For about the first 44 minutes of Wednesday’s opener against the Bulls, the game for the Thunder looked exactly like that. An opener. There was some rust, some miscues and some missed rotations.
But those last four minutes. Goodness. Sakes.
That was quite a statement for this season. Like a truly great team, the Thunder kicked it into another gear in crunch time. Kevin Durant hit a jumper. Serge Ibaka swatted another shot. And then the Thunder started dunking everything. Russell Westbrook finished a beautiful look from Thabo Sefolosha for an and-one flush. KD put a sweet move on for a two-handed finish. Before you could even catch your breath, Oklahoma City was up 13 points. The arena formerly known as the Ford Center exploded as if it were Game 6 all over again.
And defensively, the last four minutes couldn’t have been better. Derrick Rose, who was the Chicago offense for most of the night, was completely bottled up. Ibaka had the Bulls’ guards running scared. Nobody entered the lane to challenge Ibaka and the Bulls were forced to hover around the perimeter draining the shot clock. It was classic Thunder defense. Make your opponent work deep into the 24, rotate, switch and eventually force a perimeter shot. There weren’t easy buckets to be had late. Scott Brooks said after the game he told the team to get three straight stops and they’d win. And they did exactly that.
I think if anything, we saw a team that is absolutely good enough to not play its best game for 90 percent of a game and then crank it up when it matters. It’s not something you want to see them make a habit of, but despite having a fairly bad second half, KD hit a huge jumper to put OKC up four and then had the nice dunk to essentially seal it. It was kind of one of those vintage “bad” games from KD, where he scores 30 points and grabs seven boards but makes you feel like he could’ve done better. He missed seven straight at one point after starting hot, and went 9-24 overall, but this was one of those assassin type games where Durant made two massive plays in crunch time. And that’s what matters.
Westbrook was the star of the night, piling up 28 points on 15 shots while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Ibaka had four blocks, nine rebounds and eight points off the bench. Jeff Green was great in the first half with 16 points, but just scored five in the second half. And Thabo played his typical stellar defense. Overall, it’s hard not to be thrilled with this opening night performance. But that’s because of the final 240 seconds.
- Let’s just get this out of the way. Watch Russell Westbrook’s crosscourt dunk. It’s a thing of beauty. I think he wanted to kill the rim here.
- I know I already mentioned it, but how good was Westbrook? He played one of the smartest, most complete games I’ve ever seen. He took smart shots, was aggressive at the rim and defensively, really did well on Derrick Rose after Rose started 6-8. (Rose finished 12-31.) Westbrook led the Thunder with 10 boards and would’ve had a triple-double if a few teammates had made a couple shots.
- Public Service Announcement: Nenad Krstic’s last name is pronounced “Kris-tich.” It is not and never has been correct to say “Ker-stich.” Never. It’s “Kri-stich” or even “Kri-stick” is acceptable. Come on people. Just because he’s foreign doesn’t mean we can all say it how we want.
- Joakim Noah’s lunchlady bun was sick. If this were pickup basketball, Noah looks like that guy everyone would argue over having to guard. “Nah man, I’ll take that guy. You get the gross looking dude with the hairnet.”
- It seemed like the Bulls tried to defend Durant Ron Artest style. Keith Bogans and Luol Deng really tried to get under Durant and they grabbed and pulled at him all night. It worked fairly well, though Durant did finish with 30. Just how he do.
- The Thunder won this game at the free throw line. OKC went 38-47 (!) to Chicago’s 13-22. Now I’m a large homer I realize, but it really didn’t seem like the officiating was lopsided. OKC really attacked constantly, Chicago didn’t. At least that’s how it looked to me.
- Thirteen. That’s how many fourth quarter points the Bulls had.
- The Thunder took 15 fewer shots than Chicago, shot two percent lower from the field and made eight fewer baskets, yet won by 11. Again, free throws.
- Nothing makes me feel as consistently uncomfortable as two people tonguing each other on the Kiss Cam.
- Scott Brooks stuck with the nine-man rotation tonight, playing Ibaka at center. Cole Aldrich didn’t see any time, but Daequan Cook played 18 minutes as the ninth man, missing all four 3s he took.
- Eric Maynor was terrific. I think OKC could potentially lay claim to the finest backup point guard in the league. In 13 minutes, Maynor had 10 points, an assist and a rebound.
- I love Rumble. I do. But the “Let’s-Go-Thun-Der!” chant with about two minutes left really killed the energy in the arena. Granted, it was better than a clip from Varsity Blues or whatever, but still, that’s just not a great time to try and get a stadium chant going. At least in my mind.
- KD is definitely an improved isolation player. He’s a better creator and distributor. However, the Thunder went iso-KD two end the second and third quarters. Both times, Durant went in recklessly to the lane and tried to kick out but was called for a charge. There just has to be a better design to get Durant an easy shot there. Has to.
- Despite scoring just one point, Thabo Sefolosha was as important as anyone else in this game. He had four blocks, two steals, four assists and four rebounds. He was an absolute menace defensively and his block on Luol Deng was maybe the most important play of the game.
Starting the season 1-0 is nice, but I really enjoyed the focus showed by this team in the fourth quarter. Remember, there was a lot of pressure on these guys to win and perform on national TV. Remember how much hype and expectation there was. They were playing this one with some added pressure. And they came through in the big minutes.
Like I said, I think we’re seeing a nearly matured team that understands how to win. Obviously they figured it out last season winning 50, but tonight the Thunder showed that none of that stuff was a fluke. These guys are still good and quite honestly, are probably better. They locked down, locked in and played big when they had to. It’s what the good teams do and against a quality opponent, the Thunder ran away with things in crunch time. Definitely a good way to get going in this highly anticipated season.
Next up: Just like last season, OKC travels to Detroit for game number two, taking on the Pistons Friday.