Thunder 109 , 76ers 103
Points: Westbrook, Durant with 31
Rebounds: Elton Brand with 9
Assists: Westbrook with 12
The Thunder came into last night’s game in search of some basic competencies. Thus far they have been plagued by several serious struggles, including their offensive flow, their interior defense, and also an overarching sense of how to be a “good” team.
The biggest thing that stood out to me last night was that the Thunder played a much more evenly paced game, and I think that is a primary testament to Russell Westbrook’s game management. Stat wise, Westbrook played on the extremes. He had excellent offensive production, with 31 points on only 19 shots, and handed out 12 assists. However these strong stats were offset by 7 turnovers, only one less than his poor offering in the loss to the Celtics. So my praise on him is tempered somewhat.
Whenever I watch Westbrook play, and I see a promising PG trying to figure things out, it is inevitable that my mind goes comparing him, fairly or unfairly, to the other great PG’s in the game right now. He’s much more polished offensively than Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo, but he doesn’t play with the same type of precision that you see in Chris Paul and Deron Williams. He actually seems to make better decisions when he’s slowing things down and in a half-court set. When he’s out on the break, he does possess explosiveness that can take him to the rim, but too often last night his haste resulted in turnovers. Paul is a master at seeing (and creating) passing angles while running full speed. Ironically, even though Westbrook’s “full speed” gives him personal offensive opportunities, his point-passing tends to suffer. In this game, he looked like he was trying to keep pace with the Sixers’ young PG, Jrue Holiday. Holiday looks promising as well, but both guys played at a pace that was too fast for their current skill set. This pace was a big reason why Westbrook at seven TO’s and Holiday had six of his own.
Last note on Westbrook – his game management was a big reason why the Thunder won three of the four quarters. By keeping his team focused, they added a few points each quarter so that it was a healthy margin when the Sixers’ inevitable run occurred in the 4th. Since they were prepared this time, the Thunder were able to weather that run and still be up by multiple possessions and were able to withstand some late game heroics by Jodie Meeks (if you’re a Sixers fan) or late game slip-ups (if you’re a Thunder fan).
James Harden showing signs
Perhaps Mr. Harden listened to Bill Simmons’ podcast from Monday (probability < zero). He finally showed some offensive competency in the first half, which was a welcome sight indeed. He shot 3-7 in the first half, with a three pointer to boot. It seemed like Harden was finally finding some flow in the offense, which is critical while Green and Collison are still out. Unfortunately, he picked up his third foul early in the half, which sent him back to the bench and completely killed his mojo. By the time he was able to re-assert himself, his struggles reemerged. He missed two 3-pointers in the 4th quarter, which helped breath new life into the Sixers’ hopes.
Based on his play, I think I’m right about his best chances of succeeding. He needs to get into the game early and become a part of the offensive flow. He isn’t an instant offense kind of guy. Very few people have the psychological makeup of a Manu Ginobili, where they’re perfectly capable of starting or coming off the bench. Perhaps it is because Harden was a high draft pick, and he’s placing too much pressure on himself to perform, but he seems to be the kind of player that just needs minutes to find his own personal rhythm. Otherwise, he ends up forcing things and becomes an overall detriment.
When it’s crunch time, it’s game time. The game was tight, and the Thunder showed me some very good signs by going to the well repeatedly to get good offensive plays. Both Westbrook and Durant made key plays in the 4th quarter that helped the Thunder keep pace with the Sixers’ surge. Westbrook got 11 points in the quarter, including a clutch inbounds pass play from Sefolosha that was a perfectly executed lob and tip drill with only one second left on the play clock. It pushed the lead back to five, and the Thunder were able to keep it a two possession game the rest of the way.
Likewise, Durant made the shot of the night, driving baseline to get the pretty reverse layup and the foul with only 44 seconds remaining. Durant used his body well on the play, covering a large amount of space with his quick move to the rim. It gives further credence to my assertion that he can cause so many more problems if he were willing to play a little bit closer to the basket.
Your best player should know how to get a basket when the team needs it. Durant’s play here was an excellent example of his ability to do just that.
- The Thunder are not a good three point shooting team this year. Fortunately they’re beginning to realize it, and “only” took 14, making two.
- The team got off slow defensively on the interior, but once Ibaka switched over onto Elton Brand, they did a much better job in limiting him to outside jumpers. By the second half, Brand’s inside presence was an afterthought to the perimeter play of Holiday and Meeks.
- As for their perimeter defense, well…Jodie Meeks will never be confused for Ray Allen. He’s only made five 3-pointers all season, and four of them came against the Thunder in the second half. A smart team has to be able to adjust on the fly to the one guy who is threatening to steal a win from them.
- Was really wonderful to see Thabo Sefolosha get involved. He had been missing through six games, but last night he showed some signs, chipping in 10 points, but also grabbing 5 rebounds from the guard position. His three steals were also a pleasant surprise. The fact is, the Thunder will never be strong in the interior, but if they can build a working rotation of length guys on the perimeter who can cover large chunks of court space, they can attack defensively in a way that really disrupts offenses.
Well done, Thunder. This is a game that you can build on.
Next game: Friday, November 12, at 9:30PM EST