Darko Milicic had the biggest impact of any player on the floor Monday on the night Kevin Durant and Jeff Green returned to the Thunder lineup. But Oklahoma City found a way to win despite a late charge from the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 117-107 home win.
Milicic was unstoppable for a long stretch of the fourth quarter and pretty much had his way offensively with the Thunder big men for the entire game. Unless I’m mistaken, the Wolves scored every single time Milicic got the ball in the low post during the final 10 minutes or so of the fourth quarter. Milicic abused Nick Collison one a couple of one-on-ones, so Scott Brooks brought Nenad Krstic off the bench for what must be one of the only times in his career that he was inserted with defense in mind. Minnesota went right back to Milicic for another score, so in came Serge Ibaka, but without much effect. When the Thunder started double-teaming the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft by sliding Thabo Sefolosha down on him, Milicic found the open man and the Wolves scored that way.
But Oklahoma City battled back, which it was forced to do after it gradually turned an 18-point lead into a six-point deficit with about six minutes to play. The Thunder went almost completely cold in the fourth quarter, and Durant contributed to the woes with a 6-16 shooting night (but was 16-17 from the line to save face). OKC ratcheted up the defensive intensity late in the game for the first time since the first several minutes of the game to get the lead back, but it helped that Milicic didn’t see the ball much at the end of the game and Michael Beasley jacked up a couple of airballs.
Sefolosha was probably the star of the night for the Thunder, finishing with 13 huge points on a perfect 5-5 shooting night (albeit with a disappointing 3-6 showing at the stripe) and adding 11 rebounds to go with very good defense, especially on Beasley late in the game. The Swiss swingman continued his recent aggressive streak on the offensive end and was a game-changer, giving the Thunder the lead for a final time on a jump shot late in the fourth quarter.
The night started promisingly for Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook sharing the ball all over the place and getting his teammates involved, but the Thunder seemed to lose interest after a late second-quarter run spilled into the third quarter and the Wolves looked finished. But Minnesota didn’t quit, and Milicic’s dominance in the low post again exposed what may be the Thunder’s most fatal flaw. Sure, Darko is one of the hottest big men in the league right now offensively, but OKC’s interior defense did nothing to assuage fears it could be the team’s Achilles heel in the playoffs.
- The scoreboard at the still-the-Ford Center didn’t display individual stats in the usual spots for almost the entire first quarter. That’s the second straight game that there has been a major scoreboard glitch. Come on, game ops guys, let’s look alive there.
- Corey Brewer had one of the more entertaining and-ones I’ve seen in awhile. He threw the ball up wildly and it bounced on the top of the backboard before falling through the hoop.
- It was good to see James Harden fire without hesitation the first time he caught the ball with an open look from 3-point range. He missed, but he nailed the next 3-pointer he took without hesitation (not counting a desperation, running heave at the end of the first quarter). It was a disappointingly quiet offensive night for Harden considering the strong outing as a starter Saturday, but the three steals looked nice on the stat sheet.
- Kevin Love busted out two straight 3-pointers in the first half. The Thunder looked lost trying to stop him. So a couple of possessions later, Harden tackled him. That worked, although a referee blew his whistle for some reason.
- Speaking of Love, he had 17 rebounds and 24 points on 10-17 shooting. A nice offensive night, perhaps because he was often checked by Green. And Green had a nice offensive night with 24 points on 9-16 shooting, perhaps because he was often checked by Love. Love had a truly wretched -25 plus/minus.
- This was the poster game for the Jeff Green debate. He had nice offensive stats, but they were slightly inflated by going against the soft Wolves defense. He didn’t play all that well defensively. But he hit a gigantic 3-pointer late in the game, one of those “winning basketball plays” that the haters hate to hear the defenders talk about.
- This was also the poster game for the Jeff Green debate in another way: Serge Ibaka was rather ordinary. He wasn’t bad, just ordinary. Ibaka had only one rebound, and his very quiet 10 points without that tantalizing mid-range game showing up just goes to show that he’s not quite there yet.
- Westbrook finished with 14 assists, which is nice. But only four of them came after the break, which illustrates the Thunder’s offensive struggles in the second half all by itself.
- Pretty fun stretch in the first quarter: two straight treys followed by two straight alley-oops. Crowd loved it.
Ultimately, the important thing is that Oklahoma City is 10-4. It took until Jan. 20 for the Thunder to get to six games above .500 last season, and through 14 games last year OKC was 7-7. Nothing is going perfectly, but the Thunder is winning.
Next up: Mavericks on Wednesday.