With the Thunder offense struggling, the stars sitting and one of the most important games of the season hanging in the balance, Oklahoma City needed someone, anyone to step up. You’d expect it to be Kevin Durant. Or maybe even Russell Westbrook, as he has the past few games. But even without wearing a headband, James Harden raised his hand. And by raised his hand, I mean scored 13 straight points for the Thunder in the fourth quarter.
I get asked a lot: “Is Harden a flop? Is he living up to the hype? Is his beard really THAT perfect?” Games like tonight are exactly why he was drafted third by Sam Presti. When OKC needs a secondary scorer, he has the ability to fill it up. He can create, he can shoot and he can score. He hasn’t always risen to the occasion, but remember, he is a rookie. But it can’t be Durant, Westbrook and Green every night. And the fact OKC can rely on Harden to provide that offensive spark could truly be the biggest revelation for this group as they head into the All-Star break.
But what had to happen after Harden cooled was the Thunder’s studs to step up. And they did just that. Westbrook made an aggressive play getting to the rim and drawing a foul. Then Durant rocked Nicolas Batum to sleep and knocked down a jumper. It comes down to playmakers making plays and OKC did enough to win. And that’s what it takes to sustain a winning streak. Have more points than the other guy and move on with your life. Considering the intensity and importance of this game, I don’t think I could be any more thrilled.
But it wasn’t just Harden off the bench. Eric Maynor (five assists) was steady filling in behind a struggling Westbrook. Serge Ibaka’s interior defense was stellar. Ibaka had four chewblockas and in the fourth quarter, he didn’t let LaMarcus Aldridge even attempt a shot. The entire night, the Thunder’s defense was nearly flawless. Chris Webber said after the game that Thunder just played the best team defense he’s seen all year from any team. Kevin McHale said followed with “absolutely”. Consider: OKC had 17 steals, forced 20 turnovers, held the Blazers to 40 percent from the field and had seven blocks. It was a theme from the outset as the Thunder didn’t allow a point until there was 7:50 left and forced the Blazers into a 1-10 start from the floor. Just a masterful game on that end.
- OKC outscored Portland 30-16 in the fourth. As mentioned, Harden ripped off 13 straight in the quarter and KD had seven.
- It just felt like KD pressed a little in this game. 25 shots from him is a little out of the ordinary. He had 33 and 11 on 12-25 shooting, which by all indications is a fantastic game. And when he hit 26 points at the end of the third quarter, people were acting like he was playing bad. Talk about setting the bar high.
- Oh yeah: That’s 25 straight 25+ games for KD and he also eclipsed 5,000 points. Not in this game though. That would be a record.
- Kevin McHale on KD: “He’s the icicle: long, skinny and cold blooded”.
- Westbrook wasn’t great tonight by any means, but seven assists, five rebounds and three steals is a nice game. He definitely contributed to the win, which is what’s important. How about this though: four of Westbrook’s five rebounds were offensive. That’s just effort.
- Jeff Green absolutely carried the team in the first half. He played a game-high 43 minutes, was a plus-16, scored 17 points, had four steals and one block. Without his first half, OKC loses this game.
- Interesting end of the first half. Durant and Westbrook appeared to get into a little tiff over something and I don’t think Scott Brooks liked it. He wisely sat both of them down, letting Maynor and Harden finish the last three minutes of the half. I thought that was a great move by Brooks. Instead of trying to sort out the disagreement in the heat of battle, Westbrook and Durant were able to cool their jets a bit and discuss it in the locker room. Obviously everyone is still friends because if you noticed in the fourth quarter, Westbrook and Durant were back to fist-pounding and hugging as always.
- The first possession really set a tone for the Thunder defensively. OKC forced Portland into a shot clock violation and matched that defensive intensity basically the entire night.
- Durant’s juke and flush on Andre Miller was stunning. Literally stunning.
- Aldridge finished with 15 points, but as mentioned didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth and didn’t score until 17 minutes in. His damage was done only in the middle parts. Great defensive effort on him tonight.
- Nick Collison quietly had an excellent 28 minutes. Six points, five rebounds and a block.
- After hearing in the Daily Dime chat how Batum’s defense on Durant was all the difference in the first half, it was quite satisfying to watch KD knock down shots over him in the fourth. Batum is a very good defender, but the shots KD was missing early on were good looks and ones he typically makes with regularity.
- That’s 15 road wins this year for the Thunder. The last two seasons, the franchise has won a total of 15 roadies, combined.
- SIX. IN. A. ROW.
- This game had a playoff-like intensity to it. Granted, I don’t really know what a playoff atmosphere is actually like, but I’ve heard things.
This is one of those wins you put a little star by and remember down the line. The Rose Garden is no easy place to win. Yeah, the Blazers are hurt and this game would surely have been different had they been healthy, but they’re still a good team. But riding a five-game streak and with the distraction of the All-Star break ahead, OKC came out focused, energetic and intense. The Thunder took care of business on the road getting contributions from everyone. And best of all, I sensed a little crunch time, cold blooded killer instinct there in the fourth quarter from the team. Not just from Durant, but from the whole group. These guys are moving from “Going to be scary good in a year or two” to “Going to be scary good like… now.” Are we having fun yet?
Next up: All-Star Weekend!