About 90 minutes before tipoff, the Thunder were put in one of those no-win situations. Well, actually, there was still a win up for grabs. More like a diluted-win situation. Carmelo Anthony was ruled out which meant if the Thunder won, they were supposed to. If they lost, apparent disaster.
But winning, regardless of who the other side puts on the floor, is a lot better than losing. And not to make this win over the Knicks sound special, but the Knicks without Melo — in Madison Square Garden — aren’t exactly a pushover. The Knicks without Melo period aren’t a pushover. Just ask the Heat.
Sans their best player, it put the Knicks in a situation needing one of those terrifying Step-Up Games from someone, and lucky for them, they were opposite the Thunder, a team that just loves allowing Insert Random NBA Player to step up with a career performance. Tonight, it was J.R. Smith, who fired in 36 points, the most of his season, and the most he’s scored since 2011.
But fortunately for the Thunder, it was J.R. Smith. Because as brilliant as he can be stepping back and splashing from anywhere, he’s absolutely addicted to his own offensive game and has no problem whatsoever shucking whatever remains of his conscious to fire at will. After starting the game 12-20, Smith finished just 2-9 in the fourth quarter which included a head-scratching potential game-winner at the buzzer.
You can credit the defense of Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha for the lockdown on Smith, but honestly, I think he could’ve been play against air and he would’ve finished like that too. It’s the story of J.R. — unfiltered offensive brilliance that is never bottled, and always inconsistent.
But credit to the Thunder for weathering the Earl storm and hanging on for a quality road win over the East’s current No. 2 team. Durant was solid, but not spectacular with 35 points on 9-20 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists. As he has regularly, Russell Westbrook came scorching off the blocks with 15 first quarter points but slowed down considerably after a nasty ankle roll, finishing just 3-13 after starting 5-9. Kevin Martin, very good in 32 minutes, scoring 16 points on 4-6 shooting while making a number of big shots and quality crunchtime plays (how good was that drive and dish to Ibaka for a dunk?).
Maybe the player of the game for OKC was Serge Ibaka though, who had 12 points on 5-7 with nine rebounds and five blocks. The Thunder played small for almost the entire second half, with Ibaka shouldering almost all of the minutes at center. He battled Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler admirably, and was very good in the pick-and-roll hedging against Raymond Felton. His stuffs at the rim obviously were spectacular, but his best defensive play of the night came with 1:25 left as he completely blew up a pick-and-roll by getting his hands down on Felton’s low crossover dribble. Felton lost the handle, Westbrook sprawled on the floor to recover, OKC called a timeout and the Thunder had a big time defensive stop.
It’s another close win to build on for the Thunder after going more than a month without one and while tonight’s crunchtime execution wasn’t anything special, it was enough. The final five minutes the Thunder had just one player score (Durant) as he knocked in a 15-foot jumper and made all four of his free throws. Within that, Ibaka muffed a laser pass that likely would’ve been two points, Durant missed a very clean 3-pointer, Westbrook missed three jumpers, all fairly of questionable selection and KD misfired on a long 2 with nine seconds left.
Enough to win though. Melo or no Melo, you take that and happily get out of MSG.
- After turning the ball over only twice against the Lakers, the Thunder gave it away 16 times tonight. Which honestly, is a good number for them. But it felt more like 500. Durant had seven on his own, Westbrook five.
- Another note on Martin’s strong performance: It wasn’t necessary eye-popping, but that’s precisely the kind of production the Thunder need. I’m not expecting him to hit 70 percent of his shots every night, but he was very selective and smart. Along with 16 points, he also had four assists. He’s a better-than-you-think playmaker and when things stall in the fourth he needs to consider that over just hucking a deep 3.
- Speaking of, Martin passed up a kickout 3 after an Ibaka offensive rebound with a minute left. He had a very good look there, but decided to swing it to Westbrook to run offense. One of those plays that’s a great decision if OKC executes, but maybe one you regret if not. Martin could’ve splashed that 3 and made it a two possession game, but he chose to run clock. I don’t think he was scared to take it or anything, but more he just made the so-called smart play. And it worked out.
- The way the Thunder finished this game reminded me a lot of the way 2011-12’s team would’ve finished it. It just had that look to it. A little ugly, very gritty and very tough. I think that’s a very good thing.
- Kenyon Martin played decent minutes on KD in the first half so Mike Woodson brought him back in to give Durant a check late in the fourth. He had five fouls and immediately put his hand in KD’s pocket so Durant sent him to the showers with the rip move. Oh, and got two free throws out of it too. So smart.
- Kendrick Perkins was used exactly the right way tonight. He got his minutes to start the first and third (20 total) and was just fine during it. He had eight rebounds and two points, but then gave way to OKC’s small lineups in crunchtime. Just right.
- As Smith poured in points on the Thunder, you had to wonder if Ronnie Brewer might’ve been a worthy option to try. Considering his defensive chops and the fact he obviously knows Smith’s game. Or if not Brewer, maybe DeAndre Liggins who is scrappy as can be and certainly would’ve brought a certain energy to it. Too bad though, Liggins is in Tulsa right now.
- If the Thunder had lost by a point, it definitely would’ve brought more attention to Westbrook’s botched finger roll in the first quarter.
- Westbrook almost hit for the airball cycle. He airballed a layup, a jumper and a 3-pointer. Just needed to whiff on a free throw and he had it. For shame.
- Reggie Jackson! Nailing 3s, slashing to the bucket, playing defense… DOING THINGS. He only played 12 minutes, which honestly, left me wanting more. Jackson really and truly might just be the answer to OKC’s bench questions. Remember, he’s only in his second year and he’s just now getting legit full-time rotation minutes. Something is there, you guys.
- Unfortunate: Derek Fisher played three more minutes than Jackson. Fisher’s not at all taking Jackson’s minutes per se, but he’s certainly not adding to them. In 15 minutes, Fisher went 0-4 for zero points and got mercilessly swatted by Stoudemire. He was a +7, though.
- One thing Fisher does very well though is screen. He’s a bulldozer when he spreads out. Even Tyson Chandler couldn’t work his way around him.
- Obligatory mention of Iman Shumpert’s hair.
- Ibaka got clocked in the jaw by Stoudemire in the first half and nearly bit his entire tongue off. Seriously, watch this GIF. You’ll shriek in horror, I promise.
- The Knicks had 12 offensive rebounds in the first three quarters. They finished the game with 12 offensive rebounds.
- The Knicks scored just 13 points in the fourth quarter. When we talk about “closing” we always mean offensively. But there’s defensive closing, something the Thunder have done very well the last two games.
Next up: At the Bobcats Friday.