Thunder shut down the Blazers late, 103-83

BOX SCORE

Serge Ibaka’s first half: zero points on 0-0 shooting, zero rebounds and one block. Serge Ibaka’s second half: 16 points on 7-9 shooting, three rebounds and four blocks.

The Thunder’s first half: 45 points on 45.5 percent shooting to Portland’s 47 on 51.4. The Thunder’s second half: 58 points on 60.5 percent to Portland’s 36 on 31.0.

I get the feeling those two things aren’t entirely coincidental.

Strapped by early foul trouble, Ibaka got only a little more than seven minutes in the first half, but played 19 in the second half leading a Thunder charge that sunk the Blazers early in the fourth quarter.

It started with a quality close to the third quarter — a 10-3 spurt in the final 1:51 led by Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin and Ibaka — and was finished by 15-0 run over the final six minutes that took an 88-83 lead to a final of 103-83. Scott Brooks went with what’s rapidly becoming my new favorite crunchtime lineup of Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Martin, Durant and Ibaka to close it out.

“I felt they were playing small, knowing they were just playing with Aldridge out there and sometimes with the big kid Leonard, we can play a smaller guy on him, Kevin can guard him,” Scott Brooks said. “That lineup was just a lineup that was going to continue to give us energy going into the fourth quarter.”

That lineup saw big minutes in the second half against the Grizzlies, sparking a solid run in the fourth quarter. Here’s what seems to work with it: The Thunder can interchange ball-handlers between Westbrook, Durant and Jackson, while using Martin to space the floor for any kind of kickout after a drive, with Ibaka in the pick-and-roll/pop with any of the three ball-handlers. I’ve said this before, but it’s not all that different than the type of crunchtime lineup the Thunder used all of last season. Westbrook, Harden and Durant as the three offensive handlers, with either two bigs or Thabo. Obviously Jackson isn’t Harden, but the point is, I think OKC’s offense looks a little more comfortable with that guard-oriented dynamic out there. At least it’s more familiar.

What made it work most tonight though was how well that group defended, notably LaMarcus Aldridge. While Ibaka was in foul trouble, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison handled the job, but Ibaka did especially good work in the second half as the Blazers went with smaller guard-heavy lineups. With their other bigs being J.J. Hickson and Meyers Leonard, Durant was able to play the 4 effortlessly, while Ibaka took the job of limiting Aldridge who struggled through a 3-14 game from the field for 10 points.

“It was a combination of great defense and us being lucky on some of the shots he missed,” KD said. “But I think our bigs made him think a few times on those shots. Perk did a great job, Serge, Nick and Hash, they did a great job on him. I guess miss a few shots early and your confidence gets down and some of those shots he normally makes he was missing.”

Sometimes that’s what good defense really is — luck. And vice versa, that’s sometimes what “bad” defense is — bad luck. Guys make tough, contested shots because news flash they’re in the NBA and really good basketball players. It’s about disrupting rhythm and making players uncomfortable. Which with that group the Thunder can switch a lot of screens and rely on Ibaka to protect the paint. Portland’s shooters were well contested and Aldridge wasn’t able to shake loose for anything easy. Look at Portland’s last seven or eight possessions and they took a bunch of 3s and jumpers. Some simply missed, some missed because of good Thunder defense.

The Thunder obviously can’t give away anything at home if they have visions of that top seed and really, with Denver now nipping at their heels, can’t give anything away if they want to simply win the division. Taking care of business against the Blazers wasn’t a given, and after a half, it looked like OKC might be in for a dogfight. But with Ibaka turning things around and thus sparking his team to do the same, it’s a quality home win that might have revealed a nice little something to build on with how the Thunder close games in the future.

NOTES:

  • Note on this recap: I think the Thunder won tonight. I’m not sure. I was too busy watching Florida Gulf Coast dunk its way to the Sweet 16 on the tiny TV in front of me.
  • A guy made a halfcourt shot for $20,000 tonight, making him the second one in the past two weeks to do so. After he hit is, he naturally ran around like a lunatic, eventually turning and waving for KD to come out. KD obliged, tackling the fan. Said KD: “He called me out there and I’m glad he made it. When it left his hands it looked like it was short, but it went straight in. I was happy for him and then I turned around and he was calling me over so I had to run out there.”
  • #FisherWatch: He’s now 0-14 in his last five games.
  • Definitely weird seeing Maynor. Here’s how minimal the reaction was for him though: He was in the game two minutes and I didn’t even notice him. Maynor noticed it though: “It felt good for the crowd to clap for me when I checked in and all that stuff. I had some good memories here.”
  • Maynor looked fantastic though. Looked like the guy that established himself as maybe the top backup point guard in basketball. He moved well, splashed 3s, set people up. He finished with 10 points and four assists in 25 minutes. Great to see.
  • I found this interesting: Even when Derek Fisher was the only point guard on the floor, KD ran point guard.
  • Ibaka blocked a Maynor floater and late in the fourth, Maynor walked over to Ibaka and said, “Serge! That was goaltending, bitch.” All in good fun, of course.
  • After Perk laid in a baby hook in the first quarter over J.J. Hickson, he looked at the Thunder bench and said, “He’s too small. Too small.”
  • And then his next touch Perk posted up Hickson again and went to the same baby hook. This time he airballed it. See, I love Perk. That type of comedy is worth his salary.
  • KD with a quietly great night: 24 points on 10-17, 2-3 from 3, 2-2 from the free throw line. A nice game for 50-40-90 purposes. Oh, and he had 10 rebounds, too.
  • Westbrook, also great: 21 points (9-18) and nine assists. He was the main offensive spark too when the Thunder ran away with things a bit in the third.
  • Nick Collison doesn’t pump fake. He pause fakes. His pump fake is just waiting for you to jump like an overeager idiot.
  • Excellent production from Collison in 26 minutes: 10 points and six rebounds.
  • Reggie Jackson saw three first half minutes. Derek Fisher saw seven. In related news, I have a concussion from headbutting my laptop repeatedly.
  • The Blazers red uniforms are sublime.
  • That subtle layup Westbrook has added this season where he launches from WAY away from the basket, floats through the air, controls his body and then flips it underhand off the glass is incredible. Here’s him doing it tonight.
  • There is nothing quite like the buzz in the arena when Perk is cranking up a 15-foot jumper. It’s the best. It’s a mixture of sheer terror and excited anticipation.
  • I got kind of excited tonight because when I arrived at the arena Jeremy Lamb was out on the court warming up with OKC coaches. Which is unusual. I thought it might be a sign he would see a little time. But nope, he was inactive again.
  • Threaded crosscourt bounce passes might be my favorite thing in basketball. Jackson’s to Westbrook was GORGEOUS.
  • Meyers Leonard looks 10 years old. No really, like a freakishly tall 10-year-old. I’m serious.
  • @ThunderStats wins the night: “Derek Fisher in his last 5 games is 0-14 from the field. Thunder fans in the last 6 homes games are 2-6 from half court.”
  • TEASER: I asked Scott Brooks why Derek Fisher plays so much before the game tonight. Tune in tomorrow for the not at all surprising result!

Next up: Wednesday at home against the Wizards.

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