The Thunder predictably struggled without star player Kevin Durant on Friday night in Boston —
Wait, what? Oklahoma City won? Despite missing the final 15 shots it took from the field?
Yes, indeed the Thunder did win despite Durant and Jeff Green sitting out the game with ankle injuries. And not only did Oklahoma City hand the Celtics their first home loss of the season, the Thunder did it with defense. Because they had to.
Oklahoma City’s 89-84 win at the TD Banknorth Garden featured one of the most frustrating fourth quarters I’ve ever seen the Thunder play. I was convinced for the last several minutes that OKC was going to waste what was an otherwise stellar effort against the defending Eastern Conference champions, but the shorthanded Thunder clamped down defensively when it had to and took advantage of similar offensive struggles on Boston’s part to find a way to escape with its second straight win on the Celtics’ home floor.
The Thunder played the game with an obvious intensity missing for much of the rest of the first part of the season. I don’t think it requires going out on much of a limb to say that the focus probably came from the players realizing they had to play a fantastic game to win without KD and Uncle Jeff. The effort was certainly not perfect, as it never is. Boston shot more than 50 percent from the field in the first half before slipping to a still-good 48.5 percent for the game, and that’s still a better shooting percentage than you’d like to see night-in and night-out from a Thunder team that forged its identity on the defensive end last year. But it was good to see maximum effort and intensity for 48 minutes. Perhaps it will carry over into Saturday at Milwaukee and beyond.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks was forced to go pretty deep into his bench, and it worked out. I found myself glancing at the Thunder’s roster pretty often over the course of the summer and thinking to myself, You know, there are some pretty decent players on the roster who will never see the floor. It’s been a long time since the end of the OKC bench featured the likes of Johan Petro and Robert Swift. You see Royal Ivey’s name and remember that he played huge minutes for some better-than-solid Texas teams. You see D.J. White and remember that he was a beast at Indiana. You see Morris Peterson’s name and remember he played quality minutes for the Hornets as recently as last season. And that kind of depth comes in handy for games just like this one. Those guys don’t have to set the world on fire, they just have to trust the game plan, trust their teammates and limit mistakes. They did tonight and it was a huge part of what is arguably the Thunder’s best win of the season.
The bottom line is that Oklahoma City played a much better game against Boston on the road without two of its most important players than it did at home less than two weeks ago with Durant in the lineup. The NBA can be pretty weird sometimes. I don’t know if it was the Thunder’s extra efforts or a Boston team that relaxed when they heard KD wasn’t playing. But I do know OKC was leading most of the game and played like they wanted the win. It was good to see. The best part was seeing the tough defensive effort when the shots weren’t falling in the fourth quarter. The Thunder defense is still miles away from where Oklahoma City needs it to be in April and May, but it got closer tonight.
Or maybe the best part was Russell Westbrook, who was simply outstanding throughout the game. He suffered the same cold shooting streak at the end of the game and dropped under 50 percent shooting to finish a respectable 9-21 on the night. But the team clearly adopted Westbrook’s feisty mentality all night and fed off him. He was all over the floor, doing the Russell Westbrook things he does, and he stepped up to be the leader the Thunder needed with Durant out of the lineup. He finished with 31-4-6, and his seven turnovers didn’t seem killer. OKC played truly fearless basketball tonight and it started with Jet Zero.
- How about that gross knot on the back of Kevin Garnett’s head after he caught an elbow in the first quarter? That looked like it hurt. In all honesty, I would have done some concussion tests on Garnett on the sideline if I was part of Boston’s training staff. It was a harder blow and on the back of the head, but it reminded me of when Blake Griffin got a concussion from a seemingly innocent glancing shot to the bridge of his nose a couple of years ago when he played for OU.
- Shaquille O’Neal started the game 5-5 in the first quarter and looked ready to erupt, but he never got off another shot without being fouled. This may shock you, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s no one on the Thunder who can guard Shaq.
- Another aggressive offensive outing from Thabo Sefolosha. He finished just 2-5 from the field, but the energy with which he attacked the basket and moved with and without the ball, especially in the first quarter, is something I’d like to see more often. Sefolosha has been more aggressive on the offensive end in recent games, and he should keep it up.
- Didn’t take long for Nick Collison to take his third charge of the season. Unfortunately he committed his own charge later in the game to cancel it out, but it cannot be overstated how important he is to OKC’s defense. As he gets his legs back under him, the Thunder will continue to improve.
- A Mo Pete sighting! One foul in two minutes was his only non-zero on the stat line.
- Eric Maynor and Westbrook had a nice game from beyond the arc. I don’t think even Westbrook thinks he can still be a better-than-average shooter from three, but he went 2-3 against the Celtics and the two he drained were MASSIVE. Maynor hit his only 3-pointer and has been shooting well recently.
- Wes Welker in the house sporting a Thunder hat. I hope the Boston fans give the Heritage Hall legend a break and realize he was just rooting for his hometown team. Hey Wes, I could use a nice outing from you for my fantasy team this week.
- The Thunder benefited, sort of, from a flagrant foul call on Shaq in the fourth quarter. He tried to block a shot when Westbrook careened into the lane, made contact with him and sent him tumbling. It was a clean play but the refs gave OKC two shots and the ball. I say it only sort of benefited the Thunder because they turned the ball over after Westbrook made his free-throws.
- Glen Davis missed three of four massive free throws in the final 2:30 or so of the game. Those were big momentum killers for the Celtics and proved pivotal.
- Nenad Krstic left the game late with an injury I didn’t see. Let’s hope the Chairman returns tomorrow night in Milwaukee.
- James Harden played well, if not great, in 37 minutes for his first career start. He finished with 12-6-4 with only three turnovers and didn’t let his poor shooting night (2-8) affect his energy or effort.
- Serge Ibaka finished with a quiet 13 points and no blocks, but he played solid defense. D.J. White contributed 6 points, 5 boards and a block in only nine minutes.
All in all, this is the kind of win that will be fun to remember if Oklahoma City finishes the season with a one-game lead in an important playoff seeding battle or something like that. Any Thunder fan would take a win over Boston no questions asked, especially if it comes without Durant. That it came with the clutch defensive effort many have been waiting for since April is just the cherry on top of the sundae.
Next up: At Milwaukee on Saturday.