OK, now you guys can take a little break.
That’s a 5-0 homestand and a 27-7 record — tied for Miami for best in the league — that Oklahoma City takes into the All-Star break. That’s how you handle business at home. And to put a nice little bow on it, the Thunder beat the Celtics and Lakers by 15 each on back-to-back nights.
I kept thinking about 2009 during this game. The superpower Lakers were in town against the young and raw Thunder. And it was a night of watching the Thunder work tirelessly to hang with a team superior to them, struggling to keep it within 10 points, only to get within striking distance before Kobe Bryant checked in halfway through the fourth and iced the game on Oklahoma City.
My, my, the times are a’changin’. This time, it was Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant that were waiting to enter with the Thunder holding a double-digit lead, set to snuff the life out of the Lakers. And not that the game was over when those two checked back in with about eight minutes left, but it kind of had that feeling.
The game turned on its head with 0.8 left in the first half. Westbrook drilled a 3 to put OKC one and then KD stole the inbounds pass and hit a jumper as the buzzer sounded. Just like that, the Thunder went up three and never looked back. OKC had a tremendous third quarter outscoring the Lakers 27-19, and did it by sharing (10 assists in the quarter) and protecting (only one turnover).
But to me, this game was more about two individual performances. And for once, not about Westbrook and Durant lighting up the scoreboard with 400 combined points or something. It was about the defensive efforts from James Harden on Kobe Bryant and Kendrick Perkins on Andrew Bynum.
Bynum had scored back-to-back baskets, one a dunk over Nazr Mohammed and the other a finish over Cole Aldrich. Perk checked back in and the Lakers went straight to Bynum in the post. Perk bullied him, pushed him, kept him off the block and Bynum missed almost the same look he had against Aldrich. After Perk came back in, Bynum didn’t score. I guarantee you if Oklahoma City doesn’t have Kendrick Perkins, Bynum goes for 30 on 15 or 16 shots. Instead, Bynum finished with 14 points on just 5-15 shooting. This type of game is exactly the reason I believe in Perk’s value. And you can bank on me calling back on it for a while if the discussion comes up again.
As for Harden, he played one of the more complete games of his career. The 16 points on 10 shots with three assists was typical, but his defense on Kobe was downright inspirational. You could tell Harden absolutely relished the chance to stop No. 24. He played with more energy and aggression, bodying Bryant, contesting everything and forcing him into tough shots. In the end it was 24 points for Kobe on 7-24 shooting. And Harden was the one dancing his way back down the court after a dagger 3.
It’s obvious that the Thunder are an elite team. Nobody should’ve needed these last couple of games to fully understand that. But beating the Celtics and Lakers almost 24 hours within each other is pretty impressive.
And something I definitely had trouble picturing in 2009.
- I had a close eye on the second unit as it started the fourth quarter with an 11-point lead. The group played for almost four minutes and when Westbrook and Durant re-entered the game, the group was a -4. Not terrible, not great. The cause for the lapse too was not because of Reggie Jackson, but Harden who turned it over on consecutive possessions.
- I feel like saying it again: How good was Harden on Kobe? Really good, that’s how good.
- Here’s the thing with Barkley’s criticisms about OKC: He’s right. The Thunder shoot a lot of jumpers. And if by chance KD has a terrible night and Russell Westbrook has a terrible night and James Harden has a terrible night and they can make their jumpshots, the Thunder will lose. But that’s just common sense, isn’t it? Everyone wants easy baskets. It’s kind of the point. The more you get, the better you are. But the teams he likes — Miami, San Antonio, Chicago — how are they any different? The Spurs are in fact a little worse in this regard. They don’t just rely on jumpshots; they rely on 3-pointers. The Heat get easy buckets in transition, but other than that, are they so different than the Thunder? They hope that three guys carry the load and shoot the ball well. Isn’t that just kind of… basketball?
- Rob Lowe was courtside in OKC sitting next to Aubrey McClendon. I don’t know why. I’m guessing he’s trying to buddy up with KD so he can break his retirement story in 15 years.
- KD was fairly spectacular. On 12-22 shooting, 33 points, six assists, three steals and four rebounds. Complete player.
- Westbrook’s line is average, but he was quietly really good. Hit some big shots, made some big passes and played some big defense. Kind of your classic mediocre Westbrook game were he was actually pretty great.
- Via Darnell Mayberry, a fan behind the basket by the Laker bench was holding a sign that said “Team Vanessa.”
- Harden was dealing with a sprained left wrist and you could see it had a pretty good influence on his first jumper. Harden’s follow-through looked a bit awkward and he bricked his shot badly. He avoided most jumpers and really focused on going to the rim. But he wasn’t passing up that last 3. He wanted that one.
- Serge Ibaka with a nice double-double — 11 points and 13 rebounds. Just one on the offensive glass though.
- OK, OK, OK — I won’t call someone gay. Geez, Grant Hill.
- Perk didn’t turn the ball over. How about that one?
- Daequan Cook got a little trigger happy there in the third. You know what? I really don’t mind. Because I think it’s going in every time he shoots it. He might be in a slump, but the dude is a straight shooter. He can heat up and knock down a batch of deep balls. I can live with a little outburst every now and then.
- Kind of says it all when the announcers just assumed the fourth quarter tip slam was from Ibaka when it was actually Perk. Or just that Dick Stockton is pretty old.
- OKC’s fast break can be a thing of beauty. The one-touch passing is just artistic.
- Reggie Jackson dunked. Like a real, attack-the-rim, aggressive dunk. More, please.
- And here’s your official Reggie Jackson nickname, via @blokcparty: “Mr. Okctober.” Brilliant.
- How does the ball end up in Jackson’s hands so often at the end of quarters? Oh that’s right, I know how.
- A “The Beard” shirt got some solid national TV love. Props to that guy wearing it.
- Cole Aldrich looked a bit overwhelmed in his 10 minutes. But the thing is, he’s not ever going to start making obvious impacts on a game without legit playing time. And what he does is never glaringly bad. I think he’s good enough to at least warrant consideration for Mohammed’s minutes.
- The Lakers, with Bynum and Gasol, had only eight total offensive rebounds. That’s just 11 surrendered by OKC on back-to-back nights. That would’ve been a good single game for the Thunder. Still would be, in fact.
- I’m in Orlando covering All-Star Weekend, so I wasn’t in the building, but man, I wish I would’ve been.
Next up: All-Star break.