Who feels better now?
Nick Collison said it best after the game: “We just needed to play well. We don’t feel like we’ve played real well this season so it was a really good game for us, the energy was a lot better. We’re not too concerned with making statements. We’re just trying to get our level of play up and play at a more consistent level.”
It wasn’t just that the Thunder dismantled a solid Mavericks team 107-93, but it was that they played a good game. The offense clicked (28 assists, 54.4 percent shooting), the defense was more consistent, and the role players contributed. This is how it’s supposed to look when the Thunder start playing like the Thunder.
After the first three games, the Thunder looked sloppy, thin and light on talent. The performance against the Suns was a little better, but against the Mavs they looked deep, athletic, fast, talented and powerful. They played with energy, they played with speed, they played with that cutting edge they’ve missed. Russell Westbrook’s impact isn’t just obvious — it’s hit-you-in-the-face-with-a-hot-skillet obvious. Not just in he’s a brilliant basketball player that scores and passes and dunks and defends. But he brings a certain energy that cranks his teammates up. After his third straight bucket to start the game, Westbrook strutted to midcourt as the Mavs called timeout and went into his expletive-laced pump-up-the-crowd routine. They didn’t have that without him.
“Mostly it’s for my teammates, to make sure we keep our energy up,” Westbrook said of his mini-freakout. “Keep us upbeat, keep us going. It helps other guys out when they see me hyped and they just follow along and we’re all hyped together.”
It all just clicked. Kevin Durant, who had only one assist each of the first three games, dished out 10 tonight, with 23 points. Serge Ibaka, who was shooting under 30 percent and had only two total blocks, went 8-10 from the floor for 17 points with 13 rebounds and three blocks. Jeremy Lamb, who has been steady already but hasn’t flashed too awful much, knocked down big fourth quarter shots scoring 13 on 4-7 shooting which included 3-5 from 3. The starters played well, the second unit produced and the Thunder appeared to get right with themselves a little.
For the first time since maybe Game 6 against the Rockets, they looked… happy. They played with joy. The fun returned. And when they play fast, fun and loose, that’s when they play their best. They hit the Mavericks right from the jump with their pace, cranking things up in transition after every miss. It wasn’t so much about set offense as much as it was about making plays. Rick Carlisle had a great quote about that pregame. You don’t want to be running plays. You want to be making them.
But it’s the same lesson to keep in mind after the debacle against the Wolves. It’s a long haul and this is one of 82. Still, I do think it’s easy to use this game as a reminder of how special this team is capable of being. I keep beating this horse deader than dead, but Westbrook’s back, you guys. And while I think we all would’ve preferred to have seen a better Thunder with him out, getting him back really kind of fixed everything.
One critique of Westbrook’s game for a long time was that he didn’t make his teammates better. I think that nonsense has been put to bed. It’s obvious how much he helps Durant, and it’s really obvious how much he helps Ibaka. It’s not necessarily in that Westbrook is setting them up constantly for easy buckets, but the constant pressure he puts on a defense opens up so much space and opportunity. Even things like putback rebounds are created by Westbrook’s attacking.
This is the kind of win that didn’t just look good, but feels good. It’s the reminder a lot of folks need, that when the Thunder juggernaut gets moving, it’s hard to slow down. I said it the other night but my theory with this team is that if Durant and Westbrook both play well, the Thunder will beat most any team, probably in a close game. If one only plays well, they’ll likely lose. But if they play well together and get the kind of help they got tonight, it all looks real good.
- Steven Adams is a boss. The boss, in fact. Forget the fact he performed wonderfully. He won over most every remaining Thunder fan that wasn’t all aboard the Adams train tonight with that, and the way he shrugged off a nasty elbow. He chinned a rebound and was swarmed by three Mavs, and eventually caught Vince Carter with what appeared to be an incidental elbow. Carter didn’t like it and threw a very not incidental one back in the big Kiwi’s face which earned him a Flagrant 2 and an ejection. But the best part here is, Adams didn’t even flinch. Like he didn’t even feel the elbow and it was a hard elbow. He kept playing as if a fly brushed across his jaw.
- Said Adams of the play: “Definitely felt it. It was an elbow to the head. I just don’t like reacting to it. It’s unfortunate that it happened really.”
- Jeremy Lamb was asked about the play and said he asked Adams if the elbow hurt and Adams’ response was just “What?”
- Westbrook on it: “Yeah that stuff he just laughs about. He gets hit and just walks around. First he came up to me and said, ‘What happened?’ He didn’t know what happened. That’s just how he plays.”
- Adams line tonight: six points, nine rebounds, one block and two steals in 20 minutes. He had a terrific sequence in the second quarter where he blocked a shot, then finished a dunk, then came up with a steal defending the pick-and-roll that led to a runout for Westbrook. After each one of those plays, I looked up at Presti’s seat and expected him to have his shirt off waving it around over his head.
- Everyone talks about Adams’ willingness to work and pay attention, but you can really see it. Again pregame, he’s sitting right next to the TV watching intently, taking mental notes. Even the way he talked postgame, reciting clear coaching talking points about the Mavs playing downhill and watching Dirk as a trailing big. It’s not just his skillset, but his mindset and demeanor. The guy’s a great fit.
- Adams 20 minutes, Perk 14. It was obvious tonight that Brooks favored Adams to Perk. And it’s becoming a bit of a trend. Through the first four games, Adams has played more minutes than Perk twice. Brooks on how he’s approaching that: “It’s going to be game to game. We look at the production of the combination of both those guys. And Hash is going to get opportunities also. The good thing about having a deep team is that somebody is going to have to sit and they have to make sure they’re ready when their name is called. But it can flip-flop. Last game I don’t think Steven played as much as he played tonight. I thought he played good, played good minutes. I thought Perk played good. He rebounded the basketball, made some shots around the rim. They both had good numbers combined, really good.”
- Kendrick Adams tonight: 10 points, 15 rebounds, one blocks and two steals in 34 minutes. That’s pretty good.
- And yes, Perk did play pretty well tonight in his 14 minutes. Finished around the rim, had a tip-in, rebounded well, defended the pick-and-roll well. He had some goofs, but overall, it was productive.
- Not to try and announce my smartness because that opens the door to rehash my stupidity, but I have been saying for a little while that I thought Brooks might split Adams and Perk and have them share the minutes at center. It makes sense. Adams is better, I think and should probably see the bulk of the time on the floor, but I have no problem with Perk starting, especially if it keeps him feeling better about having his time carved out by a rookie.
- Reggie Jackson had five assists in the first half, but didn’t play any in the second because of a left hip contusion. Team says he’s day to day and will be reevaluated tomorrow.
- “But Westbrook took six more shots than Durant!” — said no one tonight
- Brooks’ rotation in the first half included 10 players, but no Derek Fisher. Perry Jones III still appears to be getting regular time, and he’s taking advantage of it. He’s active and involved and doing positive things. After Jackson sat in the second half, Fisher assumed the backup point role.
- Nick Collison was the first guy off the bench tonight and subbed in for Perk. Then Jackson checked in for Sefolosha, playing both him and Westbrook together for a few minutes before Jackson then took over the second unit early in the second quarter. Brooks hung with Ibaka for the entire first quarter and into the second, probably in an effort to get him going. Worked well, too.
- Collison really owns that second unit. He was out there with Jackson, Lamb, Adams and Jones in the second quarter and it really was like he was the dad of the group.
- Lamb is clearly thinking less and just playing more on feel. It’s obvious his confidence is climbing. After that first 3 rattled and stayed in, it got him feeling good about his game and he stepped up. There are going to be ugly nights ahead, but this is how it begins for a young player to start to see it click. Knocking down shots and playing well in a national TV game helps a lot.
- Twenty-four turnovers tonight which isn’t great, but as fast as the Thunder were playing, you live with some of that. KD had five, and a few were forced into tight spaced, but some probably should’ve been hauled in by his bigs.
- I’m thinking Vince Carter wanted to get ejected to avoid KD crossing him yet again.
- Perry Jones’ bounce. I’m starting a Twitter account dedicated to it.
- Dirk on Adams’s willingness to mix it up: “They’ve got the white Kendrick Perkins now.”
- That’s now 11 straight for the Thunder over the Mavs.
Next up: At Detroit on Friday