Well, it wasn’t going to last forever. That’s the kind of thing you say when you’re trying to pretend you’re not mad about losing.
When you win a dozen games in a row, you kind of forget how frustrating losing can be. Bad turnovers are magnified, questionable calls infuriating. There’s a whole lot of excuses the Thunder could bust out for this one — no Kevin Martin being the best one — but there’s a simple reality to it: The Wolves outplayed OKC for 48 minutes. Minnesota led end to end, hit shots when they needed them, chewed the Thunder apart in the first half and were the better side this Thursday evening.
That’s when you need to remember the Thunder are 21-5 and just ended a 12-game winning streak. Losing happens. And I have bad news: It’s gonna happen again. And again. And probably 15 more times on top of that.
Coming off a physical game in Atlanta 24 hours ago, the Thunder appeared to be walking into a trap. And that was before their third leading scorer was ruled out. On the road against a hungry and finally full strength Wolves team that was playing on TNT for the first time in seven years. Add all of that up and you had an Admiral Akbar special.
When the Thunder cut Minnesota’s lead to one with 10:03 left, it looked to me like the firestorm the Wolves had the first three quarters was finally quelled. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were appearing to enter Takeover Mode and it was pretty easy to picture the superior Thunder putting a stranglehold on the game as it neared winning time.
But that’s when J.J. Barea reminded everyone he’s the king of the Thunder Killers. The little one drilled a 20-foot jumper, hit a 3, hit a layup, hit another 3, made one of two from the line, hit a deep 3 and then topped it all off by drawing an iffy charge on Durant with 2:24 left. The flashbacks to the 2011 Western Finals against the Mavs were fierce, and painful. If you weren’t saying things you really didn’t mean about Barea during that fourth quarter, then I’m not sure you’re really a Thunder fan.
It was just one of those games where the Thunder dug a nice little hole and Scott Brooks deployed his small lineup to jumpstart the team. It definitely worked, and a huge part of the credit goes to KD who made it work because he adequately defended Kevin Love. In fact, I think he did the best work on Love of anyone the whole night. The smallball group took Nikola Pekovic out of the game, who absolutely crushed OKC in the first half, and allowed the Thunder to switch every screen and jump passing lanes. They forced some turnovers, grabbed long rebounds and got out in transition, finally finding a flow.
But it was one of those scramble games, where everything felt reckless and helter skelter. That happens when OKC gets behind, because Westbrook’s competitive juices kick into overdrive. He starts trying to rebound everything, flies around like a demon and takes it upon himself to engineer a comeback. His toughness and spirit are admirable, but sometimes, it’s counterproductive. The wildness can backfire and result in turnovers, forced shots and empty possessions.
And there was definitely a little of that tonight, but not as much as you might think. At least not until late. People are going to point his overall attempts (28) and start the Gripe About Westbrook thing, but look at the play-by-play. When OKC had it to three with 8:56 left, Westbrook took only one shot for roughly four minutes. He didn’t really start chucking until OKC got down double-digits and needing something to fall just to get close again.
What clearly hurt Westbrook is that it was only about him and Durant. Serge Ibaka was a complete non-factor on the offensive end (he only took three shots in the second half, none in the fourth quarter), and without Martin, there wasn’t that spot-up option. Reggie Jackson got Martin’s playing time tonight (more on that later) and I think immediately about the open 3 he clanked with about seven minutes left and OKC down seven. Obviously you can’t guarantee Martin makes that, but the percentages are certainly in his favor.
The Thunder had an uphill battle facing them tonight. Surviving this road trip with the winning streak intact was going to be a massive challenge, and this game all along appeared to possibly be the most dicey of the three. The second night of a back-to-back, on the road, blah blah blah all that stuff. I had hopes and dreams of closing the season on a 72-game winning streak to finish 78-4, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
- The Thunder actually had two 12-game streaks snapped tonight. The one they had going this season, and the one over the Wolves specifically. Tonight’s loss is the first in the last 13 meetings to the Wolves.
- It looked to me that Barea flopped on KD. You make the call. Mainly because once the Thunder got that mismatch, everyone in the universe knew that was the move Barea was going to go for there once Durant drove on him. There’s a bit of contact — no denying that — but certainly not enough to send Barea sprawling onto his back. Like I said, he was baiting KD, waiting for the first bump and he was going to lay down. I’d fine him for it, mostly just based on reputation.
- OK, so why did Brooks go with Jackson and not Jeremy Lamb? Practically speaking, I think it was to try and defend Minnesota’s guard heavy group, led by Barea and joined by Alexey Shved/Ridnour/Rubio. Still, considering the confidence and skill Lamb showed in Atlanta last night, his shooting ability seemed to be very necessary tonight. I don’t have a problem playing Jackson. But I don’t understand why you don’t give Lamb a few minutes too.
- Pekovic completely destructed Perk, specifically in the first half. He scored 18 points on 8-12 as the Wolves essentially pick-and-rolled Perk to death. It was hard to watch.
- Kevin Love was in a pretty rough shooting slump coming into tonight, so naturally, he busted out of it big time against OKC.
- That said, OKC’s defense had a lot to do with that. Ibaka once again got lost ball-watching and overhelping on penetration, abandoning Love on the perimeter for reasons known only to God.
- I love KD’s subtle addition to his post 3-pointer celebration. He still points up, but now he gives himself a slap on the butt.
- The Timberwolves had 20 assists on 22 made baskets. In the first half. For the game, 27 on 37.
- Again, instead of adjusting his rotation with Kevin Martin out, Scott Brooks just decided to replace him with Reggie Jackson. Which at one point in the second quarter had a lineup of Maynor, Jackson, Thabo, Collison and Thabeet on the floor. Where are points coming from with that group?
- The bench added just seven total points tonight. Martin seems to be pretty important.
- That and-1 KD had off the top of the backboard. So sick.
- The Thunder looked tired to me in the fourth quarter. Rightfully so. Last night’s game in Atlanta was tough, and Durant played 41 minutes, Westbrook 44, Ibaka 40 and Thabo 44.
- It’s one thing to lose to the Wolves, but to lose and without Ricky Rubio doing anything cool is a real kick in the nards.
- Surprisingly, the Thunder didn’t do all that poorly on the glass. The Wolves had 12 offensive rebounds, but they didn’t crush OKC or anything. It was more about Minnesota’s movement and shotmaking than anything else.
- Eight turnovers for Westbrook. He hadn’t had more than five since Dec. 7. He accounted for half of OKC’s total tonight.
- Despite an ugly game for OKC, KD still played beautifully.
- Things you just can’t live with: The Thunder were down 50-41 with about 30 seconds in the half. Ibaka blocked Kevin Love, leaving the Thunder a likely final shot before the break and a chance to cut it to six or seven. Perk corralled the ball and immediately threw a wild outlet pass that was picked off and quickly turned into a Minnesota 3-pointer. Those things can’t happen.
- Without Martin, OKC’s spacing looked totally jacked up. There just wasn’t any real movement or flow. The Thunder finished with 17 assists, but it felt more like seven. It was all isolation, all one-on-one creation stuff. Felt a lot like last season.
- But seriously though, why is Westbrook missing so many easy layups lately?
- Really hope Greg Stiemsma plays for the Cavs at some point in his career because I’d totally buy a “Cleveland Stiemsma” shirt.
- So many early fouls tonight. There was absolutely no flow to the game in the first half.
- The Wolves featured five white players on the floor at the same time for fairly extended minutes tonight. Amazing.
- Reggie Miller Line of the Night: “Two for one means two possessions for one.” Note: Real quote.
Next up: Four days off and then the Heat in Miami on Christmas.