Apparently the Thunder could only go one game without keeping it close through the final stages, because it took until the last minute of the game Friday to secure a 111-107 victory in Phoenix over the Suns.
Oklahoma City has now had six of its last seven games come down to the final possessions, but has lost only two during that stretch. The latest victory featured a monster effort from Serge Ibaka, including two huge baskets in the final two minutes of the game to reclaim the lead for the Thunder, and another game to give Jeff Green supporters (like me) a reason to smile and ignore his detractors.
Green played a team-high 40 minutes and scored 28 points, the most he’s scored in regulation all season. He went 10-17 from the field, including 3-5 on 3-pointers, and added five boards to pace Oklahoma City on a night when Kevin Durant had “only” 24 points and didn’t make — or take — many crunch-time shots. Green also played effective defense, at least by the Thunder’s standards this year, limiting Phoenix counterpart Channing Frye to 13 points on 17 shots.
Ibaka and Nick Collison were catalysts off the bench for Oklahoma City as usual. Ibaka made his 28 minutes count, finishing with 18 points on a near-perfect 9-10 night from the floor along with six rebounds and two blocks. Ibaka’s aforementioned clutch late baskets provided a microcosm of his offensive season so far. He had a no-doubt turnaround jumper to give the Thunder a 1-point lead — its first of the final stanza — with just under two minutes left, and then had a crowd-silencing put-back on the next possession to put OKC up by two and give me the impression that the Thunder would win for the first time. And stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Collison impacted the game with his usual gritty play without showing up on the stat sheet much except for his ridiculous +25. Collison set the tone for his minutes with an offensive rebound in his first seconds on the floor and complemented it with his usual array of quality screens, solid defense and charges-taken.
And more importantly, the Thunder’s clutch late play saved Oklahoma City fans the indignity of suffering a loss at the hands of Vince Carter. He played his best game of the season with 33 points, including a 6-12 effort from behind the arc for the career 38 percent 3-point shooter, but had only three points from the latter stages of the third quarter on.
As has become custom at times, OKC led its fourth-quarter charge with the good defense it apparently had forgotten how to play in the first three quarters. The Suns shot only 32 percent in the final quarter, the result of the defensive focus and energy that the Thunder seems capable of providing only late in the game for whatever reason. There’s a soft spot in the wall in my living room from where I bang my head during the early parts of road games.
- The Suns started the game 7-9 from the field before Scott Brooks called a timeout in an attempt to stop the bleeding. It didn’t work right away, as Phoenix made its next to baskets to go to 9-11. And two Thunder shooting fouls led to free throws in that stretch as well. It was partly the customary poor early-game defense on the part of Oklahoma City, but I think it had just as much, if not more, to do with Steve Nash finding his spots and getting hockey assists and the Suns just plain hitting their shots.
- Thabo Sefolosha celebrated his return to the lineup after missing the last three games due to injury by getting whistled twice in the first five minutes of the game. Sefolosha was pretty invisible for the whole game, finishing with only nine minutes and two rebounds.
- Despite Phoenix’s blazing start the Thunder closed the first quarter on a 9-3 run and even out-shot the Suns 61 percent to 58 percent. Phoenix finished the frame up by five thanks to more offensive rebounds, made 3-pointers and made free throws.
- Mickael Pietrus did something I see a lot in the NBA but don’t understand: He held his hand up after fouling Green on a 3-point attempt. I can see doing it when there are two people who could be called for a foul and you want to save a teammate from collecting one, but why do it when there’s not another defender within 10 feet of where you were? Was the ref going to be confused?
- I was interested to see how the shooting guard rotation would play out with Sefolosha’s return, especially because Daequan Cook acquitted himself well in his absence. But even despite Sefolosha’s ineffectiveness, Cook never took off his warmups. And James Harden had an effective game and played 36 minutes, third-most on the team, but it’s not like he was setting the world on fire. Harden had 13 points, six boards and five assists and nice +16 at the end of his stat line, but I was surprised that Cook didn’t get at least a few minutes under the circumstances.
- The book on Carter is that he’ll check out if he gets fouled hard once or twice, right? So why didn’t anyone crack him once it was clear he was feeling it?
- Durant took a much longer than normal break during his customary bench time in the second quarter. He didn’t come in until there was 4:58 left in the half. But it’s hard to argue with the long break because the Thunder took its first lead since 2-0 at 51-48 right before he checked back in.
- In what has become pretty routine, Westbrook had a fast start from an assist standpoint but didn’t add to his total much in the second half. He finished the first half with nine assists, but collected only two more after the break. Steve Nash had only two assists in the first quarter, and zero in the second, but added six more after halftime. The Thunder had 17 dimes in the first half and 2 for the game. I’m pretty sure the Thunder hasn’t surpassed 17 assists in an entire game on more than a few occasions this season.
- There was very little rhythm in the third quarter, especially for the first several minutes. Oklahoma City led Phoenix 63-60 at the break, but the teams didn’t hit the 70s until about half of the third quarter had ticked away.
- OKC was just murdered at the 3-point line for most of the game, especially until Carter started missing late. At one point, Phoenix was 11-21 from behind the arc, but ended up 13-33. Oklahoma City finished a typically pedestrian 6-18.
- Nash dropped some major f-bombs after the referees called technical fouls on him and Grant Hill following a pretty questionable foul call on Hill against Durant. I wasn’t aware that many non-hockey player Canadians were that foul-mouthed.
- Is it just me, or does the Thunder get caught with bad defensive switches more than its opponents almost every single night? It seems like I see Green on Nash and Westbrook on Frye, or something similar to that, on a big number of possessions for a moment or two. And it seems rare that OKC gets a similar mismatch on the offensive end.
- Can we please get more double-doubles from KD? He had 11 rebounds to go with his 24 points tonight. I thought he would be a double-double machine in the NBA after he tore up the Big 12 the way he did, but that hasn’t been the case. Of late, though, KD has been hitting the boards hard.
- Why bring Cole Aldrich back from Tulsa just to dress him in a suit? Just asking. I know Brooks doesn’t play the end of his bench, so it probably doesn’t matter, but still. Maybe it was just to get Byron Mullens some minutes.
Maybe it’s not exactly true that the Thunder is playing with house money in Utah on Saturday, but I always feel like a win on the second half of a road-road back-to-back is just gravy if the team picks up a win in the first game. But the Jazz is only late in the third quarter at Denver as I finish this recap, so they’ll likely be tired as well. So here’s hoping Oklahoma City can capitalize on a quality road win (I don’t care if Phoenix is under .500, any win against Nash is quality) by picking up another in the mountains. And lets hope Vince Carter never does this to OKC again. It’s just plain annoying.
Next up: Saturday at Utah.