Overall, like I said, a very good game for the Thunder. Atlanta is probably one of the best team’s in the East and OKC took them to the limit. A few bounces here and there and the Thunder walks away with a win. It was frustrating to watch the Hawks get three cracks with a four point lead woth under a minute left. OKC just couldn’t secure the rebound and when it looked like they would, the ball went off Earl’s arm. Like I said, a bounce in the right way and the Thunder might have got it done.
I truly think this team is turning the corner a bit and in two weeks they probably win this game. Guys are learning how to play with each other, but one major part of the learning process is learning how to win. How to close out games. How to secure that big rebound. How to lock down on their go-to-guy and get a big stop. Just things that you have to learn along the way. This will be a game that at the end of the year, the Thunder looks back on and says, “We should have had that one.”
No time to sulk as Oklahoma City is off to Indiana tomorrow to take on Danny Granger and the 2-3 Pacers.