I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not be sweating profusely the last three minutes of a game. Tonight’s game was a nice reminder that all games in fact, do not actually have to be ridiculously close and stressful.
What really made the difference in this one was the last minute of the third quarter. Oklahoma City closed with five straight points courtesy Kevin Durant’s awesomeness, which stretched out a lead to nine heading into the fourth. The Thunder outscored New Orleans 32-17 in the quarter and turned what looked like would be yet another nail-biter into a nice cruise through the fourth.
Something that makes putting away a good team such as the Hornets away is having a player like Durant, who can completely own 48 minutes of basketball. KD dropped 43 on 14-19 shooting (43 on 19 shots! Holy crap!), grabbed 10 rebounds, hit 10-11 from the line and dished out five assists just for fun. KD was zeroing in on 50 with five minutes left in the game, but he showed off why he’s so dang special. Instead of forcing anything, he made two slick and very correct passes to Nick Collison and Jeff Green (both missed, for shame). He then had another iso opportunity on the right wing, but dropped a beautiful no-look to Collison under the rim for an easy two. Playing that kind of basketball is how to close out. Possessions are never empty and it sends the message that it isn’t ever about one player or what he’s got going on. Scott Brooks said after the game he never has to worry about KD making the right play, because in almost every situation, Durant’s making a smart choice.
However, like most wins, it’s not just about how great KD was. Tonight, it was Eric Maynor stepping up in a big way. Russell Westbrook was in foul trouble the entire night and picked up his fourth early in the third quarter. Maynor came in and really played huge. What appeared to be a big opportunity for the Hornets with Westbrook out and Maynor stuck defending Chris Paul, wasn’t at all. Maynor played 22 minutes, scored nine points and dished out three assists but really controlled the offense well, getting KD good looks while also spacing the floor well. Said Durant of Maynor, “That was as long as I’ve seen Eric on the floor, the longest stretch I’ve seen him on the court and he handled it pretty well … he’s so poised for a point guard, especially with him being just in his second year.” And that’s true. You can see how Maynor always stays within himself and never panicked, despite being handed a big job in this one.
- Serge Ibaka was back in a big way in this one. Within just a few minutes of being on the floor, he had blocked three shots and pulled in a handful of rebounds. He finished with six swats, eight points and 12 rebounds in 33 minutes. Brooks said after the game that Ibaka was definitely focused and ready to go for this one, but it was more that the matchups made sense for him to get the heavier playing time.
- Big edge for OKC on the glass at 44-32. The Hornets were clearly missing Emeka Okafor inside.
- Westbrook had five turnovers and appeared to be a bit out of sorts. It wasn’t really Chris Paul forcing him to throw it away, more just bad decisions. Russ finished with 10 points and eight assists and closed the game well, but he had a stretch where he turned it over three times in a matter of minutes. Plus his fourth foul on Paul in the third quarter was one of the dumbest you’re going to see. There was one second on the shot clock and CP3 had the ball at half court. For some reason Westbrook tried to reach in and steal it. Really dumb foul.
- Ibaka, on top of his excellent numbers, played terrific defense on David West. West looked ready to put up big numbers but Ibaka’s length made West release the ball a bit higher than usual and as a result, West finished with 20 on 19 shots.
- Jeff Green, kind of meh. I like that his rebounding numbers are starting to consistently land over five (how sad is that to say about your starting power forward?) and he finished with seven in this one. The 5-14 shooting isn’t good and the 2-7 from 3 not great, but he played some tough defense in the second half, which included two nice stops at the rim.
- I know I say it a lot, but man, Nick Collison just sets wonderful screens. I honestly think 75 percent of the reason he was extended was because Sam Presti feels like Collison is KD’s little screen-setting sidekick. Collison is almost like an offensive lineman for Durant, opening holes. I feel like KD should buy Collison a super nice watch or something, like how running backs buy their o-lineman something nice.
- OKC’s defense was really good in the second half. New Orleans never got clean looks. They stayed close because Quincy Pondexter hit some really tough shots late in the third, otherwise this is a 20-point game.
- It kind of sucks that Trevor Ariza rolled his ankle in the third quarter because people are going to think KD dropped 43 because Ariza was out. Reality is, KD had 21 at the half on 6-7 shooting. He wasn’t having any problems with Ariza in this one.
- I honestly thought Chris Paul was really hurt when he went down in the first half. He was carried off with both feet off the ground. However, I wasn’t all that shocked when he came back in either.
- The Thunder did a great job on him tonight. CP3 had 15 points but just five assists. Big props to Maynor.
- The crowd was kind of unbelievable. For what the conditions were outside, to have the lower bowl near full with a decent amount in Loud City was pretty impressive.
- Aaron Gray does not look like a professional athlete.
- Nenad Krstic just 14 minutes tonight. Part of that was because he injured his foot (Brooks said he thinks he’s OK, but Krstic will be evaluated) and part because Ibaka and Collison were a better matchup.
- The Hornets went big for most of the night so OKC countered with a big lineup too, playing KD a lot at shooting guard. James Harden got just 22 minutes (he did pretty well I thought too) as the Thunder played Maynor, Durant, Green, Ibaka and Collison quite a bit.
Really, this is quietly a very important win. The Hornets are a team that appears to be in position to battle OKC down the stretch for playoff seeding and now OKC has the season series 3-1. That’s important. And of course, a good bounce back against a really good team after the tough loss to the Heat Sunday. The Thunder’s quietly improving I think defensively. They haven’t put it together for 48 minutes, but the second half efforts are getting better and better. And with KD starting to really cook (40 points or more in three of his last four), OKC will be alright.
Next up: At Phoenix Friday.