Oklahoma City’s mini-funk seems to be over. At least for one night.
The Thunder welcomed back Thabo Sefolosha with a 103-90 win in Denver on Thursday against a shorthanded Nuggets squad and didn’t seem too tested doing it. Sure, Denver made some runs, but that’s what NBA teams do. But this felt more like the OKC team that entered the All-Star break as opposed to the lethargic team we’ve seen for most nights since.
Sefolosha only played 12 minutes, with Scott Brooks only using him for his customary first- and third-quarter shifts and not re-inserting him for his second stint in either half. So it’s tough to say whether Sefolosha’s presence alone settled the Thunder into a good rhythm. More likely, Oklahoma City just came out with the focus it typically shows after a loss, particularly a bad one. But there’s no doubt the Thunder played with the defensive intensity and effort from the start that has seemed so lacking in the sluggish performances over the last couple of weeks.
OKC also did a great job sharing the ball for most of the game, finishing with 22 assists against 13 turnovers. There were long stretches where the Thunder played the way fans wish they would, with crisp ball movement and decision making. Daequan Cook settled right back into his role off the bench with one of his better shooting nights in recent weeks. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed played shot-altering defense in the paint (which, to be fair, should be automatic against a Nuggets team that made a trade earlier in the day). It was, for the most part, visually pleasing basketball.
And one of the key players for the Thunder came from the guy many fans wanted to see lose his spot in the rotation to someone the Thunder could have, but didn’t, trade for. Reggie Jackson had one of the best games he’s had this season, maybe the best one since his first game replacing Eric Maynor in the rotation. Jackson was decisive, active and assertive. He finished the game with a Collison-like +13 off the bench, the most of any OKC reserve and tied for second-best on the team. Most importantly, he used the athleticism that he sometimes seems to keep hidden away, mostly by going up for tough rebounds. It was a good sign for Jackson going forward.
Now, let’s not get carried away. It sure felt like the kind of game that could snap the Thunder out of the midseason funk it seems they’ve been in. But the Nuggets just traded away Nene, and didn’t yet have JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf in uniform. (As to why in the heck they’d trade for McGee … well, this isn’t the time or the place.) It’s not quite the same situation the Thunder were in last year when they got blown out at Orlando on the day of the Jeff Green trade, but this wasn’t a full-strength team, and it’s a team that might find itself fighting for the last playoff spot down the stretch. We’ll know more about whether OKC has snapped out of its mini-swoon after Friday night’s game against San Antonio.
But it’s encouraging to see the Thunder come right out of the gate after a tough loss and start a game with defense and ball movement. As the team eases back into the rotation that it hopes, barring injury, it will be employing through the end of the season, there’s not a lot of time to waste. After the San Antonio game is a date against what used to be the Portland Trailblazers, but the schedule is downright brutal through the entire first week of April. The Spurs could be right on the Thunder’s heels pretty soon if OKC isn’t careful and stops dropping games against the likes of the Cavs or by blowing huge leads like against the Rockets.
It’s a good start, though. That’s for sure. Anything less than a comfortable win against the Nuggets would have been a sign that the funk is continuing. But there’s hope the worst is behind Oklahoma City, and that’s good considering what’s ahead of it.
- Thabo was wearing a legging-type thing on his leg. I’m not sure how that might help a sore foot injury, but that’s why I don’t get paid the big bucks to be an NBA trainer. In both halves, Sefolosha checked out at about what his normal time would be. It’s just that he never checked back in. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets on the second half of the back-to-back, but against a team like San Antonio, which would be a good game to have him available for extended minutes if need be.
- Russell Westbrook, who finished with 23 points, got off to a 3-3 start to the game, but all three were on jumpers. That seems to usually be a sign he’ll settle for jumpers too much throughout the rest of the game. There were definitely a few ill-advised jumpers that followed, but what else is new? Westbrook drilled a clutch 3-pointer later in the game, and finished with 23 points on a not-terribly-inefficient 17 shots. And Westbrook, who is kind of a bellwether for the Thunder when it comes to defense, was well-engaged for most of the game. It was good to see after some games when Westbrook was clearly not giving it his best effort on that end.
- In other box score news, Kevin Durant recovered from a poor start to score a ho-hum 24 points on 15 shots. Had he not fallen in love so much with the long ball (1-5 on the night) when he was still struggling, he would have had an even better statistical night. If there’s one thing in his game that it seems like he doesn’t do as well as he used to, it’s finding a way to get to the line when his shot isn’t falling. Durant was able to get it going anyway, but it’s frustrating to me when he has nearly as many 3-point attempts as free throws.
- There were lots of Thunder fans in the building, which seems to happen a lot in Denver. I know there are lots of Oklahoma expats in Denver, but it’s fun to see more and more Thunder blue, and to hear more cheers, with Oklahoma City on the road. It’s a nice change of pace from the old days when there seemed to be as many fans of other teams as Thunder fans in OKC for home games. Now the tables have turned a bit.
- Again, it’s just one game, but boy, Cook looks much more comfortable in his role as the last man off the bench. Eleven points in 16 minutes is the kind of burst the Thunder count on.
- Corey Brewer is always smiling.
- It ended up kind of getting ruined by the Nuggets’ run at the end of the first half, but an old theme came back today with the Thunder getting back to its normal rotation: The bench extended the lead in the first half. In the days before Maynor’s injury, it seemed automatic that the Thunder’s superior depth would overcome the bench play of even other deep teams like Denver. That hasn’t always been the case, even with Royal Ivey’s inspired play over the last several weeks. OKC just looks more comfortable with its normal rotations.
- It was a huge run that turned a 14-point Nugget deficit into a four-point lead, then a one-point lead at halftime. But Denver gave the Thunder the lead back before touching the ball in the second half thanks to two straight defensive three seconds calls on Timofey Mozgov. Then Mozgov fouled Ibaka, who hit one of two to give the Thunder a two-point lead. Not a good sequence for Mozgov. Can’t recall seeing anything like that before.
- The Thunder’s cold stretch spanning each side of halftime featured a 1-15 shooting slump. Gross.
- KD had a rather nasty and-one dunk in the second half. Al Harrington deserves a pat on the back for not getting out of the way, though.
- I like Kenneth Faried. I didn’t think his game would translate to the NBA because of his relative lack of size. I was wrong. I don’t know that he’ll ever be much better than he already is, but he’s clearly a valuable player to have on your bench at the very least.
- The Thunder broadcast crew, in a roundabout way, made a point I hadn’t thought of yet. Starting on Wednesday and ending shortly after the Thursday trade deadline, five former No. 1 or No. 2 overall draft picks were either traded or released: Kwame Brown, Greg Oden, Hasheem Thabeet, Marcus Camby and Andrew Bogut. That’s a lot.
- Ibaka started the best sequence of the night with a nice block. It led to a timeout-inducing alley-oop dunk by James Harden. “That’s Thunder basketball,” I’m sure Grant Long said or thought.
- Reggie Jackson’s strong night was encapsulated by a nice sequence over the course of a few possessions in the fourth quarter. First, he got the ball late in the shot clock after a scramble for a tipped ball. He didn’t hesitate in slicing into the lane for a tough layup. Then he knocked down a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, followed by using his athleticism to get an offensive board in traffic on a possession that ended in a Thunder basket. He’s good enough to play with that kind of fearlessness and aggression every night, and he should.
- I enjoyed Westbrook doing a reverse dunk well after a whistle in the 4th quarter with the Thunder up big, and getting booed for it. Clearly, so did he.
- When was the last time KD had five fouls with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter? I’m glad he didn’t foul out.
- Westbrook appeared to trip (or faint?) after taking a knock to the head late in the game. But he seemed to be OK based on the (non) reactions of his teammates.
- Jackson and Westbrook got some minutes together, which is rare. Those probably would have been Ivey’s minutes in the small-ball lineup before Sefolosha’s return. I didn’t see too much to be excited about either way.
Next up: Friday against San Antonio at home.