For the first time in 80 games, the Thunder trotted out a different starting five tonight in Portland. No Thabo Sefolosha (neck strain), no Serge Ibaka (chest contusion). It was set to be an uphill battle for Oklahoma City, taking on a Blazers team that was 13-4 at home (including nine straight wins) without two starters.
And to make it even more uphill: Russell Westbrook shot 5-of-21 and Kevin Martin went 1-of-8, including 0-of-5 from 3.
Yet the Thunder still won. Somehow.
Oh wait, here’s how: Because Kevin Durant.
The Thunder finished with 87 points, Durant having almost 40 percent of them with 33. As long as he was on the floor, the Thunder had hope offensively. KD scored 22 of his 33 in the second half. OKC scored 45 in the second half. I’ll let you do the math on that one. We’re going to have a number of good MVP examples for KD at the end of the year, but this game could rank highly. He carried the Thunder tonight.
But you can’t do it all alone and KD didn’t. Westbrook didn’t shoot the ball well, but he drilled a big time 3 late in the fourth, flirted with a triple-double (nine assists, eight reboudns) and locked down on Damian Lillard. There was DeAndre Liggins, who is almost as much a story as KD with his 11 points and nine rebounds. Kendrick Perkins stepped up with a season-high 12 rebounds and played really good defense on LaMarcus Aldridge in the fourth. Nick Collison Nick Collison’d. It was about surviving 48 minutes and each man did his part.
You kind of have to credit the Thunder culture for some of this. There’s a very real “next man up” philosophy within the team and without two starters, it wasn’t about who OKC didn’t have, but who was going to step up.
As well as Liggins played, I think what he represents is maybe more important than production. This was almost a team-building exercise for the Thunder to validate the things Scott Brooks preaches about needing every man, about expecting you to step up when your name is called. Liggins did that. The knockdown shots, the spirited, intense defense, the gritty winning plays — I feel like if you wanted to cut a tape to show someone what a Thunder player is supposed to play like, it would be Liggins 40 minutes from tonight.
Having that kind of player on your bench is a great thing. Royal Ivey sort of embodied that last season, a player willing to step up and bulldog people and giving full effort every second he was on the floor. Ivey though had a very specific veteran role. Liggins though, seems like he has bigger potential. Let’s not get carried away and forget about how terrific a defender Thabo is because nobody is saying Liggins should grab his minutes.
But you can almost understand how difficult it can be at times for Brooks. He’s got Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III (who played decent minutes tonight) and Liggins. How do you work all of them in without it being at the expense of your best players? It’s not easy to make room for five guys at one time in a 48-minute game. But as well as Liggins has played recently, Brooks’ hand has probably been forced, at least for now.
(And yet for the most part, OKC’s bench is a big concern. I don’t get it either.)
This win though. There are games you give away and regret like the loss in Washington, and then there are wins you feel like you stole. As long as KD is playing, I never really totally feel like the Thunder won a game they shouldn’t, because he’s pretty much the best player on the floor every night. But topping the Blazers tonight was going to be a major achievement, and that was just with the pregame news. Add on that Westbrook and Martin stunk shooting the ball and it’s kind of remarkable OKC crawled out of the Rose Garden with a win.
- Quick and dirty recap: The Thunder went up 84-74 on Westbrook’s 3 with 3:34 left. Aldridge made a jumper, then made two free throws, then Batum added a bucket. With 1:57, it was down to four. Then a few stops for both sides and after a KD turnover, Batum his a transition 3 to cut it to one with 21 seconds left. The Blazers, clearly needing to foul, pressed OKC in the backcourt and with an eight-count looming, Westbrook tried to push it across halfcourt. It looked to me like Westbrook lost the ball, Lillard sort of brushed his face and Westbrook crumpled to the floor how his face. No call, which I think was right. Batum streaked at the basket, Perk challenged him to force a miss, then secured the rebound and split a pair of free throws. A crazy, helter skelter finish.
- I really liked that lefty dish from Westbrook.
- As has become kind of standard, Perk switched to guard Aldridge exclusively in the fourth quarter. And he did a tremendous job on him. Now, I know what you’re saying. Yep, Aldridge finished with 33 on 15-26 shooting. And yep, he went 5-7 for 12 points in the fourth quarter, mostly against Perk. But if you watched it, so many of those shots were extremely well contested, but Aldridge just knocked ‘em down because he’s an awesome offensive talent. The last two were the ones that counted though, with Aldridge missed a 15-footer down four with 1:57 left, then missing the potential game-tying shot with three seconds left. Both times Perk was right there on him, a hand right at the top of his release.
- I found it interesting that even though Collison started, Brooks still kept his minutes (22 tonight) around the normal amount. I’m assuming that was intentional.
- The Blazers did a good job of slowing down KD late. They switched the shorter Wesley Matthews on to Durant and let him body KD and use his hands to slap and swipe at the ball. The game was pretty physical and the officials let a lot of body contact go, so KD had trouble shedding Matthews.
- OK, why did Liggins start and not Kevin Martin? Or even Jeremy Lamb? Obviously in hindsight, I think Brooks made the right call, but you could call it the James Harden Effect. Brooks learned last season that Harden had his rhythm completely thrown off when he played with the starters in the first quarter. So he kept Martin in his role. Key difference: Kevin Martin is not James Harden. It worked out with Liggins, but I’d like to have seen Martin in the role.
- KD has taken a bunch of 3s lately. He took nine tonight, and 11 against the Lakers.
- Brooks used Jones in a spot early in the first half and while his minutes weren’t that notable, he played OK in eight minutes.
- Having DeAndre Liggins guard you would really suck. Just ask Wes Matthews, who 2-8 with Liggins on him and could barely get off a shot.
- The Thunder didn’t really exploit that bad Blazers bench, mainly because Brooks had to put together a patchwork rotation missing two starters. But Portland only got six points from its bench, which is bad. OKC only got 14.
- One of my favorite Thunder-Blazers traditions is when Nic Batum starts playing KD super physical and tries to flop a bunch after Durant has completely roasted him all night.
- Someone on Twitter compared Liggins to Tony Allen. I think that’s a pretty quality comparison, though I think Liggins has more offensive upside.
- OKC had 46 points in the paint tonight. Great stat from the Thunder broadcast: When OKC scores fewer than 40 in the paint, they’re 6-6. When they score more, they’re 23-2.
- Reggie Jackson was better. Not great, but better.
- It’s getting to the point that if you don’t double KD in the post, you’re almost guaranteed to be giving up two points.
- That charge Westbrook was called for in the third quarter basically happened because he’s bigger, stronger and faster than Lillard.
- Nick Collison has an incredible ability to just throw the ball softly up on the rim and somehow it drops. I think he could almost do it without looking. What I’m trying to say is, Nick has magical powers.
- What was the deal with Kevin Martin tonight? It looked to me like he was trying to be a bit too aggressive and forced a bunch of contested 3s. Durant and Westbrook were clearly looking for him late in the fourth, but sometimes it’s frustrating how easily Martin can be removed from the offensive equation.
- Possibly related: Martin was a -11 tonight.
- I really liked the Jones-Durant pick-and-roll combo. So much size and athleticism.
- Mini Film Study here to show an example of a high IQ basketball play: With 8:30 left in the first quarter, and about eight seconds on the 24, KD had Nicolas Batum isolated on him. Luke Babbitt was shading Durant as his man, Perry Jones, stood on the opposite baseline. So Durant called for Jones to come set a pick on Batum, which forced Babbitt to leave his spot on the left block shadowing Durant and check Jones as he came to set the pick. KD wasn’t actually calling for a screen-and-roll though, because he immediately went hard to his left as soon as Babbitt took a few steps over to guard Jones. Durant beat Batum and wasn’t uninterrupted on his path to the rim as the lane was cleared out by simply calling for a pick. KD is smart. (Here’s video of the play.)
- How about that lineup halfway through the first quarter? Westbrook, Liggins, Durant, Perkins and Thabeet. No for real, that lineup actually happened.
- Tonight was the first game Ibaka hasn’t played since Feb. 24, 2010.
- Thabo and Ibaka are both day-to-day.
- Brian Davis Line of the Season: “What is going on here? They’re bumpin’ and thumpin’, it’s like a gentleman’s club but they’re keeping their whistles in their pockets.”
Next up: At Phoenix Monday.