Final Score: Thunder 116, Rockets 99
Points: Scola with 26, Durant with 24
Rebounds: Ibaka with 8, Scola with 8
Assists: Westbrook with 12, Maynor with 5, Durant with 4
Because if you’re a really good team, you should be doing what the Lakers do, and just taking care of business every night. – Bill Simmons, 11/8 podcast
The Thunder are not yet a really good team. They are a good team with the potential to be a really good team. But if you want to be a really good team, then you have to learn how to handle your business against teams that are poor, mediocre, and good. Business Time. Really.
“Truly, you have a dizzying intellect” – Man in Black
Much has been and will be made about the Thunder’s 26 team assists (led by Westbrook’s 12). I’m never really sure how seriously players care about goals that the coach sets to avert practice (Brooks demanded 20 or more to get the next day off). At minimum though, the bet puts the idea in the forefront of the team’s minds. The wonderful thing about assists is that they’re contagious, but in a good way. Good passing begets good passing, which in turn creates easier shots (20 made shots in the lane), which in turn creates higher shooting percentages (50% FG, 41.7% from 3).
This is how a really good team handles its business against an inferior opponent:
- Get out to an early lead. After Houston scored the first bucket of the game, the Thunder scored the next 10 points to build their early cushion. Psychologically, this burst established early that the Thunder were going to play as the team with the lead. From that point on, anything that Houston mounted would require extra effort and not merely come within the flow of the game.
- Identify the important moments. There were two in this game that stood out to me. The first happened right at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. The Rockets scored the first 7 points in the quarter in 76 seconds. We the viewers began to wonder if this was going to turn into another Sixers game, with an inferior opponent hanging around longer than it should. This time though, it was different. The Thunder asserted themselves defensively, forcing the Rockets into four turnovers and holding them to four points over the next 4:30. The lead ballooned back up to double digits.
The second moment was mid-way through the 3rd quarter. The Rockets were hanging around, and after a Scola put-back following an offensive rebound, the Rockets trailed by only four. Oklahoma City called time out. Out of the break in what I assume was a set play because it only took 7 seconds, Durant hit a big 3-pointer. And in a furious exchange, Westbrook reciprocated Houston’s Lowry picking of his pocket with a steal of his own, racing down court for a dunk. I loved watching this 36 seconds of action because it is a microcosm of how fast things can shift in the NBA. Coming out of the time out refocused, the Thunder refused to wilt and reasserted their superiority against the Rockets. The lead soon bloomed to 15, and it was a coast from there.
By being ready for these crises points when they were happening, the Thunder dispelled each of them in short order without disrupting the overall strategy of their game.
- Manage your resources. If you look down at the stat sheet from this game, you will see that Westbrook was the high minute man, booking 35 for the game. Everyone played less than 3/4 of the game, with great bench minutes coming from Harden (29), Maynor (22), White (19) and Collison (18). The significance is two-fold:
- Your starters don’t have to play “starter minutes” to maintain a lead;
- Your bench played well enough to maintain a lead
The thing I thought of more than once watching the Thunder dispose of the Rockets was the Boston Celtics. I wasn’t looking past the Rockets, but rather considering how the Celtics had handled their business earlier that night. They too were playing an inferior opponent with key injuries (John Wall). Look at their point and minute distribution. Rondo was the high minute man with 30. This is the perfect template on how to manage a game against an inferior opponent without causing great distress on your team’s long term prospects. The big difference between the Celtics’ and the Thunder’s performances was, when Boston cranked up their defense, they really cranked it up, twice holding the Wizards to under 20 points in a quarter. It is the template to follow.
You know, because the Celtics know how to handle their business. Really.
And now for some tangentially related cheesy music from the 70’s: