Fitting isn’t the right word. I’m not sure ironic is either. But there the Thunder were, playing the Rockets once again without Russell Westbrook.
And it’s like they’ve gotten better since the 2013 postseason or something.
Without their All-Star point guard, so much of the responsibility of OKC’s success falls on the shoulders of Kevin Durant. It’s not that he needs to be perfect. It’s just that he needs to be as close to the incarnation known as KD, Destroyer Of Basketball as he can possibly be. Tonight against Houston, as Perk put it, he was “on one.” Thirty-three points on 11-17 shooting with 13 rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes. Durant got into one of those grooves in the third quarter where it looked like not even Leonidas’ army of 300 could slow him down. Step-back jumpers on step-back jumpers, galloping drives to the rim, perfect on time passes all over the floor — it was unstoppable offensive basketball.
“I’m liking the mean KD,” Perk said. “Giving staredowns when he’s dunking on people. I’m rollin’ with this.”
But we saw most of that from Durant last postseason, particularly against the Rockets. They tried to defend him with three and sometimes four players, bracketing and shadowing him everywhere. He was able to beat their soft defensive shell a lot of the time, but it often came at the expense of having to entirely exert himself over a 48-minute game. The difference in tonight’s game was that he got plenty of help.
Start with Jeremy Lamb, who had a career-high 22 points on 8-10 shooting with five rebounds and five assists against his kind-of old team. Then there’s Reggie Jackson, who bounced back nicely from his rough outing against the Bobcats with 16 on 7-12 with eight assists to no turnovers. Thabo Sefolosha added 13, and that’s probably not coincidental with James Harden guarding him. The Thunder shot 57.3 percent, had 28 assists, only turned it over 12 times and posted an offensive rating of 120.6, easily their best non-Russell Westbrook effort yet.
But where they really set the tone was in the first six and half minutes, where they didn’t allow the Rockets, the third best offensive team in the league coming in, a single point. Houston started the game 0-12 from the floor and didn’t get on the scoreboard until Dwight Howard hit a little baby hook with 5:26 left in the first quarter. By that time the Thunder had spotted themselves a 13-0 lead and really never looked back. The Rockets cut it to nine on the first play of the second half on a Chandler Parsons 3, but then the Thunder ripped off a 10-0 run in about 45 seconds and everyone knew Andre Roberson was probably going to be taking his warmups off soon.
Now, you can’t talk about this game without noting that the Rockets were on a back-to-back and playing their fourth game in five nights. And they looked like it. When the Thunder jumped them with high energy from tipoff, the Rockets essentially folded. They played like a dogged team without much inspiration or interest in competing for 48 minutes. Harden especially, who had just eight points on 2-9 shooting. But the most telling stat is that he only went to the line five times and by my count, only had four drives into the paint. He swung the ball when he touched it and he really never got into any kind of attack mode. He didn’t want the ball tonight.
“It wasn’t good at all, we just looked tired out there,” Harden said. “This is four out of five nights for us. We were looking kind of sluggish out there and we didn’t have our mojo like we needed to.”
Regardless of that, it was a clinical, angry takedown of the Rockets. There are a lot of reasons for the Thunder to play with some edge tonight, and whatever motivation they drew upon, it worked. As the Thunder trudge along for the next few weeks without their All-Star point guard, they’ve got to find themselves again. And if they can continue to find these kinds of performances consistently, they may lose a few more games without Westbrook than they otherwise would have, but they may be better for it in the long run.
- James Harden: 8 points on 2-9 shooting, one assist and three rebounds. The players OKC got for James Harden: 28 points, six rebounds and six assists.
- KD on if tonight meant a little more: “I never want to take this game for granted. Every time I step onto that floor it’s a blessing. Giving it my all and playing as hard as I can, have fun with it, no matter who is out there on that floor or playing against us. Tonight is just another team and I just wanted to play my heart out for my guys.”
- If the Thunder match up with the Rockets in the postseason, there are going to be a lot of Thunder fans happy Presti didn’t amnesty Kendrick Perkins.
- The thing with Perk is that he can still do well the thing he got paid to do — defend low block big men — it’s just that the NBA has changed so much that there’s not much value in having a guy that exclusively does that. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA, and Perk does two things well: 1) set screens and 2) defend on the block. The biggest criticism I think there is with Perk — and it’s absolutely valid — is that he’s not worth the money. But there’s no changing that; he’s getting paid what he’s getting paid. So you’ve got to try and take what he does at face value, instead of coloring it with the backdrop of his contract.
- Dwight Howard tonight: nine points on 4-13 shooting with nine rebounds. When Perk was on him, six points on 3-12 shooting. Against everyone else, three points on 1-1 shooting. The lesson here is, Howard really didn’t play much without Perk on the floor with him, and when he was, he couldn’t score.
- Perk: “With me, any time there’s a guy that’s supposedly one of the best low post scorers on the block, I get excited. I want to see what it’s all about.”
- Perk on if he wishes there were more teams with a traditional low block scorer: “At the same time, if it’s not, just got to do a better job on the pick-and-roll coverage or something like that. That’s what having a good team is all about, so you can matchup with any team.”
- No Steven Adams again until garbage time. It was understandable because when Howard wasn’t in, the Rockets didn’t play with a center. And Brooks clearly wanted Perk on the floor when Howard was. A bit of a shame because I would’ve liked to seen how Adams played against Howard, but in terms of making the best choice for this game exclusively, it was a good decision.
- In his six minutes, Adams did score six points with a rebound and an assist. And he had a nice dunk and a pretty lefty hook shot that came after the shot clock expired.
- Lamb on maybe having a little something extra tonight because of the matchup: “I didn’t really think about it. Of course everybody knows I was traded here and he was traded there. But every game I try and get better, try and play hard. And tonight I was able to knock some down.”
- Perry Jones was brilliant tonight. In the third quarter, he hit a deep baseline 2, then finished a dunk, then had a putback off an offensive rebound. Oh, and he defended four positions — yes, four — including time on Aaron Brooks, who couldn’t get around him. Jones defended Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin, Aaron Brooks, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia tonight. Not all at the same time, though. That would’ve been impressive.
- Perk hit a jumper early in the third and immediately turned to the Houston bench and had a LOT to say about. KD later hit a step-back in Harden’s face and also chirped at the Houston bench some. It’s like these two teams have some history or something.
- That KD eurostep.
- Then that KD dunk as Harden stood and watched it.
- Then that Harden airball.
- That was a fun sequence.
- Every single Thunder player that played was a plus tonight. That doesn’t happen very often.
- In the first quarter, Ibaka was isolated on Harden in the post and decided to pull an 18-foot baseline fadeaway. A true WTF moment. The Rockets put Harden on Ibaka to start games last postseason and it was clearly because they didn’t fear him using his size on the smaller man. And again tonight he settled for the long jumper rather than backing down his man.
- Great stat from the Tulsa World’s Bill Haisten: The 117 scored by OKC tonight is the most they’ve had in a Reggie Jackson start yet. Before that, it was 104 in Game 3 against Houston.
- I’m deciding that tonight’s game is officially the decider on who won the Harden trade, so with Lamb scoring 22 to Harden’s 8, OKC wins. Sorry, that’s just the rules.
- Quality tweet from @MartzMimic: “Best thing about the Rockets uniforms? Harden doesn’t need a cape for his matador defense.”
- Ryan Gomes and Ronnie Brewer playing against each other in the fourth quarter freaked me out.
- Tonight served as my reminder that I absolutely loathe Francisco Garcia. He tries so hard to get under KD’s skin by playing handsy, physical defense because it’s oh so obvious he has no prayer of checking him.
- Dwight Howard’s demeanor is so strange to me. He’s such a dominant physical presence, but have you ever seen him finish an and-1 or dunk on someone and let out a big yell or pound his chest? Not that that stuff is necessary, but sometimes he just kind of seems out of it.
- The Simon Says master “Steve Max” was the halftime show tonight. One of the best halftime shows there is. Always fun. Chances he’s secretly a worldwide drug lord though? I say high.
Next up: Home against the Blazers on Tuesday