With 6:48 left in the game and Oklahoma City up on the Bulls 79-78, the Thunder bench turned over the game over to the starters. Here they were, on the road in crunchtime against a very good defensive team. Possessions become gold and good shots the most valuable currency in basketball there is.
You know where I’m going with this.
It’s what we’re all curious about. At least I know I am. Without James Harden, a secondary ball-handler and creator to step in and run clean offense, how would the Thunder respond? Can they count on Russell Westbrook to get them into sound sets? Without that bail-out pick-and-roll option with Harden, what does the final five minutes of a tight game look like? Against the Spurs in this situation, the Thunder mostly failed. Westbrook attempted to engineer the offense and played recklessly, giving away good possessions with forced shots or silly decisions. Really, this was OKC’s second trial run in this situation.
This time, they passed with flying colors. How? That guy wearing No. 35 showed up.
Isolation jumpers, baseline runners, a filthy step-back one-legged dagger. It looks like KD’s got his talent back.
I’m as guilty as anyone with all this post-Harden crunchtime talk in overlooking the fact that the Thunder have maybe the finest closer in the entire world already on the roster. OKC has a built-in plan and it’s called Kevin Durant. Thus far this season though, Durant hasn’t been himself. He’s been trying to create, trying to distribute and playing a bit passively. That was again the case the first 42 minutes of this game, but as he tends to do, he woke up, scoring 10 of his 24 in the final frame, leading OKC to a very solid win in Chicago.
I realize I make it sound like Harden ran everything late in games last season and that was hardly the case. Durant and Westbrook were two of the top fourth quarter scorers in the league and primarily, they were the focus of OKC’s late-game offense. But Harden did add another dimension, especially as a patchwork point guard while Westbrook slid off the ball.
Here’s how it played out tonight against the Bulls the last 6:30: Durant layup, Thabo layup, Westbrook layup, Durant jumper, Westbrook layup, Durant jumper, Durant jumper, Durant free throws, Kevin Martin free throws. All while playing extremely solid defense and controlling the glass. That’s how you close games. There were the usual head-scratching turnovers and some ugly possessions, but the Thunder knew where to go for points late in this one. I know you’re probably tired of talking Harden, but this is the theme this season is built around and each time the Thunder pass a crunchtime test, it’s a good sign for the future.
One thing that’s important to note as well: The Thunder probably don’t even have the opportunity to close without a tremendous effort from the bench, spearheaded by Eric Maynor. The closing of Durant and Westbrook was excellent reassurance, but almost as much as that was the return of Maynor’s extremely steady play. He’s a big reason a lot of Thunder fans felt the absence of Harden in the second unit as a creator could be overcome, but he didn’t play very well through the first four games. Tonight in 12 minutes he scored 10 points and dished out three assists, finishing a +10. It was easily Maynor’s best game of the season. OKC’s bench worked over Chicago’s and bailed out the starters from some bad stretches.
It’s a pretty ugly win for the Thunder, something that’s become a bit of an early theme. I don’t think this has to do with Harden as much as Westbrook and Durant playing so inconsistently, but the Thunder haven’t been very watchable so far. Or is that just me? They haven’t looked very exciting even a 20-point blowout over Toronto was a bit dull.
My point is, I don’t think the Thunder have played very well yet. They don’t really look like themselves, especially that guy wearing No. 35. He did though in the final six minutes tonight. Maybe the Durantula has roused from his summer slumber and is ready to get back to destroying defenses again. Because if so, crunchtime questions answered, and then some.
- Let’s talk about Westbrook’s game: He was good, despite being bad. In other words, he was very Russell Westbrook. The 12 assists? Good. The 7-of-22 shooting? Bad. The two turnovers? Good. The shaky defense on Hinrich? Bad. The big driving layups late? Good. The seven 3-point attempts? Bad.
- Seriously though, what was the deal with the 3-pointers?
- Westbrook did a very nice job assisting, but his assists are just… different. They all feel like isolated events. As in they’re individual great plays to set someone up, but they come and go because it’s not like he’s consistently creating great looks for teammates. I don’t know if that made sense, but it did in my head.
- Scott Brooks used Serge Ibaka a whole lot at center tonight and it mostly worked. I didn’t even mention above how solid of a game Ibaka played, his best of the season. He finished with 21 points, nine boards and four blocks, played very good defense inside and was active on the defensive glass. He wasn’t much of an offensive factor late, but he carried OKC offensively in the first half, notably the first quarter.
- One problem with Ibaka at center: He still tries to block everything. And with no other big presence in there to rebound, it opens the door wide open for offensive rebounds. But in a matchup like this against the Bulls it made a whole lot of sense to play him for extended minutes there with Durant at the 4. It forced Tom Thibodeau’s hand and let Brooks control the matchups.
- Martin turned down some very good fourth quarter looks, two specifically that I can think of. While obviously the Thunder have very talented offensive players to give it back to, when you get a clean look like that, you’ve got to take it. Because when OKC tries to run offense with under eight on the shot clock, it routinely ends in a bad shot or a turnover. It’s a lot like a hitter swinging at the first pitch. It might be the best pitch you’re going to see in the at-bat so if you’re good and can nail it, pull the trigger.
- Something lacking this season for OKC is that KD hasn’t gotten to the line with great regularity. He only attempted two free throws tonight, both coming to seal the game with a few seconds left.
- As anyone that’s made their way ’round these parts knows, I defend Kendrick Perkins quite a bit. Mainly because I won’t deny his value as a defender, notably in the post. But man, these are the types of games where you look at his 20 minutes on the floor and wonder why.
- Speaking of, Perk put up an impressive nine trillion his first nine minutes.
- I think I’ve mentioned this already but Ibaka is obviously more aggressive with his jumper. Which is good. But he’s hurrying it. By my completely made up estimation, holding it for half a beat longer increases his shooting percentage 20 percent.
- I had a revelation tonight about Martin: He’s better playing with Durant and Westbrook and than Harden was, but not as good running the second unit. The idea is that Maynor can remedy some of that, and he certainly did in the second half. But as an alpha of the second unit, Martin doesn’t seem to have that same control that Harden did. Maybe in due time.
- Ibaka hit a corner 3. I had to towel off after that.
- I feel like Thabo is shooting about eight percent for his career on shots where he pump fakes a defender by and then takes a dribble in to shoot a wide open jumper.
- Stat: This is the first time since his rookie year that KD has gone five straight games without scoring at least 25. His longest career streak is 12 games.
- The only starter tonight that was a plus was Thabo, who was a +13. Thabo also played 39 minutes,
- Brooks shortened his rotation tonight, going with just nine. No Perry Jones III or Reggie Jackson.
- Hasheem Thabeet went down with a rolled ankle early in the fourth and had to leave the game. He was cleared to return, but didn’t. If OKC’s without him, things get a little dicey in terms of backup center. Dicey as in, it’s Daniel Orton.
- A long rebound was tipped out to Westbrook who caught it in stride and sprinted down for an uncontested run-out dunk. To which Reggie Miller said that the Thunder should do more of that. Totally agree. Uncontested run-out dunks seem to be a pretty high percentage play.
- Late first half, Carlos Boozer tried to bully Ibaka on a drive, knocking Ibaka back on a jumpstop. Ibaka recovered and immediately elevated, rejecting Boozer’s shot. It was an incredible defensive play.
- One thing that might help Perk as a rebounder: If he jumped.
- I definitely plan on writing more about this once we have more stats that actually bear it out, but one thing is pretty clear in the transition to Kevin Martin from James Harden: The Thunder are more of a ball movement, sharing team. OKC racked up another 23 assists tonight, after having 24 against the Raptors. The Thunder could go weeks without hitting 20 last season.
Next up: Home against the Pistons Friday.