Don’t look now, but through five games the Thunder has a better record this season than last.
Just don’t ask me how.
Oklahoma City battled a stagnant offense and mostly porous defense for much of its game Thursday in Portland but managed a disjointed 107-106 win over the Trail Blazers. Kevin Durant kinda-sorta broke out of his season-opening slump to finish with 28 points on 11-24 shooting and played all but 32 seconds of the game.
The Thunder resembled the largely unwatchable team we saw in a blowout losses to the Jazz at home and Clippers on the road this week for most of the second and third quarters. Oklahoma City squandered a seven point first-quarter lead and needed a 6-0 run to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, surviving its own mistakes and taking advantage of Portland’s to keep the game close through the rest of regulation and force overtime.
The statistic that jumps out the most is assists: The Blazers finished with 27 to the Thunder’s 12, only five of which came in the second half and overtime. Oklahoma City barely moved the ball for long stretches, a discouraging trend over the first two weeks of the season. Even the stretches during which the Thunder staged runs to keep Portland within reach were mostly made on the break, on put-backs or on the free-throw line. The Thunder attempted only one pass in the half-court in its first four possessions of overtime — although Oklahoma City turned it over on its third pass of the fifth OT possession.
Portland mostly had its way with the Thunder on both ends of the court in the second and third quarters. The Blazers rained down several alley-oop dunks, penetrated the lane at will and kept Oklahoma City off balance defensively with good ball movement. Interior defense was again a particular sore spot for the Thunder as the Portland wings showed no fear in driving the lane, and LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby often found little resistance near the basket.
But the bottom line is that the Thunder sits at 3-2 after five games in — wait for it — the best five-game start in the franchise’s Oklahoma City history. The Thunder has showed early-season progress in the only true stat that matters. It sure doesn’t feel like it to anyone who has watched the games, but it’s true. For the coaching staff, it’s time to earn their paychecks. Oklahoma City clearly needs work in all phases of the game.
One troubling thing I noticed is that it hardly seems like the players were having a lot of fun. Throughout last season, and during the FIBA World Championship this summer for Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s young players were playing with exuberance, tenacity and energy. It seems missing right now.
In any case, the Thunder are two weeks into the season and above .500. Whether it feels like it or not, Oklahoma City has never known such heights this early in the season.
- The game didn’t tip off until about 9:55 p.m. CDT due to the late ending of New York’s win over Chicago on TNT. I’m sure that contributed to the absolute deadness of the Rose Garden throughout most of the first quarter. There was basically no energy, and without piped-in sound during many of the possessions, there was an eerie quiet. It suited the Thunder as Oklahoma City got out to an early lead. Mental note: Don’t be in a rush to get to TNT home games on time this season if Oklahoma City has the network’s second slot.
- Kevin Durant started out on fire before cooling down significantly during much of the second half. KD hit a long 2-pointer at the shot clock buzzer with about four minutes left in the first quarter, and I thought it was a good sign of things to come. He finished 2-of-5 from beyond the arc and shot much better than he had in his previous four games. I said to Royce before the game that I thought it was more important for KD to get untracked than for the Thunder to get a win, and I still feel that way. Better to get both. But Durant has clearly been feeling the pressure, as have his teammates. Maybe it will ease up on all of them.
- Taking a lead into the second quarter was crucial. In Oklahoma City’s two losses, the Thunder fell behind early and never recovered. This time Oklahoma City waited until later to fall behind, but at least the Thunder came to play from the opening tip tonight.
- James Harden had a decent shooting night by missing only two of his five shots. But he played 25 minutes — Harden needs to take more than one shot every five minutes of playing time (and shoot a good percentage) for the Thunder to have a lot of scoring punch off the bench. It’s still too early to be very worried about him, but Oklahoma City needs more from Harden and more out of the 2-guard offensively in general.
- Westbrook scored 14 of his 28 points in the first 18 minutes of the game, and he did so quietly. I’m not sure how that’s possible. In other news, Westbrook is the best rebounding point guard in the NBA. Bar none. Especially on the offensive end. There is no debate.
- There is also no debate that Westbrook shouldn’t be shooting five 3-pointers, because he might miss all five of them like he did in Portland. Harden only took one. Oklahoma City would be better if that trend flips as the season moves on.
- And staying at the point guard position, Andre Miller out-quicked Westbrook a couple of times in the first half. The most notable plays were on a blow-by drive to the rim and a steal on an attempted crossover. I used to watch a lot of Mountain West basketball oddly enough so I’ve been watching him since his college days at Utah. The guy has been making plays for a long time. I like Andre Miller.
- Did anyone listen to Charles Barkley at halftime? That was my favorite part of having no choice but to watch the national broadcast. But Chuck called out the Thunder for playing poor defense in the first half. “They play defense like I did,” Barkley said in the TNT studio. “They’re just out there fakin’ it.” He was right. The Thunder’s effort was almost as poor as its execution. Barkley said the Thunder needs a big guy to do its defensive dirty work. NICK COLLISON, WHERE ARE YOU?!
- Thabo Sefolosha is an important member of the team to be sure. But that air-ball to start the third quarter … ugh.
- I’ll bet Portland fans will be complaining about the telecast. It seemed like all anyone cared about was the Thunder, even when the Blazers were playing well. The focus was clearly on Oklahoma City all night.
Let’s end with the note most likely to generate the same old comment war. Advanced statistics are incredibly useful and mean a lot. Ignore them at your peril. But they simply do not have a good way to evaluate the total impact of a guy like Jeff Green. He was the only starter to take more than 10 shots and make more than half his buckets, and he had one of the biggest plays of the night late in overtime, and as usual it was one that won’t show up on the stat sheet: He saved a ball from flying out of bounds with less than 24 seconds left and the Thunder nursing a lead, forcing the Blazers to foul and letting Durant virtually ice the game at the line.
I know what the numbers say about Green. There are people who point to numbers and say Green is no good, and nothing will ever change their mind. There are also people who point to games like tonight’s to say Green is one of the Thunder’s most valuable players. I’m in the latter camp, now and forever. And the Thunder coaching staff seems to agree with me, as yet again he got the second-most minutes on the team.
Next up: Celtics on Sunday at home.