The big takeaway here is, 81-1 is still in play.
The Thunder looked a lot more like the Thunder tonight against the Blazers, pulling away with a very solid fourth quarter that featured crisp execution, smart decisions and nice shot-making. The story circling around this team is clearly still about the former No. 13, but if you just looked at the box score and ignored names, it was a pretty typical night for this team. Seven-four total points from their big three with 32 from Russell Westbrook, 23 from Kevin Durant and 19 from third scorer guy.
It’s only 24 hours later, but it was clear the Thunder are starting to figure themselves out a bit this post-beard world. Kevin Martin is going to fit just fine as a third scorer, Durant took on a bigger role creating and Westbrook threw up a very Westbrookian middle finger at his critics tonight.
“It’s a good thing I stuck with Russell, huh?”
That was the first thing Scott Brooks said postgame when he sat down at the podium. It’s a tired storyline around these parts and nobody is more sick of it than Brooks and the Thunder, but it’s something that’s going to follow this team. Just as unsurprising as Westbrook’s rough night against the Spurs was Thursday, his outstanding bounce back should be equally so. Westbrook played fantastically, controlling the game and himself, picking spots and making shots. No one should need reminders of what a breathtaking player Westbrook is at this point, but if you’ve forgotten or are choosing to be one of those stubborn, clueless critics, there it was.
It’s the real truth to the future of this team: As Westbrook and Durant go, they go. I’ve said it since the trade that what this means is a bigger burden on them and I’m convinced they’re up to the task. It’s not hard to really work in pieces when Durant and Westbrook are running your show. Chemistry has been the concern, but good players tend to figure out how to play together.
“I’ve never once went into a practice or a game thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I’m really worried about our chemistry tonight,” Brooks said. “[Chemistry] was never a question. It really wasn’t. I think when you talk about chemistry with our group and if you question it, I don’t think you’ve been around our group as long as I have.
“James [Harden] was a good player,” Brooks continued. “Don’t get me wrong. But he wasn’t Dr. James. He wasn’t helping the group stick together. All the guys do. Russell, Kevin, down the line, Perk, Nick. All the guys. That’s what makes good teams.”
But don’t mistake it: Just because the Thunder got back on track and won a game doesn’t mean this whole thing is fine all of sudden. There honestly weren’t too many hiccups tonight, but this thing is a work in progress. Drawing conclusions major conclusions at this point feels very irresponsible and short-sighted.
Still, reason to be encouraged. The Blazers aren’t a contender, but they are a solid team with some pieces and the Thunder played stiff defensively, owned the glass, took care of the ball and executed sets. More than anything, it was a simple reminder that Westbrook and Durant are really damn good and as long as you have them, your team is going to be kind of alright.
That return to Thunder normalcy featured an explosive bench that commanded the game and not only held on to a lead but extended it. Every bench player was a plus, highlighted by Martin (+11), Nick Collison (+11), Hasheem Thabeet (+13) and Eric Maynor (+12). Total, the Thunder got 42 points, 14 rebounds and five assists from their bench. Which again, if you covered up the names, would seem just like your standard OKC game.
On that defense: The sample size is obviously small, but holding the Spurs to 86 and then the Blazers to just 92 on 36 percent shooting is something to take note of. The Thunder seem to playing a very solid inside-out defense, taking away anything easy on the interior and essentially daring teams to beat them from the outside. The Blazers were hot early on hitting 7-of-10 from 3, but fizzled out as the game progressed, hitting just two of their next 16.
What does this win mean? It means the Thunder are 1-1. It means that they still have good players, that they aren’t going falling apart and that they still possess the ability to take care of their business on the backs of their stars. And that their bench is still pretty good too.
- I don’t know what made me think of this tonight, but it’s so clear to me that this team is more KD’s than it ever was before. He just owns it. Not that it was ever in serious question but even on a night where Westbrook dominated offensively, it was Durant’s game.
- On KD: His final line was packed — 23 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists — and it was a reflection of how well-rounded his game is getting. He ran the point on his own, found open teammates and picked spots beautifully. His cross of Sasha Pavlovic was ridiculously awesome, but what was even better about it was that Durant didn’t try and cap it off with some forced dunk attempt or off balance runner. He made the right play right after it, hitting Collison perfectly with a bounce pass for a dunk. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite Durant plays ever.
- KD on his rebounding and if averaging a double-double is a goal: “I don’t like to talk about it but yeah, it’s on the back of my mind. I just to go in there and help the bigs out.”
- KD on running more point: “There were a couple passes I wish I could have back. But just trying to make the right play. The defense always thinks I’m trying to score so I’m just going to find my teammates and make the open passes and it might free me up a little bit as well.”
- One cause for concern: Serge Ibaka has not played very well. His shot isn’t dropping (it looks like he’s rushing it because he’s trying to be more aggressive with it), he hasn’t been all that effective inside and considering his play from preseason, his impact has been disappointing. Ibaka started pretty slow last season so maybe he’s a casualty in trying to figure things out a bit, but Ibaka has got to play better. For one, he got that $48 million extension but more than that, the Thunder need him.
- Really interesting moment early in the game: Perk was posting Hickson and called for the ball as KD dribbled on the wing. KD was clearly reluctant to give it to him, but Perk insisted almost with a “C’mon man!” look on his face. KD slung it in to him, Perk of course missing the baby hook and KD subtly shook his head as he backpedaled down the floor.
- That play out of the TV timeout with three minutes left for an Ibaka dunk. Woo wee.
- I know it was only one shot, but Jeremy Lamb looks like he’ll probably be better than James Harden. Yep, pretty convinced of it right now. Totally.
- Nick Collison’s diving save… my stars.
- Brooks described Collison’s game perfectly: “Nick. Nick was Nick.” Totally.
- Hasheem Thabeet is really good, really good, at being tall.
- Seriously though, Thabeet has put in pretty solid minutes thus far. He knows how to use his length, he communicated and he worked. He’s never going to live up to his draft status, but he can be a decent player. He’s turning in quality minutes and doing a job. Thabeet was so effective that Brooks stuck with him for some extended minutes down the stretch. He’s a foul machine, but who cares when your job is only to play 15 minutes a game.
- On that front, Kendrick Perkins left the game early with an apparent ankle injury which means Thabeet could be starting Sunday. Oh boy.
- Perk just knows how to guard LaMarcus Aldridge. He gets in his face and head, frustrates him and doesn’t let him have anything easy. Aldridge finished with 22 on 8-of-22 shooting and really struggled with Perk’s physicality.
- To start the second half the officials put the ball in play with KD still lacing up his shoes by the scorer’s table.
- Perry Jones III saw minutes in the first half. Just a few, but it was definitely nice to see him get in as a rotation guy.
- How would you describe Kevin Martin’s shot? It’s definitely not ugly, but it’s not exactly pretty either. It’s the Hilary Swank of jumpshots. Someone on Twitter nailed it I think: It’s like Jim Furyk’s swing. You wouldn’t teach it and it definitely looks funny, but it’s effective and has kind of a strange appeal to it.
- Man crush alert on me on Damian Lillard. I love that dude.
- I thought the reception to Martin was very tepid. Fans definitely cheered him, but it wasn’t even close to the roar Derek Fisher got. I expected a little more.
- The Thunder cut it close but finished their pregame routines just under the allotted 90 seconds.
- It was a little awkward in OKC’s locker room as the locker between KD and Russ was empty. That’s where Harden’s locker was and it was just a little strange to see no name above it and the doors closed up.
Next up: Sunday at home against the Hawks.