“That was a great moment, but that was yesterday. Today is totally different.”
That’s what Scott Brooks said before Game 2 against the Clippers. Yesterday was indeed a great moment. A landmark day for the franchise, for the team, for the state and for Kevin Durant himself.
But it was also sandwiched between a humiliating Game 1 loss, and a Game 2 that pretty much a must-win. Durant and the Thunder had a day to get away from the noise of the postseason and celebrate the league’s highest individual achievement, but there was business to be done.
Though with the way Durant’s speech went, and with the urgency and intensity the Thunder played with today, it’s hard not to wonder if the emotionally charged adrdressed had something to do with the way they performed tonight.
“I think there was more fuel because we lost,” Durant said. “Guys were pissed off and wanted to come back and respond.”
The tone was set immediately as Russell Westbrook jumped a passing lane for a steal on the Clippers’ first possession. The Thunder were intent to play with force and power, to make the Clippers feel them. Durant popped a 3 and followed it up with a pretty face-up jumper. Adam Silver might’ve handed him his MVP trophy 10 minutes before, but Durant was clearly locked in. He roasted the Clippers for 17 in the first quarter as the Thunder erupted for 37 in the opening frame. They wanted to set a tone and send an early message. Job well done.
The Clippers are too good to go away, though. They cut the Thunder’s lead down to five by halftime, and despite a wonderful open 24 minutes, this was going to have to be earned. Durant said yesterday that Westbrook would run through a wall for him. And with the way No. 0 played in the third quarter, he was coming dangerously close to it.
Westbrook went to another level both athletically and emotionally, igniting the Thunder with a flurry of backbreaking plays. It was basically 12 minutes of insanity, s stretch where all that recklessness came together just right.
“Russell probably played harder than all of us combined,” Chris Paul said.
It wasn’t only him though, of course. Thabo Sefolosha, who has fallen out of favor with a large faction of the fanbase, bounced back after been cooked by J.J. Redick in the first quarter. Not only did Sefolosha display his trademark disruptive defense, but he knocked down shots, hitting a pair of 3s and finishing a couple layups.
It was the Thunder functioning at their fully operational capacity. You could see it all coming, with the speech yesterday and the urgency built in from losing Game 1. Durant was his MVP self (32 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) and Westbrook was his swashbuckling running buddy (31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), but the Thunder got quality balanced production from elsewhere. Serge Ibaka had 14. Sefolosha had 14. Kendrick Perkins had eight. The Thunder were top heavy, as they usually are, but it came with supplementary support, something that was missing in Game 1.
Plus, there was something actually resembling defense. Chris Paul was hounded most of the night by Westbrook, Blake Griffin struggled to find anything comfortable except from the midrange jumpers OKC dared him to take, and Jamal Crawford was awful, hitting just 2-13 from the floor. The luxury and comfort of uncontested jumpers mostly disappeared as the Thunder cranked the knob on their defensive intensity, playing with the kind of fire that can make them special.
Still: Don’t lose sight of what happened in these opening two games, though. The Clippers got their split. They accomplished their goal. They took homecourt advantage in the series. The Thunder did what they had to do in Game 2, evening things up as the series transitions to Los Angeles. But the Clippers are still in control despite the Thunder’s big night. What was on display is that these teams can match each other punch for punch, and in a battle of superstars, any given game is up in the air.
The Thunder looked far more prepared for tonight, settling in to a better flow and rhythm. They didn’t seem shell-shocked by the Clippers speed and athleticism, instead embracing the tempo and helter skelter nature of the game and using it to their advantage. What we saw is what this team is capable of, and what makes them so frustrating at times. The players can chalk up Game 1 to effort, but if that’s all it takes, Durant needs to start putting handwritten thank you notes in every player’s locker before the game.
A desperate Thunder seems to be the best Thunder. Durant and Westbrook were on a different kind of planet tonight, dueling for triple-doubles, as the defensive effort reached its intended level. This series has the look of a broiler, one that could be headed for the long haul. Considering all that circumstance surrounding it — Durant’s MVP, the storms outside the arena — it was a pretty ideal night. But there’s only a day to feel good about this before Game 3 tips in Staples Center. The Thunder need to find a way to replicate what they had tonight, to bottle that special competitive spirit and take it on the road with them. They’re back in the series. Now they just need a split of their own.
- Never in playoff history have two players had triple-doubles in the same game. Westbrook got his — on a wildly generous assist, mind you — but Durant came up just short. What would’ve been even more insane about it was that they both would’ve been 30-10-10 triple-doubles. You know how many of those there were in the entire regular season? Four.
- The big storyline on the Clipper side: Griffin had 15 on 5-13 shooting, Paul had 17 on 6-13. The Clippers were hanging in the game because of production from J.J. Redick (18 on 7-10) and Glen Davis (10 on 5-7).
- An area Westbrook smartly exposed was using his strong postgame against Chris Paul, but especially Darren Collison. The Clippers really don’t have a good answer for this — other than flopping, of course — and it forces them to collapse and help.
- Again, Crawford’s struggles were extremely influential. He’s a bit of a barometer for the Clippers and when he missed his first two shots, it seemed like things might turn a bit in OKC’s favor. He’s a temperature player. He can get REALLY hot, or go REALLY cold.
- For a minute there, Perk flirted hard with a double-double. Which would’ve been his first one since Game 3 of the 2012 Finals.
- Doc Rivers: “I coached Perk. I’m pissed at him. I can’t believe what he was doing offensively.”
- Blake Griffin’s histrionics are something else, aren’t they? How he incorporates throwing his head back in every physical confrontation is incredible.
- That sequence in the third where Thabo stole it, Westbrook hit a 3, Thabo stole it again and something else happened after I blacked out was something. The arena was absolutely roaring. Some kind of run right there.
- So what I said about Westbrook being better than CP3? I STAND BY THAT NOW.
- Adams technical on CP3 was one of the more ridiculous calls I’ve seen. Paul was out of bounds, but Adams had left his feet before the whistle blew to make the call. There was nothing he could do.
- Another call NBA officials either miss, or just don’t understand, is a kicked ball. If the ball hits someone’s leg inadvertently, it’s not a kick. The player has to intentionally stick his leg out. This frustrates me.
- Pretty disappointed no one asked Westbrook postgame, “Russ, turn down for what?”
- The lights went dim before halftime because of a brief power surge. They played out the final 27.2 seconds in mood lighting, but got it fixed during halftime. Then after the storm rolled through with hail pounding The Peake’s roof, there was a water leak. Tough night for the arena.
- Derek Fisher was hurt on a hard screen from Big Baby. The way Scott Brooks reacted, he seemed to think it was a dirty screen. Davis appeared to lower his shoulder a bit, but it didn’t seem overly physical.
- Postgame, no update was available on Fisher.
- The Thunder outrebounded the Clippers 52-36.
- Durant looked as much like his regular season self as I’ve seen him so far in the playoffs. He blended the scoring with the distributing beautifully. Before tonight, he high in assists was seven in Game 1 against the Grizzlies. And he hadn’t cracked five the last seven games.
- Something to watch for: Westbrook played 41 minutes, Durant played 43. Rivers sat down his starters late in the fourth, as Griffin played 35 and Paul played 31. Brooks did a similar thing in Game 1. Might have some impact on energy in Game 3.
- Steven Adams was definitely a nuisance to Blake Griffin tonight. But really, it looked to me like Adams just did his best to give as much as he got. I think that’s the mistake a lot of players make against physical people like Griffin. They’re afraid to push back, to return the favor. Griffin plays with undeniable physicality, trying to muscle players on the block. But Adams is one of the very few that’s not only stronger than him, but unwilling to lay off.
- Doc Rivers is just super, and says a ton of insightful, wonderful stuff. But one thing he can’t do is properly say “Russell Westbrook.”
- Unless he has multiple pairs of them (WHICH HE MIGHT), Jimmy Goldstein is wearing the same holey chained jeans he was wearing in Game 1. Come on, Jimmy.
Next up: Game 3 on Friday in LA