Thunder restore some order against the Jazz, 99-94

BOX SCORE

A win is a win is a win is a win is a win. Copy and paste to infinity.

You can shake this 48-minute performance out, trying to get something to fall out of it. And you’re going to find some stuff, unseemly stuff. Inconsistent defense, mostly. But with 8:12 left, the Thunder were down seven to the Jazz, and facing the potential of having five days off with a three-game losing streak and the water rising to a temperature not really ever seen before in Oklahoma City. It was about to be a long week ahead.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all checked back in, and immediately, Durant stabilized things finishing a smoothly executed set with a jumper. Another Durant jumper followed a split pair of free throws from Utah and the Thunder were within four. Westbrook answered two more Jazz free throws to keep it there, and Durant did it again after a Gordon Hayward fadeaway with 4:41 left. The Thunder finally got a stop, and Westbrook popped a rare elbow pull-up to get it to two. Another stop and Durant swished a pretty jumper side screen-and-roll action with Westbrook to tie the game at 90-90 with 3:18 left.

Derrick Favors traveled some 30 feet from the bucket, and Durant knocked down another jumper set up from Westbrook. Favors split free throws, and Rudy Gobert swallowed a Westbrook layup. With the Thunder needing another stop, Westbrook jumped a passing lane and found Dion Waiters for a dunk in transition. Another stop, and the Thunder had a chance to put the game on ice. More good two-man stuff from Westbrook and Durant produced an open look for Waiters from 3, who rimmed out a potential dagger.

“I said in the timeout, ‘Dang, I missed that,'” Waiters said. “And [Durant] was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s going to come back around to you.’ And once he said that, I was like I’m locked and loaded and he made the same play and I was able to knock the shot down.”

Oh whoops, should’ve spoiler alerted there. After Trey Burke hit two free throws to get the Jazz back to one, and Westbrook airballed a midrange jumper, the Thunder got another stop, up one with 45 seconds left. Durant posted, attacked the middle of the floor drawing defenders and kicked to an open Waiters who this time, paid it off. A shot to cap off an impressive home debut, 15 points on 7-of-14 shooting with four steals. Possibly something to build off of as he adjusts to a new team, right?

“He’s got so much confidence already,” Durant said. Then he paused and sort of laughed to himself. “He’s one of those players that doesn’t need moments like that to give him more confidence. He’s already a confident player no matter what.”

With 8:12 left, it was looking bad for the Thunder. After back-to-back humiliations on the West Coast, they looked listless again, primed to drop a home game to the horrible Jazz. It might have even been enough to get me to panic. But as they so often so, Durant and Westbrook answered the call, and stepped up in the big moment. Between the two of them: 57 points on 21-of-34 shooting plus 18 assists.

We didn’t learn anything new about this team tonight: Those two guys were awesome, so the Thunder won.

“We don’t get too high, and we don’t get too down,” Scott Brooks said. “This is a classic game of just playing how we played night in and night out. We struggled the last two games. But I liked the intensity, the energy and we passed the ball well.”

Brooks is fully aware of the noise circling his team right now. He reads the paper, he hears the grumbling. But he didn’t appear all that fazed by it tonight. He wouldn’t admit it, but his team needed this win. He needed this win.

“Guys, it’s one of the things, I don’t focus on that,” Brooks said. “Never have as a player, never will as a coach. My job is to get our guys better every day. And when you have an NBA season, you have to understand there are 82 games and there’s going to be some ups and some downs.”

#WellActually, it’s a 45-game season now. And the Thunder are still 18-19, three games back of the playoffs. The boat has quit rocking a bit right now, and the Thunder can enter this mini-break feeling decent about themselves. But everything is not necessarily better, and they still have a lot to fix.

The story hasn’t changed with the Thunder this season. The only thing that has is the situation. They still mindlessly isolate their offense. They’re still frustratingly inconsistent on the defensive end. They still play stupid. They still are unorganized.

But they’re still an awesome team. The fact they had to play through November without the guys that scored or created some 75 percent of the team’s points tonight put them in a deep ditch. So when those ugly nights where all their flaws are most exposed roll around, it creates an atmosphere more inclined to freak the eff out. It’s more a byproduct of the situation, and not about the condition of the team.

Tonight doesn’t cure all that ails them. It wasn’t a great performance, and there’s still plenty of mountain to climb. But it sure beats the alternative.

NOTES:

  • Dion Waiters was really solid tonight. He started it off with some bulldog defense, creating a few turnovers and hitting his first four shots. He took some bad ones, but hey, who doesn’t in Oklahoma City?
  • Waiters played 27 minutes. Reggie Jackson played 15, with none coming in the final eight minutes. Pretty clear to read between those lines.
  • Brooks on Waiters over Jackson: “It’s not Dion over Reggie, it’s Dion was playing solid defense and competing and pressuring the ball and not giving up anything easy so he got the minutes tonight.” Riiiiiiiight.
  • Jackson on if he was surprised to sit crunchtime: “Nah. Not at all.” He then chuckled quietly to himself and was asked if he wanted to elaborate. “Nah. Just smile.” Then as he walked away said, “In due time,” which seems like it should mean something, but I can’t quite figure out what.
  • Jackson’s 15 minutes are tied for the fewest he’s played this season. And the other came against the Hornets on 12/26, a Thunder blowout where he barely played the fourth.
  • Waiters on the difference in playing with the Thunder than the Cavs: “I’m able to play. I don’t gotta look over my shoulder or things like that. If I make a mistake, our head coach tells us to play, be aggressive, be me. Once get told that, the game is easy. You’re out there playing, you’re having fun, you’re enjoying it.”
  • Durant on coming back to Waiters after that miss: “We trust in all our guys man. If he would’ve missed that one, so what. Made the right basketball play. I’m glad he made, huge shot. He played really well on the defensive end, that’s what got us going, his steals and energy on the basketball. And he was able to come out and hit a huge shot for us, so that’s what we’re going to need from him.”
  • The Thunder talk a ton about trust. But really, the one guy that consistently does it is their best player. Durant leads by example when it comes to this. He has no issue making the right play in the big moment, and I think that’s really important for this team.
  • Kevin Durant is still apparently pretty good at the basketballing. I know there were some doubts, but he dropped 32 on 14-of-21 tonight with six assists. Including a barrage in the fourth quarter.
  • Westbrook played a brilliant game. He was completely under control, letting his playmaking lead into his scoring. He seemed to have a mind to create early and really let the game come to him. He had 12 assists, and could’ve had a handful more with a few knocked down shots.
  • Are people really getting so wrapped up in this that they aren’t satisfied because it wasn’t a 200-point blowout? The Thunder win games like this all the time. This is how everyone gets through an NBA season. You don’t always win by 18. Sometimes it’s a complete grind, and you just have to execute and finish in crunchtime. If anything, you should see the positives in the Thunder turning around a seven-point deficit in a pseudo must-win game and closing out in extremely impressive fashion.
  • Perspectives swing so dramatically when you care intently about 82 games. And I get it. It’s hard not to live and die by the last game you just saw. If you don’t, what’s the point?
  • I asked Westbrook about why he and Durant don’t go to the two-man game more often when it seems so effective: “I don’t know. You know the plays right?” Harf harf harf. He didn’t answer my question.
  • One of the ways to create more ball movement and passing is to have more players that move great without the ball. The Thunder have like two.
  • Rudy Gobert was dominating with his length and athleticism early on, so naturally, Scott Brooks subbed in the concrete slab known as Kendrick Perkins. And you know what? It actually kind of worked as Perk used his, ahem, horizontal affluence, to get Gobert from jumping over everyone.
  • Gobert had seven blocks tonight, and it felt more like 17. Brooks: “Those are layups he’s blocking, not jumpshots. That’s 14 points he took off the board.”
  • There was 0.2 on the shot clock and Booker was inbounded the ball with his back to the basket and he popped it no-look over his head. It was the greatest shot in NBA history.
  • Said Durant: “We knew it was their night when Trevor Booker threw in a shot over his head … That’ll never happen again.”
  • First quarter, Westbrook turned down the transition pull-up 1-on-4, opting to pull the ball out and run offense. I have no idea what happened. I blacked out the moment he didn’t launch from 15.
  • I can’t get over the Dion Waiters number thing. I honestly think that might be the dumbest thing the organization has ever done. Dumber than trading James Harden in the first place. Hey-ohhhh.
  • LOOK, we can have a rational discussion about the validity of Scott Brooks as OKC’s coach, but man, can everyone chill on blaming EVERY LITTLE THING on it? Like Westbrook misses an uncontested layup and people are tweeting me ” smh #coaching.” Turning into a boy who cried coach thing, here.
  • Before the game, Russell Westbrook was signing this huge stack of pictures at his locker. And postgame, Ibaka was sitting in his uniform doing it. They’re for the season-ticket holder party coming up this week and like a couple college students, procrastinated until the night before to get it done.
  • It’d be cool if Anthony Morrow started making those open 3s again. #smh #coaching
  • Something I find mildly interesting: Scott Brooks kept saying there just aren’t enough minutes to go around to get Jeremy Lamb on the floor. And yet, Dion Waiters shows up and immediately is plugged in. Seemed to find the minutes for him just fine. So why not treat everyone like big boys and say Lamb just isn’t good enough to play? Take off the kid gloves for once.
  • Rudy Gobert’s block on Ibaka, I could hear the SLAP of the ball like someone was slapping me across the face. That was ridiculous.
  • Gordon Hayward takes great measures to maintain his hair during the game. You should see the way he takes off his warmup shirt before checking in. It’s like he’s about to try and fit a basketball through the neckhole.
  • The Suns lost tonight. The Thunder are three back with 45 games to play.

Next up: At the Rockets on Thursday

Author