It’s all about perception. The Thunder win this game with Russell Westbrook, a gritty, ugly 89-85 defensive battle, and it’s just a quality road win against a scrappy, energetic team.
But since Westbrook is now out for the foreseeable future and the Thunder will once again have to figure out how to weigh his absence, it colors differently. They shot 41.3 percent from the floor and save for Kevin Durant Kevin Duranting down the stretch, OKC’s offense was pretty miserable. Had Josh McRoberts been able to make a wide open look from 3 with five seconds left, we could be talking about a super disappointing loss.
The Bobcats are third in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, so that’s an excuse you can use for OKC’s horrific offensive output, but then again, with Westbrook, they’ve absolutely shredded some of the league’s elite defenses (Spurs, Pacers, Bulls). The Thunder average 106.7 points per 100 (109.8 in December), but tonight in Charlotte it was 96.2. Again, what is it: Playing against the No. 3 defense in basketball, or did the Thunder miss Westbrook that much?
Here’s what I saw: The Thunder just look less confident, less enthusiastic, less swaggery (swagtastic?) without Westbrook. They don’t play with that same cutting edge. They don’t attack opponents, they don’t go for killshots, they don’t play with that almost arrogant assurance that they’re better than you. They run their stuff, they defend and they rebound, but they aren’t popping around the court, strutting after and-1s, talking smack to the other bench, or screaming into TV cameras.
They survived, though. Which will probably be the name of the game for the next few weeks. They did it because Kevin Durant is so freaking good that he makes you speak in tongues after some of those step-back. The back-to-back 3s, then the drop-dead long 2, then the zooming whirlwind drive he finished made me think I flipped over to Cinemax on accident for a second. It was obscene basketball. But it was also the kind of performances that could win KD the MVP.
Sure, it was against the Bobcats, but if he can routinely come up big for OKC in big spots — especially against the Rockets, Spurs, Heat, Blazers and others — the media’s going to take notice. It’s a lot to ask of him. But he started tonight’s game poorly, hitting just 4 of his first 13 shots. He finished 14-28 for 34 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. My calculator says that he hit 10 of his last 15. It also says that is very good. (Now it says 80085, because that’s always hilarious.)
The Thunder certainly looked out of sorts, namely Reggie Jackson who in Westbrook’s place went just 4-19 for 10 points. He had six rebounds and three assists, but didn’t register a helper in the final three quarters. I don’t know that Jackson necessarily pressed, but he certainly never found a good rhythm. Looking at his shot chart, he took way too many jumpers and never got into the pick-and-roll attack game, which is where he’s special. But Jackson can play, and he’ll settle in. It’s not really that much of a concern.
The Thunder are going to have their work cut out for them for the next 26 games or so. Their margin for error is slim, and KD needs to be special. But they certainly aren’t in trouble by any means. Their pieces are better than they were last postseason, or even the first two games this season. It just might not be very pretty for a while.
- Here’s what separates Westbrook from so many players: It’s not unusual for him to go 4-19 from the floor in a game. In fact, that’s fairly common. But when he does, he’s making a big impact in two or three other places. Whether it’s setting up teammates, or on the offensive glass, or by jumping passing lanes, Westbrook doesn’t let a bad shooting night mean he has a bad game.
- Scott Brooks mixed up his rotation, sitting Durant first with about five minutes left in the first quarter, subbing in Perry Jones. Right idea, I think. He kind of slowly pieced together the full second unit for a stretch in the second quarter, then came back with Durant and Ibaka a little later.
- Jackson’s 19 shot attempts are a career-high.
- Durant’s 28 attempts are a season-high.
- It’s too premature to say this, but I already think a change to the starting five could be necessary. The two obvious players to consider removing are Perk and Thabo and while neither helps the second unit much, I think it might give Brooks a little easier task in staggering his rotations throughout the game.
- The starting five played 20 minutes tonight and posted an offensive rating of 91.4 (defensive rating was 88.4, though). OKC’s best lineup was Fisher, Lamb, Durant, Collison and Adams (109.5 offensive, 80.8 defensive in eight minutes).
- Serge Ibaka has struggled some without Westbrook, but was solid tonight. He went 6-8 for 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. If anything, he needed more looks. The Bobcats clearly were daring Jackson to be a scorer, and instead of relaxing and trying to look more for Ibaka and others, he got sucked in to taking long 2s.
- Thabo was important offensively in this one, having probably his most effective game of the season on that end. He had 12 points and hit 3-5 from 3.
- Perk had his first double-digit rebounding game of the season. Yay?
- Perk did have a few very nice moments on the defensive end the final few minutes, shutting down Jefferson on the block.
- Speaking of, in the first half, Adams wonderfully shut down Al Jefferson in the post, staying disciplined as Jefferson pump faked like four times. Great stuff. Jefferson got him later on the pump, but for the most part, Adams did quality work on him. I’ve been really impressed with Adams on the defensive end the last few weeks. Really impressed.
- Jeremy Lamb missed the first free throw of his career. He had started out 29-29. Weird thing was, it came on the heels of KD missing back-to-back free throws. I blame Patrick Beverley.
- As a team, OKC shot just 15-24 from the free throw line. Definitely unlike them.
- One of those misses was Jackson in crunchtime, the first time I can remember him missing in a big spot from the stripe. It was only his fourth miss from the line this season (52-56).
- Lamb wasn’t anything special, but certainly played well. He only played 24 minutes, though. I think he needs closer to 30 right now without Westbrook.
- Fisher played too much.
- Perry Jones put up a 10 trillion tonight. Pretty impressive.
- I liked how Brian Davis gave Thabo the benefit of the doubt on a 3-point attempt in the third quarter saying, “Thabo, trying to use the backboard,” as if he would ever intentionally use the backboard on a 3.
- Idea: When Perk is in, he should only play in the defensive half. Yeah, the Thunder would be going 4-on-5 on the offensive end, but that way at least they wouldn’t ever be tempted to pass him the ball. He had a stretch in the third quarter where he turned it over three straight times and blocked himself on the bottom of the backboard.
- With the tattoos and the hair, what the hell Chris Douglas-Roberts?
- Apparently, the Bobcats put Perry Jones and Perk on the kiss cam together tonight. Is it just me, or shouldn’t that be frowned upon? What’s the joke here? That they’re lovers and they want to kiss each other ew ew ew? I kind of thought we were past this stuff.
- Other random thought about Russell Westbrook: All three Thunder press releases said he underwent “successful” knee surgery. Are the Thunder a bit flippant with the word “successful”?
- This tweet from @JDayJDay said it all: “The pain of seeing Russ sit will only be exceeded by the pain of watching Fisher try to play the point.”
- Brian Davis Line of the Night: “McRoberts was naked behind the arc and came up short.”
Next up: Home against the Rockets on Sunday