Nick Collison talked all summer about the biggest step for a young team is simply learning to win. Learning how to make plays, learning how to get stops and just learning how to end up with more points than the other guy in the end.
For the most part this year, this group has started to figure it out. And tonight against the Hornets, the Thunder did the hardest part. They got stops. They just never got the ball the basket when in counted. Oklahoma City made only three field goals in the fourth quarter and scored just 11 points.
But after Russell Westbrook’s AMAZING offensive rebound and putback to cut the New Orleans lead down to 93-92 with 50 seconds left, it just felt like the Thunder was going to find a way again. But they reminded us something that we’ve been prone to forget this year: These guys are young (very young), they’re immature and they’re still learning. I mean, have a look out on the floor during that final series of possessions. Ages for the Thunder: 20, 21, 21, 23, 25.
It was a little ironic that after getting a major stop with 30 seconds left and still down one, OKC didn’t secure the rebound. Essentially, an offensive rebound for the Hornets turned out to be maybe the biggest play of the game because Chris Paul scored later on the extra possession to push the lead to three. But OKC did a fantastic job on the glass tonight, only allowing five offensive boards to the Hornets and outrebounded NOLA by nine for the game. For shame the Thunder couldn’t just grab one more.
But still, OKC had possession with 14 seconds left, down three. Scott Brooks called timeout to advance the ball. He inserted James Harden and appeared to draw a play up for him. The ball was knocked out of bounds and with seven seconds left, OKC couldn’t get a look and Westbrook had to chunk a prayer that fell short.
But here’s what I couldn’t help but think: Maybe a timeout was a bad idea. I know that’s the norm, to call timeout and advance the ball. But Westbrook can be dynamic in the open court with a full head of steam. What if Brooks bypassed the break and just flowed right away. Brooks draws great inbounds plays, but I can’t think of too many that worked with under 15 seconds left on a side out. Kevin Durant does not operate well when he catches the ball moving away from the basket. OKC doesn’t set great screens. They don’t space well. So maybe the best option is to toss in to Russ and let him fly up the floor, get the defense to collapse (or if they don’t, take the two) and kick out. Hindsight, of course, but I couldn’t help but think this before the timeout was called.
Also, I know what some people are going to say. Where was the star? Where was Kevin Durant? Yeah, Durant scored just two points and took two shots in the final frame, but honestly, I didn’t really feel like he disappeared. New Orleans did absolutely everything they could do to bracket him. They doubled and even tripled him. Durant tried to defer and actually made a couple really nice passes. Guys just didn’t make shots and didn’t step up. It really wasn’t Durant’s fault. He’s not the kind of player that can simply just grab the ball and take over. Yet. He’s got to get it in a scoring position and go from there. And the Hornets really never let him get there. Or the Thunder never got him the ball in those positions, depending on perspective.
- Jeff Green’s offensive game returned tonight. He had 20 points (8-15) and five rebounds. He hit two big time 3s and I loved the way he played in the first half. He was extremely aggressive, attacked the rim and wasn’t hesitant at all. But defensively, he was a little soft in spots. He let David West back him down far too easy. It’s not like West was dominant or anything (19 points, eight rebounds), but Green just didn’t put up a ton of fight on the block. Uncle Jeff was a minus-19 for the game, but without his effort offensively, OKC loses this one by 20.
- I know Chris Paul was back in town and some people wonder if Oklahoma City fans still care about a lot about him and favor him to Kevin Durant. Let me just put it bluntly: I’m not one of them. I think I truly dislike Chris Paul the basketball player. He flops (I mean, the one late in the third. Really? Really?). He cries after every call. He talks a good amount of smack, even to fans. And the biggest thing, he absolutely kills the Thunder late in games. I’m no CP3 fan anymore. Kevin Durant is the king of this town and Chris Paul is one of the enemies that visits every now and again. Yeah, I have a little soft spot for him because of those two years. But that’s the past and he murders the team I root for now. So forget Chris Paul.
- Paul made plays down the stretch, but after Thabo switched to him in the second quarter, CP3 just had no room to breath. If Thabo isn’t at least second team All-Defense, I’m going to jump into a pool of snapping turtles.
- Nenad Krstic played a very solid game. He scored 11 (nine in the third quarter) and grabbed six boards in 27 minutes. He really sparked the Thunder offense in the third. Which makes it a little strange that Brooks went with Serge Ibaka for the majority of the fourth. In tight situations like this, Brooks almost always defers to defense and Ibaka was doing a really good job on the interior (HOW ABOUT THAT BLOCK?) and on the glass (seven rebounds). Just a little curious that Krstic only saw a couple minutes in the fourth after he got his jumper going and was even playing really aggressive on the offensive boards.
- Just four turnovers for KD. Woo! Also, Durant was the only starter that was positive tonight with a plus-one. He had 27 (7-15, 12-12 from the line) and really played his butt off on both ends. It was interesting the Hornets put Paul on him on the last two possessions. CP3 is a bulldog and a great defender though. Obviously it worked out.
- Russell Westbrook played a solid game. Not a great one (11 points, 5-16, nine assists, four rebounds, three steals and two turns), but he was good enough to get his team a win. He was forced to take shots late in the clock and it wasn’t really his fault. A play didn’t come together and the ball wound up in his hands with three ticks left and he had to force a tough jumper. Sure he maybe could have done better here or there in the fourth, but I thought he was alright.
- Since when does the Thunder miss free throws, especially in crucial spots? Krstic missed a big and-1. Green made one of two when he had a chance to tie. The team was 18-23 from the line, but those missed are HUGE in tight games. It’s about when you miss and the Thunder missed in a couple key spots.
- Thabo had seven more rebounds tonight. Is it crazy to say he may be the second best rebounder on the team?
- There were some, ahem, questionable calls in this one. Let’s just say, I saw them, you saw them, we have our thoughts about it and leave it at that.
- NOLA turned it over just eight times. For all the pressure defense OKC plays, that’s pretty impressive.
- Again, after 35 points in the third, OKC came back with just 11 in the fourth. We got a good dose of our own medicine. Not so fun when it’s the other way around.
It was a tough loss and you hate losing at home to a team that was 3-13 on the road coming in. But it just happens. Poor execution in crunch time, poor shot selection and some blunders in key moments. Again, signs of a young team that hasn’t figured it all out yet. There’s no reason to be upset about it. Now, if we see a similar thing Saturday night against the Pacers, well, then maybe you can get upset.