Final Score: Thunder 110, Blazers 108
Thunder Record: 5-3
Points: Westbrook with 36
Rebounds: Westbrook and Ibaka with 7
Assists: Westbrook with 7
This is what is known as, “Filling up the box score.”
Really, really outstanding game tonight, and I write this from a “fan of the NBA” perspective. This evening’s game had everything that an NBA fan wants: lots of scoring, up and down action, a close score, the stars coming out to shine, and a game that went all the way down to the wire. Sometimes you have to distance yourself from your fandom and just say, “that was a great game to watch.” So…that was a great game to watch.
Critics will say that the Thunder’s defense was all but non-existent, and they would be correct. However, this is basketball. It isn’t football. Basketball is defined by its offensive flow; the truth is, scoring is and should be frequent. This is what separates it from other sports. If you want to harp on lack of defensive intensity, you have ample evidence in the first half, where the Thunder gave up 34 and 30 in the first two quarters. However, unlike the Utah and Clippers games, they maintained their offensive focus. Once again Westbrook did yeoman’s work in keeping them in the game at all times, never falling behind more than four to six points throughout. Also, in the first half the Thunder supporting cast made it’s strongest contribution. Harden, Ibaka, and Krstic all netted 12 points apiece. Their contribution enabled the Thunder to maintain the pace as the Blazers got off to a hot start in a hostile environment.
Keeping an offensive flow in the first half gives a team options in the second half. By keeping the score close through three quarters, their increase in defensive intensity in the fourth actually mattered toward the final outcome. After these two wins against the Blazers and the close wins against Detroit and Philly, we can see that the Thunder are actually pretty decent at elevating their game when the score is close in the fourth quarter. The problem has been maintaining an equal focus in the early stages. I must admit, I was doubtful when the Blazers went up by 8 early in the fourth quarter, because I wondered if their focus was slipping. Their focus was retained however, and they found renewed defensive focus.
In close games, you want your money players to take on the load. This game was an excellent example of two young stars accomplishing this with great success. Westbrook and Durant scored the final 18 points of the game, with Durant in particular coming to life after a lackluster first three quarters. He commented after the game that he was able to pull in his offense closer to the basket, and the result was some much better looks. He shot 13-21 in the game and only took six free throws, so unlike the last game, his offense emerged through good shooting, rather than getting to the line consistently.
Finally, on Russell Westbrook’s birthday, he dialed in a complete game that carried the team throughout. What I liked the most about his 36 point outburst (career high) is that it was entirely within the flow of the offense. He capitalized early and often on his ability to beat the Blazers off the dribble, easily getting to the front of the rim on multiple occasions. His biggest drive came with 27 seconds to go, with he and Durant playing a little two-man game. Westbrook gave Durant the post high on the corner, and the Blazers ran two players at him. After Durant pulled the double team and opened up the middle, he gave it back to Westbrook, who was then able to drive the lane and get to the rim for a contested layup. It was a memorable display of two guys getting used to each others’ games and playing off each of their strengths. Playing the point position is always a delicate balancing act of getting your key teammates involved and scoring when necessary. The reason why Westbrook nailed his performance on Friday night is because he saw that his ability to drive on the Blazers was always there for the taking and it completely disrupted their defensive strategy. As a result, it opened up the offense for Durant in the fourth.
- Another decent game by James Harden. he got 21 minutes this time and was not burdened by foul trouble. He netted 12 points off the bench, which was a valuable contribution in a game decided by two points. He disappeared in the second half a bit, but his first half contribution was critical to maintaining the pace.
- Three point shooting: 6-12. This shooting percentage and number of shots taken shows a maturation in understanding where the three fits into their overall scheme at this specific time.
- Excellent job on the defensive boards. Nobody on the Blazers totaled more than six rebounds.
- The team did a great job attacking the rim against a weak perimeter defense. Portland’s interior defense is superior to it’s ability to guard on the wings, and the Thunder clearly knew this and exploited this fact. Good game planning.
- Excellent resolve by the team as a whole. In the first few games, a deficit of 6-8 would have signaled the beginning of the end. This game though, they dug down and fought their way out of each hole. It’s a great mentality to watch.
Next game: Sunday, November 14 against the San Antonio Spurs