The Thunder went on the road Sunday to beat a now 31-35 Mavericks team, 107-101.
I’m probably overstating things here, but I think this might’ve been the Thunder’s most important win this season.
Not because of who they beat — though keep in mind the Mavs are still on the fringes of the playoffs and have been playing much better lately — but because of how they beat them.
The Thunder have had issues finishing close games at times in the second half of this season, appearing to exhaust their options pretty much at “Get Kevin Durant the ball.” Tonight, with the game tied at 101-101 and Durant waking up for a huge fourth quarter, the Thunder got the go-ahead bucket from Russell Westbrook and the clinching dagger from Thabo Sefolosha. Both coming via isolation, but regardless, two guys stepped up in big ways.
It wasn’t just those last two baskets though. It was the way Westbrook and Serge Ibaka carried the Thunder the first three quarters, opening the door for KD’s closing. Which is something we haven’t seen a ton of this season. A lot of that is due to the lack of opportunities Durant’s had to finish games in the clutch because of all the blowouts, but it’s no secret that KD hasn’t exactly performed in the way we’re used to in crunchtime recently.
Tonight, he scored 19 of his 31 in the fourth quarter on 7-11 shooting. He looked glazed over for three quarters, making me seriously wonder what’s up with him, but he completely snapped out of it those final 12 minutes. He was aggressive and assertive, shucking all that facilitator stuff and putting on his “I’m the most unstoppable scorer on the planet” t-shirt. He popped 3s, he attacked off the dribble, he went to the rim. He looked like the Kevin Effing Durant that owns the fourth quarter.
But here’s the thing: Durant actually missed his final three attempts. One was an 18-footer, another a 3-pointer after he snapped Vince Carter’s ankles and the last one a little 13-foot runner. It allowed the Mavs to make up a six-point deficit to knot the game at 101-101 with a minute left. And on OKC’s go-ahead possession, Westbrook spent 15 seconds trying to feed Durant before the shot clock drained too far. So Westbrook went on his own, took his time, didn’t force, didn’t panic and calmly got to a comfortable spot about 16 feet out and dropped a jumper. It was only Westbrook’s third shot in the fourth quarter, after he’d attempted 20 through the first three.
It was a perfect illustration of Westbrook’s loyalty to Durant, as he wisely backed out of the way while KD worked. If you’re one of those loons that only stares at the box score, you’ll see Westbrook attempted four more shots than Durant. But if you watched the way these two worked in tandem for four quarters, you saw how there wasn’t any battle over the ball. It was just two superstars carrying their team at different stages.
Here’s why I say this might’ve been the most important win though: Because KD took control. I think he needed that quarter. He’s been in a strange little funk lately where it seems like he’s overcautious in where he asserts himself. It’s not that he’s deferred too much. It’s that he’s been coasting a bit, almost trying too hard to take only open shots. Which is good, except when you’re Kevin Durant and can make pretty much any shot on the floor with any hand in your face. Tonight, he had the look of the guy that closed out playoff games against the Spurs, against the Mavs, against the Lakers. He took over.
It’s something to build on. This is how the Thunder will have to win in the postseason. As the playoffs approach, the Thunder just got a major boost of crunchtime confidence. Westbrook will have to play big stretches, and Durant will have to be the shot-maker in the fourth quarter. The Thunder’s margin for error has been trimmed because of the loss of James Harden, but when Westbrook and Durant both work in concert like they did tonight, it won’t matter.
- Serge Ibaka was simply spectacular. He went for 18 points on 7-11 shooting and snared 16 rebounds, with seven coming on the offensive end. And he added three blocks to go with it. Maybe Ibaka’s most complete game of the season.
- In the third quarter, the Thunder had 23 points, all coming via Westbrook (15) and Ibaka (eight).
- I say it all the time, but this game is another example of why you can go to battle with Russell Westbrook. His heart is just unbelievable. The way he sensed OKC’s lull and shouldered the load is the only reason the Thunder were in it headed to the fourth. I don’t say this as a slight to other players on the team, but if all 15 guys on the roster had Westbrook’s competitive spirit, you’d have some kind of team.
- On Thabo’s dagger, I love how it all played out. He had the ball with about eight on the shot clock and was desperately looking to give the ball to Durant or Westbrook. Instead, both of them cleared out and KD actually waved his hand saying “Go!” Both Westbrook and Durant clearly trusted Thabo to make the play. And he did.
- This win gives the Thunder their third 50-win season in four years. The only exception being last year’s lockout shortened season.
- Kevin Martin played only 24 minutes and was moderately productive. He started slowly, missing his first four shots, but made four of his last five to finish with nine points. Acceptable.
- Why did Derek Fisher check in to start the fourth quarter? He was on the floor for a decent run and finished +4, but it just seemed out of place. I don’t have a huge problem with first half minutes for Fisher where he might be able to splash a 3 or two, but in that situation, playing him felt forced.
- And if you’re telling me Fisher was on the floor for his defense, yeah, I don’t think so.
- The Mavs doubled Durant on every post touch. Most times, Dirk was the doubler, coming off Ibaka. KD’s approach was to invite the double and then kick out and hope his guards swung the ball. OKC didn’t really adjust that well to it and ended up just going away from KD posting.
- Martin is really underrated off the ball. He’s a very subtle cutter.
- I think it needs to be said again that Fisher is clearly not a backup point guard. He’s being used as a shooting guard. Which means that Jeremy Lamb can’t get any minutes at that position, but Scott Brooks has carved out 10-15 a night for Derek Fisher. I. Just. Don’t. Get. That.
- Two notes to KD exploding VC: Durant may have stepped on Carter’s foot and KD also missed the shot. I don’t care. It was amazing.
- Russell Westbrook stop-and-pop jumper from 15 feet and in: good. Russell Westbrook stop-and-pop jumper from more than 15 feet: a turnover.
- The text question tonight was “What’s the difference between a small forward and a power forward?” That’s either a painfully dumb question, or an excellent question. Depends on the preexisting basketball knowledge of the asker.
- Thabo loves to no-look so much that it wouldn’t shock me if he starts no-looking inbounds passes 94 feet from his own basket.
- Great to see the return of Russell Westbrook the fastbreak dunker. Enough of that finger-rolling bullcrap.
- That Perkbreak right before halftime where he decided to go all on his own to the rim. That was the best.
- If you’re a Mavs fan, you’ve got to be asking yourself why Dirk only shot 10 times tonight. He had that total “Dirk is going to break your heart” look tonight, and yet he was a non-factor in the fourth.
- That’s 4-0 this season against Dallas, and 10 straight including last postseason.
- Brian Davis Line of the Night: “I might suggest asbestos underwear for Jae Crowder because he just got TORCHED.”
Next up: Tuesday at home against Denver.