Well, that’s pretty much exactly how I envisioned this going down. A couple of runs by the Thunder to stay “in it” but never really completely being “in it.” The Nuggets needed this game badly and they played like it, taking down OKC 112-99.
But you have to credit the Thunder for hanging tough at times. There were a couple of points where the game teetered on stepping into blowoutsville, but OKC got some buckets and at least pushed the Nuggets to the end. The largest lead Denver had was 19, but the game was in the 10-14 range most of the way.
This was game number four in five days and there were definitely some tired legs on the Thunder side. But OKC stayed semi-close because of the free throw line. The Thunder hit 30-32 from the stripe and they had to, because the jumpers absolutely were not falling. The Thunder shot 40 percent, hit 3-13 from three and only made something like nine shots outside of the paint altogether.
It was pretty evident early that the Thunder was going to have trouble. The Nuggets were back-cutting and getting easy looks in the paint. It seemed like probably 20 or so of Denver’s 31 first quarter points came on layups and dunks (they shot 12-17 in the first; OKC was 8-22). The interior defense and the rotations just weren’t there. I don’t know if it was hangover from the night before or what, but the team just looked a bit flat. OKC turned it over six times alone in the first quarter en route to 16 overall, but that sort of stuff put the Thunder in catch-up mode early. And it didn’t help that they couldn’t hit a jumper to save their life.
But per usual, the Thunder went on a solid 17-5 run to close to within five in the second quarter. OKC turned up the defensive heat and started running a little more and getting easy looks. That’s what you do when you can’t make an open jump shot – you get out in transition and try and get easy looks and layups. Earl Watson – who had probably his best game of the season – key a lot of it, taking every outlet and every inbound pass and ran with it. He pressed the pace and it led to some good shots.
OKC’s perimeter defense was actually pretty good though. Every Nugget shot was contested and their outside shooters didn’t have good percentages, despite the team hitting 50 percent. Chauncey Billups was 5-13. Caremlo Anthony was 9-19. J.R. Smith was 3-9 and the team hit 5-14 from three. But Denver just abused OKC in the paint. Of their 42 makes, I think 33 came in the paint. That’s absolutely amazing. Nene was 5-7 from the field, Renaldo Balkman (that guy looks… interesting) was 6-13 and missed a couple easy one, Linus Kleiza was 7-12 with almost everything inside and Chris Andersen was 5-6.
This is the type of game where Kevin Durant could have made a huge difference. Scoring options for the Thunder were limited and the jumpers just weren’t going down. At times when OKC would draw within 10 or so, if Durant were playing those are the moments he seems to hit a big trey, or score a couple buckets and get OKC close. Among a million other reasons, this is why KD is extremely valuable to OKC despite the recent good stretch – when things are bad, he can still put the ball in the basket.
At one point I did think the Thunder could get close enough to make it interesting. With 1:50 left in the third, Carmelo Anthony got hit with a technical and Thabo knocked down two free throws making it 78-68. OKC had possession and moved the ball well, getting a wide open three-point look for Thabo. He missed it, but Robert Swift rebounded and kicked out to a wide open Kyle Weaver for three. He missed too, but Thabo rebounded but was then tied up and OKC lost the jump ball (did anyone else think that jump ball was tilted a little bit to the Denver side? It sure didn’t look straight up). A big momentum moment where the Denver lead could have been cut to seven late in the third and a chance for a single digit deficit going into the fourth, but OKC didn’t hit. Again, KD would have been nice there.
- All five Denver starters were in double figures and the bench gave solid contributions with 36 points and Anthony Carter dishing out 12 assists.
- Again, nice ballgame for Earl Watson. He scored a season-high 18 points, had seven assists and six rebounds and was a +2 for the game. He did a good job pushing OKC’s offense and getting something going.
- Russell Westbrook looked a bit tired tonight. He just didn’t seem like he had that same giddy-up that he normally has. He scored 13 but only had one assist and three rebounds. He turned it over just twice, but Brooks limited his minutes down the stretch. But his dunk over the Birdman was pretty sweet. (And how weak was it that Andersen got mad about Westbrook’s little stare-down? Just a couple nights ago he rejects a shot into Rudy Fernandez’s face and he poses and showboats and stares, but when someone does it to him, he gets mad and pushes? Don’t dish it if you can’t take it dude.)
- It just never seemed like Jeff Green got in the rhythm of the game either. He was solid with 19 and seven, but he played just 27 minutes and scored most his points from the free throw line (8-8). I think he was a bit fatigued too with the back-to-back after sitting out last week.
- I noticed something for the first time tonight: The Oklahoma City bench stood at the beginning of the game until we scored our first bucket and when we did, they all sat down together. Could they be taking our little hometown tradition with them on the road and doing it? I thought that was incredibly cool. Just a neat way to take the spirit of our fanbase with them. Very, very awesome. I can’t believe it took me 55 games to notice it.
- Thabo did an excellent job on Carmelo. Melo scored *just* 22 points and only got to the line four times. At times, he was visibly frustrated with the defense Thabo was playing on him. One absolutely awesome sequence happened with about two minutes left in the first half. Melo took a pass from Billups and had the ball on the block with Thabo on his hip. Melo head faked three times (he loves those pump fakes), but Thabo never bit. When Melo finally did go up with it, Thabo challenged and Melo missed the bunny. Just a perfect example of Thabo’s defensive discipline. And on top of it, 14 points and nine rebounds is pretty good too.
- Again, Nenad Krstic struggled shooting the ball. He was 3-9 from the floor with only one long range make.
- Robert Swift gave some quality minutes off the bench. He had 10 points and four boards in 14 minutes on 4-5 shooting. Those type of contributions on a nightly basis – not every four games – would be a huge boost.
- Malik Rose scored in double-figures for the third straight game. The most consecutive double figure games Chris Wilcox had this year was back in November where he did it four straight times.
The Thunder gets a much needed rest with two days off before another track meet in Phoenix Saturday. Durant might be back for that one, but regardless, the Thunder’s got to slow down and play the Suns smarter than last time. Hopefully, there’s a little incentive to get back at the Suns after that 140-point run-up they pulled last time.