Prior to the game, the always witty Scott Brooks joked to the media, “We’re going to go down 10 and we’re going to see how good Jerry is coaching with a lead.” How prophetic that was. (If you’re unaware, Utah has come back from double-digit second half deficits in five consecutive games to win.)
With 5:15 left in the first quarter, Oklahoma City trailed the Jazz 26-14 and really looked completely overmatched, overwhelmed and any other “over” word you want to toss in. The home crowd was rocking, the Thunder defense was borderline pathetic and I think we were all having flashbacks to the beating Utah put on OKC a couple weeks ago.
But somehow, the Thunder weathered the storm. Partly because Kevin Durant kept them in the game with 15 first quarter points, but OKC somehow got through the first 12 minutes only down six.
And the Thunder kept building on that momentum. After a truly awful start for the Thunder that included their broadcast showing a KSU-Missouri football game, they lead 50-48 over Utah at the half. Then they came out and pushed it up to 12 with a few minutes left in the third. We all thought it was going to be a big mistake, just forcing Utah to come back yet again, but the Thunder did an interesting thing. They played really, really well down the stretch.
But not because Durant bailed them out on the offensive end. Actually, KD struggled shooting the ball in the fourth, finishing the game 6-17 from the field. But OKC did it by returning to some strong defensive principles. They closed on shooters. The help defense was on point. They stopped the ball. A strong offensive team like Utah was really held in check and that’s all OKC needed to do down the stretch to win. Get stops. Utah scored 23 in the fourth compared to 85 in the previous three quarters. It’s kind of becoming a theme in wins. A return to that defense we all fell in love with last season in big moments.
Two players though, carried the Thunder in the second half. Durant was good overall, finishing 30 (16-16 from the free throw line), but this game was really about Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook. Ibaka scored a career-high 22 points in 39 minutes starting for Jeff Green who tweaked his ankle and sat this one out. Ibaka went 9-13 from the field, grabbed 11 rebounds and notched four blocks. And my heavens, how about that silky, beautiful mid-range game. It’s just… lovely. Ibaka shoots almost without a conscious, never stopping to think, “Wait, am I really open here?” He’s like a machine. He catches the ball in a spot where he takes hundreds of daily jumpers in practice, sees some spaces and shoots. It’s without thinking and that’s the beautiful part. If Serge Ibaka is really a legitimate offensive player as far out as 20 feet, well, I have no idea how to accurately describe that impact.
As for Westbrook, he had only two points in the first half because of foul trouble. But he scored 20 in the last 24 minutes on 8-13 shooting and had seven assists. He hit a massive jumper with a little over a minute left to give OKC a five-point lead and constantly created opportunities in crunch time. Westbrook’s jumper has pretty much reached that consistency level we’ve all dreamed of and as a result, he’s becoming one of the toughest players to guard one-on-one in the league.
- I know I just said this game was about Ibaka and Westbrook, but the Thunder bench was massive as well. With Westbrook and then Eric Maynor in foul trouble, we saw our first look at Royal Ivey who did a really nice job running the offense and even hit a big 3-pointer in 11 minutes.
- The Thunder played 10 players and all 10 scored. In fact, all 10 had scored by halftime.
- Nick Collison was a major part of this win. It was a classic Collison game with just four points and five rebounds in 19 minutes, but his screens opened up the offense and his interior defense on Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson was excellent.
- A credit to Scott Brooks for opening up a bit and playing the players that he had to. Sometimes I feel like Brooks is a little stubborn with his nine-man rotation, but he played 10 guys tonight (though his hand was sort of forced) and wasn’t afraid to even go back to them. Example: Ivey checked in to guard C.J. Miles with 30 seconds left. Ivey played terrific defense, forcing Miles to give up the ball. A nice substitution and something I hope we see more of.
- I like how if you’re the veteran third string point guard for the Thunder, you wear No. 7. That’s a fun Thunder tradition.
- Be honest. When Millsap dropped that 3-pointer to cut it back to three, you totally thought we were losing. I know I did.
- The Thunder defense still wasn’t good in this game. The Jazz shot 50.5 percent from the field and scored 108 points. OKC over-helped and over-rotated. For example, on a C.J. Miles drive, both D.J. White and Serge Ibaka both came to help, completely leaving Paul Millsap alone under the basket. Miles dropped an easy dished and Millsap finished with a dunk.
- How about this: The Thunder went 33-34 from the free throw line.
- Nenad Krstic is quietly playing some really nice basketball for OKC. He had eight and eight in 31 minutes and coolly hit a big jumper late.
- I’ll admit, I fell into the “KD is a playmaker!” talk this summer. You could see flashes of it in Turkey as well as preseason. But either he’s forcing that side of things way too much, or he’s just not there yet. However, he did much better making the right pass before he dribbled into a charge or a double-team.
- Thabo Sefolosha was vital in more than one way for once. He defended Deron Williams down the stretch, basically handcuffing the Utah star, but also added 11 points including a 3-pointer. That little up-and-under he pulled in the third was a thing of beauty.
- Really, OKC won this game by shooting the mid-range jumper really well. The Jazz outscored OKC 46-32 in the paint, but the Thunder knocked down some shots. They went just 6-15 from 3, but the six hits were really big ones.
If we’re learning anything about this Thunder club, it’s that a catch-word for the current time might be “inconsistent.” But the fact they were able to respond on the road, at one of the league’s toughest arenas, on the second of a back-to-back, against one of the West’s best teams, is just awesome. I don’t know what to think about this team yet. They’re hard to figure out. One night you’re scratching your head wondering if they’ll ever win again. The next, they’re making you feel like it’s back to the old ways.
I think the lesson is that this group is still young. They’re still growing. They’re still maturing. We may have thought we were over all the growing pains of a young squad, but there’s still some evolution to be done. And one of those last humps is figuring out how to be consistently good on a night-to-night basis.
Next up: OKC comes back home for a game against the Rockets Wednesday.