Final Score: Thunder 115, Jazz 108
Division Record: 3-1
Points: Deron Williams with 31, Durant with 30
Rebounds: Ibaka with 11, Millsap with 6
Assists: Deron Williams with 11, Westbrook with 7
There are 82 games in a season, of which we have now completed 10 (12%). With so many games, it is easy to see patterns emerge. Yet, you look for things to slowly change, and you search for subtle signs that may have hidden meaning. A turning point, even.
Midway through the 1st quarter, the Thunder once again found themselves down by 12 to a well tuned opponent. And we the observant viewers think, “I know how this ends.”
But then, something happened that was different.
“Tonight we left it on the floor, and we can go home and tell ourselves we improved today.” – Scott Brooks
It reminded me of those turning points during last season’s playoff series against the Lakers. For the first time this season, I felt that the Thunder finally pushed back. It was as if they made a decision, right there in the middle of the 1st quarter, that they were no longer going to be passive, casual, and carefree. Instead, they were going to fight. And right at that moment, when I could see their countenance change, I no longer cared whether they actually won this night’s game. I didn’t care because I saw something in them that was transforming them. It wasn’t like the two Blazers wins, where we all knew that they were more or less identical teams. The Jazz had punished them badly in their first matchup, and had gone on a tear embarrassing the Heat and Orlando. The Jazz were a better team. Better talent. Better point play. Better coaching. When you go up against a team that is better than you, and you know it and they know it, you have to resolve in your own mind that you have to go an extra mile if you want to compete.
The Thunder realized that their normal play was not good enough; that THEY were not good enough, to merely just go through the motions. They had to actually want it. Once this realization dawned on them, they started to grind. The great thing about the grind is that you never really know whether you’re capable of it until you try it, but once you do, and you realize that you have that extra gear in you, you transform. The Thunder transformed.
Over the course of the next 18 minutes, the Thunder outscored the Jazz 46-32. Suddenly, everything had changed.
“They were desperate for a win and wanted to get one.” – Jerry Sloan
Why were the Thunder desperate? It certainly couldn’t be because of their record, which stood at a modest 5-4. It wasn’t even because of their collapse against the Spurs. I contend that it was because the Thunder felt like their team identity was beginning to slip away. They decided that they didn’t have to let that happen. They decided to fight for it.
Functionally, here is what the Thunder did better this time out against the Jazz:
- The return of Collison and the continued emergence of Ibaka yielded huge dividends in their internal defense. In the first Jazz game, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson combined for 53 points and 26 rebounds. Last night, those numbers fell to 22 and 12.
- Defensive rebounding was excellent. The Thunder outrebounded the Jazz 39-34, and did not give up second-chance points in the 4th quarter.
- The Thunder gave themselves enough cushion to weather the Jazz’ comeback in the 4th.
- Deron Williams filled up the stat sheet, but in a way that gave him a sub-optimal game as a point guard. Frequently when you see a top flight PG assume more of a scoring role, it means that he is shouldering a greater burden because the rest of the offense isn’t operating properly. He played in an extremely efficient manner, but he was not able to dictate the offense the way he was able to during their game 1 win.
- The Thunder got good bench contributions. Even though Jeff Green had to sit out again, they were not at a loss for offensive production. Thabo Sefolosha quietly put together a very strong game, getting 11 points and 2 steals. James Harden did not have the same impact as in the last game, but he logged meaningful minutes during the 2nd and 3rd quarters, which were the most critical in establishing the team’s assertiveness.
Lastly, once again the Thunder proved that they learned lessons from last year in how to close out a game. This ending part of the game is where their free throw shooting ability really shines. Both Durant and Westbrook have an exceptional ability to draw fouls when they need to, and both were perfect from the line.
I’m excited to see how the Thunder build on this win against the Rockets.
- The Thunder did get very fortuitous calls in the 4th quarter that will have Jazz incensed on Tuesday morning. The first was when Durant, covered by CJ Miles, came out to the top of the key on offense to catch a pass and then pivoted back toward the lane. He quite blatantly dropped his shoulder into Miles, sending Miles rocketing backward like he had been shot by a canon ball. Amazingly, the refs called the foul on Miles, ostensibly because he had not given Durant room to receive the pass. The second play was the no-call with 20 seconds to go. Andre Kirilenko drove hard to the basket to try to cut the Thunder lead to one, took body contact, and missed his layup. The no-call cost the Jazz their last best chance to win the game, as Durant got six of his own from the free throw line and effectively ended things.
- Durant looks gassed. His prowess at getting to the free throw line saved him tonight, but overall offensively he was pretty bad, seldom giving more than stationary jump shots. He has no elevation on his jumpers, and he is relying disproportionately on his 3-point game, which at the moment is the weakest part of his offense. It stands to reason that the extra minutes he logged during the World Championships have robbed him of his energy recovery time over the summer, and now he is left with dead legs and 72 games to go. Coach Brooks might need to take a look at getting his minutes pared down to about 32-35 a game, because he was hurting the team with his poor shot selection and inaccurate shooting.
- I was impressed by the excellent backup PG play by Royal Ivy and Eric Maynor. There are times when I think that Maynor is more effective as a pure PG than Westbrook. Obviously he lacks the total game by which Westbrook excels, but it is comforting to know that Maynor will be committed to running the offense when he gets his chances.
With the vast improvement in their interior defense, I’ll float the idea that part of the reason why the Thunder’s perimeter defense has been so poor is because they were overcompensating for the lack of their inside toughness, which often led to being wildly out of position and susceptible to good outside shooting. It’s a theory, anyway.
Next game: Wednesday, November 17, vs. the Houston Rockets. 8:00PM EST tipoff.