The Thunder are well past needing to make statements or send messages or win measuring bar games. Or at least they should be. We know three simple truths about the Thunder that keep them firmly placed in a select tier of teams, and immune:
1) Kevin Durant is good
2) Russell Westbrook is good
3) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together are very good
But the questions that have lingered about this team, and where they needed to make statements or send messages have been in the second unit. Who helps the Thunder’s superduo? Who’s the third scoring option? What if Westbrook and Durant aren’t perfect every single night?
So far this season, the new Thunder U — or as I like to call them, “Thunder U: The New Class” — have held their own and excelled in certain situations. The Clippers game comes immediately to mind. Against the Spurs on Wednesday though, with Westbrook struggling through a horrific scoring night and Durant far from his spectacularly efficient self, the Thunder were left to the bench to save them. Which they did.
Said Durant: “Those guys are really the reason we won this basketball game.”
Reggie Jackson: 23 points on 10-14 shooting. Jeremy Lamb: 12 points on 5-7 shooting. Or, if you will, Reggie Lamb: 35 points on 15-21 shooting. And it wasn’t just in the raw numbers. It was the ephemeral spark they lit in the third quarter that keyed a nine-point lead, and a 25-15 period that allowed a little separation from the mighty Spurs. Lamb started it with a few buckets from midrange with a 3 mixed in, and Jackson took things from there, lacking only a signature beard as he sliced San Antonio in the pick-and-roll over and over again.
“Reggie Jackson kicked our ass,” said Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs, though, made another run, trimming the Thunder’s lead to three, 79-76, where the score seemed to linger forever. After both teams exchanged a number of misses and turnovers, Serge Ibaka — who was excellent, but more on that later — put back his own miss, then Jackson dropped a half-floater, half-jumper push-shot, then Durant dropped the dagger, an and-1 in transition that sent him to the line for the first time in the game with 2:56 left. The Spurs, the team world-renowned for their halfcourt execution, primarily in crunchtime, went almost five minutes only scoring a single point, before Tim Duncan hit a jumper with 2:06 left. At that point, playing catch-up to Durant is mostly a lost cause, as KD iced them again off a clever pick-and-roll set with Westbrook.
“I thought ‘character’, that’s the word,” said Kendrick Perkins. “I told the team after the game, I thought this was one of the better wins in the regular season since I’ve been here. Just character-wise. Because usually when our offense isn’t going right, we tend to give up a hundred points. But I thought everybody pretty much stuck with it.”
It’s hard not to advance your brain to May and picture these two teams squaring off in a postseason series at some point, and an area the Thunder may have a significant advantage is where the Spurs have traditionally held as a position of strength. With such athleticism in their backcourt with Lamb and Jackson, to go with Steven Adams energy and size, the Thunder made the Spurs looks incredibly old and slow, particularly in bench versus bench scenarios. Then Scott Brooks was able to work Popovich with matchups, going small with Durant at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5, with three guards spread with them.
But again, this perception can flip almost immediately, particularly depending on what happens the next time against the Spurs, or even with what happens Friday against the Warriors. Though the signs are showing for this Thunder team. To top the Spurs with Westbrook and Durant combining for 30 points on 39 shots, and do it somewhat convincingly, is a pretty impressive thing. I wouldn’t call it a statement, because you make those in May. So let’s just call it a strong remark.
- The Thunder are now the holders of the NBA championship belt. Soak it in everybody. The Warriors are the No. 1 contender.
- Jackson, and kind of Lamb, stole the show, but Ibaka was massively big huge important. He had five blocks, but he probably impacted at somewhere between 10-15 points for the Spurs with outstanding challenges at the rim. Tony Parker, who is a tremendous finisher, had issue getting the ball around Ibaka’s paws and there were times that Tiago Splitter had a look inside, then glanced Ibaka and basically just said “no thanks” as he kicked the ball back out. Ibaka’s line was great — 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks — but it doesn’t come close to telling the story of how good he really was.
- Pregame warmups, Perry Jones rose for a sick windmill, then Andre Roberson soared for dirty tomahawk, then Steven Adams crushed a lefty dunk, then Nick Collison hit a fundamental 16-foot set-shot. Swoon.
- I’m going to workshop this idea without going completely all in with it: Could Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb together be better than a single James Harden? The problem with that idea is that while I think two instead of one makes for a stronger second unit, you can’t fit both into every closing lineup in the way you could with Harden. You could bank on every closing lineup having Westbrook, Durant and Harden, but there’s going to be a fluidity to Jackson and Lamb shuffling in and out of those. I’m not saying I believe this, but I was just thinking about it. Obviously neither Lamb nor Jackson individually are near Harden as a player, and combined just men versus man aren’t either, but for the Thunder specifically, it’s at least open for determination if Lamb and Jackson might be better as a duo than Harden was as a lone sixth man. Don’t yell at me please.
- A hard truth, as Davos Seaworth would say: The Spurs missed a ton of great looks, especially from 3.
- The Spurs did shoot a bunch of 3s, hitting 7-27. Which was something Popovich didn’t like. “I’d rather take 10 or 15 3s and attack the basket, make people guard. Unless every one of those 27 3s is wide open with no contest whatsoever, but that wasn’t the case.” I think you could chalk that up to the influence of Ibaka.
- Weird thing about the game tonight: Just 29 combined free throws. Durant only took three, Westbrook four. Produced a really nice flow, and a really quick game.
- Steven Adams was the first off the Thunder bench tonight and immediately stepped in to guard Tim Duncan. That’s baptism by fire, right there. However, with the matchups disjointed in the second half, Adams didn’t see any time the final 24 minutes.
- After maybe his best game as a pro, Perry Jones got a DNP-CD tonight. For shame.
- Pregame, the big screen showed a promo for Steven Adams’ concert on Saturday. You see, the joke is, Adams kind of looks like John Mayer.
- Top five NBA coach media trope: Opposing player walks up, coach switches answer to include said player. Pop pulled that one tonight with Fisher, changing his answer about OKC’s athletic guards running into something about how Fisher is old and slow.
- Fisher had a weird game, playing 10 minutes. He picked up four fouls in his first two minutes on the floor, all off the ball, three coming in one possession. It was like the Spurs were intentionally running him through every screen they could and Fisher tried to bulldoze through them and got busted.
- Westbrook has really fallen a little too much in love with the 3, probably too much. He went 3-4 against the Nuggets, but had now missed his last 11, going 0-5 from deep tonight.
- Anyone else love the little scissorkick thing Lamb does when he’s shooting after curling off a screen? It’s subtle, but it looks pretty.
- Some group called “Aranda” sang the national anthem and they sang it like it was THE MOST IMPORTANT NATIONAL ANTHEM OF ALL TIME.
- With the way Westbrook has been playing lately, we should start calling him Rusty Westbrook. Right guys? Guys?
- Westbrook didn’t shoot well, but he did have eight assists to only two turnovers. Two years ago, Westbrook might’ve lost his head with the way he was shooting. But he kept his composure and kept making plays.
- Reggie Jackson is so incredibly patient and calm with the ball, no matter the situation. In the first half, he got the ball with five on the shot clock a solid 40 feet from the basket, but didn’t panic at all, instead, taking his man methodically to the paint with a couple of moves, and finishing at the rim with ease. If you could give Westbrook a little touch of Jackson’s steady pace, you’d have the toughest cover in the league.
- KD on Jackson: “He was aggressive getting to the rim, and that’s what he does. Nobody can stay in front of him; he’s aggressive to the rim and that’s what we need from him … It’s just that he gets so low on his drives, he’s so quick. He’s so long for a point guard and he plays at a great pace.”
- Lamb canned his first 3, and shot it without any hesitation on a kickout. Asked about it after the game he said, “I don’t remember the first 3,” but when he was asked if he felt like everything was dropping for him tonight, he immediately pointed out his airball. That’s the way it is. Forget the makes, remember the misses, especially the bad ones.
- Lamb really does need to quit acting like every shot that goes in is a super big deal. He has a little moment after each make.
- Perk played a really good one tonight. He guards Duncan really well, and he set some excellent, well-timed screens.
- The way Nick Collison runs to the scoretable to check in, he looks like a first grader lining up to go outside for recess. Watch him next game. He skips a little, this hops sideaways, then jumps to the spot and lands right at midcourt.
- Westbrook fell awkwardly going for a loose ball in the third quarter and got up a tad hobbly and appeared to be in a little pain. He turned out to be fine (I think), but I’m still so scarred from him playing through a torn meniscus and looking mostly fine that I’m currently terrified.
- Andre Roberson gave a little pregame message where he wished everyone a happy Thanksgiving, but he almost botched it, saying, “We just want to thank, wait, not thank, wish you a happy Thanksgiving.
Next up: Home against the Warriors on Friday