If the Thunder could have just skipped the first quarter, Oklahoma City would have left Houston on Wednesday night with a double-digit win. Alas, an absolutely putrid start forced the Thunder to battle back in what became a scrappy game, and OKC ran out of playmaking in a 96-95 Rockets win.
Oklahoma City came out sluggish and slow. The game being the second in a back-to-back is no excuse because the Rockets were in the same boat. The Thunder didn’t get a basket until nearly four minutes had gone by and started the game by missing their first seven shots. But even more damaging was the way OKC played defense in the first quarter. Serge Ibaka was lively in the middle, but a lot of loose man defense on the perimeter and little effort expended on boxing out set a bad tone for the whole first quarter as the Thunder were outscored 29-13.
The Thunder battled back — all the way back before halftime, in fact. Oklahoma City seemed to draw its inspiration from Royal Ivey, of all people, in a timely and creative coaching move by Scott Brooks. Ivey came in with a clear mission to inject some energy and tenacity on the defensive end, and it really keyed a long run that got the Thunder back in the game. But it’s a shame OKC was in such a hole to begin with.
In the end, the Thunder had the game in Kevin Durant’s hands with the clock ticking down. Oklahoma City had multiple cracks at the basket in the closing seconds, including an oh-so-close putback effort by Russell Westbrook off a Durant miss. But it wasn’t to be, and the Thunder is going to have to live with a game it could have won if it had just showed up to play a full 48 minutes.
Durant, despite some pretty inspired play in the final 30 minutes or so on his way to 33 points and 8 boards, shoulders a large share of the blame in the slow start. He flat stunk on the defensive end in the first quarter. No boxing out. Little activity. His teammates were largely playing the same, but that’s when leaders are supposed to step up and bring that defensive intensity Durant talked about after Tuesday’s win over the Jazz. Most nights, Durant does that. And there will be nights for everyone when that energy isn’t there, for whatever reason. But it wasn’t there tonight, and it took a spark from Ivey instead of the Thunder’s steady leader to get things on the right track.
The Rockets deserve a bunch of credit, not only for getting out to the big early lead, but also making the plays that needed to be made down the stretch. Kevin Martin was stuck on 30 points for most of the fourth quarter after looking like he could waltz his way to 30, but he added the winning points with two late free throws. Samuel Dalembert fueled that Houston first quarter with nine rebounds. And Houston only turned it over 13 times, a nice cushion compared to the Thunder’s typical 55 turnovers (21, actually, but still). The Rockets are playing a lot better than they did when the Thunder saw them earlier in the season, and it showed.
The encouraging thing to take from the loss is that the Thunder was largely a different team and showed toughness battling back. Ivey’s defensive presence and better ball movement with the second unit became contagious, and Oklahoma City started working for better shots. Westbrook in particular was getting to the rim. The defensive intensity was ratcheted back up tho the level everyone knows the Thunder is capable of. It just wasn’t enough to hold off the Rockets, who never backed down even when Oklahoma City made charges.
But it’s as unsettling as it always is to see the same old warts — turnovers and the lack of offensive creativity in the waning seconds — undo OKC in the end. At least the offensive rebounding was tied at 11 apiece.
The first quarter problems are becoming a trend too, although usually the Thunder doesn’t put up a measly 13 points while allowing the opposing offense to have its way. That’s something that has to be addressed. It might not rear its head over the next week with a glut of home games coming the Thunder’s way, because the team always seems to play better at home. But it’s going to lead to losses in winnable games like the Rockets unless the Thunder can bring focus from the opening tip.
- It felt like the Thunder might be snapping out of its early funk after OKC got its first buckets. Westbrook drew a charge, then KD hit a beautiful turnaround fadeaway in the post before Ibaka had blocks on back-to-back plays. But before you knew it, the Thunder was down double digits.
- The Thunder shot 6-24 from the floor in the first quarter. Insert the Kobe Bryant Finals MVP joke here.
- The way Ivey affected the game on the defensive end shows what hidden value a guy like him has as a practice player. I hardly saw Ivey as an NBA player before he got to the Thunder last year — and thanks to his limited playing time since then, I’ve still only seen a little bit. But I saw him a lot at Texas, and he’s always been an active player and a defensive pest. He showed it during his two stints of playing time Wednesday and finished a team-high +10. That’s what the coaches count on him doing in practice when he’s facing Westbrook and Harden and KD and everyone else. Those guys at the end of the roster matter.
- It was a bummer to see Nick Collison on the other end of a charge call for once when he spun into Luis Scola in the second quarter.
- Chase Budinger just straight lost the ball going up to shoot a 3-pointer in the second quarter, leading to a Thunder fast break. That’s almost as embarrassingly bad as this. Actually, no. It’s not nearly that bad.
- Another idea about Ivey: Seeing him play and remembering reading this story about using Reggie Jackson in a full-court press got me thinking to what Rick Pitino reportedly once said about running a press in the NBA. Pitino advocated using a unit of bench players to come in every game and run a few minutes of full-court press. Ivey and Jackson would be fantastic at that for, say, six to eight minutes per game. That would just be their mission — don’t turn the ball over on offense and just run them ragged on defense. Can you imagine what it would be like for an opposing backcourt player if his break from having to play against Westbrook was spent being chased the length of the court by Ivey and Jackson?
- Ibaka had a beautiful offensive board and quick turnaround hook shot. Those flashes of big-time offensive skill are always tantalizing.
- The play of the night for the Thunder started with KD cutting to the paint and missing a jump-stop fadeaway. Westbrook raced to rebound the ball before he went out of bounds, twisted as he jumped and fired it in mid-air right back to Durant. KD swished home a 3-pointer for OKC’s first lead of the game. I thought that would be it, no looking back, but it wasn’t.
- Kendrick Perkins, who played some solid defense on Scola (7-16 from the floor), got his 10th technical of the season when he clubbed the Argentine forward after the whistle. Three more until an automatic suspension.
- A highlight for those Thunder fans who are also Sooners fans was seeing a courtside interview with Adrian Peterson, who was sporting Thunder gear. Mrs. James, a big-time AD fan, caught this as she was walking across the room and jumped for joy. Peterson lives near Houston, but it’s cool for OU fans to see him supporting the Thunder too.
- Ivey showed his worth during his stint in the fourth quarter too. He hustled back on a Rockets fast break to tip the ball away from Budinger.
- Brian Davis Line of the Night (and the year, probably): “Durant sets up Dr. Tomahawk to perform another surgery on the Rockets defense!”
Next up: Golden State on Friday in Oklahoma City.