Final Score: Thunder 89, Celtics 84
Points: Westbrook with 31; Kevin Garnett with 16
Rebounds: Ibaka, Sefolosha with 7; O’Neal, Pierce with 6
Assists: Westbrook with 7, Rondo with 7
“I knew going into the game that we would have to play just an ugly game”-Scott Brooks
I can’t say that I saw that one coming. Kevin Durant was hurt. Green was still hurt. Westbrook had a terrible game the last time they faced off. I could boast that I saw certain elements that could have unfolded, but that isn’t much of a prediction at all, merely supposition. As I watched the second half unfold, I felt like I was watching a college basketball game. Neither side was playing particularly well and the defenses were playing better than the offenses. The Thunder slowed the game down, making each possession increase in value. One guy was carrying the load on offense (Westbrook) and the underdogs were shocking the big guys for three quarters. The more the game dragged on, the more the underdogs believed they could pull off the upset. Suddenly guys who weren’t normally contributing were finding ways to get a put-back or a lose ball. Suddenly it’s midway through the fourth quarter and people are starting to believe.
Normally the story ends with the underdog running out of gas in the end, the more talented team makes enough plays, and the better team squeaks out the win while the underdog is left wondering what might have been. Rarely does the underdog hold on.
But sometimes…we still believe.
All that to say, this was one game out of 82. It was a huge confidence booster, to be sure, and in a division where one or two games might separate a 4th from a 5th seed, it could prove to be meaningful. At the end of the day though, I do think this offering’s measurables go beyond a mere W. In the closest of games, the smallest of differences usually prove to be the things that win battles, and the team that wins the most is the one that pays attention to them. Here are a few:
- The Thunder took the lead five minutes into the 2nd quarter and never lost it. They are becoming exceptional in playing with a lead.
- They outscored the Celtics by 10 at the charity stripe.
- They did not go 3-point shot crazy. They only took nine for the game, making six.
- Westbrook moved the ball in their offensive sets extremely well through the first three quarters, which allowed them to take the lead.
- This is the big one – they out-rebounded the Celtics both on offensive and defensive boards. They held Garnett to only two defensive rebounds. Sefolosha himself totaled seven.
- They played great defense down the stretch, limiting the Celtics to only 15 4th quarter points.
You only need one additional point to win. All of these little elements added up to five.
As exciting as the win was, there were a few things that were still frustrating:
- I really don’t know what happened in the 4th quarter offensively. Did Coach Brooks change up the strategy so that all the offense consisted of Westbrook going one-on-one? Did the players stop listening? Were they just tired? Did nobody else want to shoot? They almost undid all of the great work that they had put in thus far. The commentator for the game, the great Hubie Brown, noted repeatedly that they completely abandoned everything that had worked through three quarters.
- They went the final 9 1/2 minutes without making a field goal. See point one for the primary reason why. This statistic is both impressive, in that they were able to hold off the Celtics for that long with virtually no offense, and scary, because you can’t win games consistently without actually making shots.
- With Kevin Durant missing, Westbrook clearly took it upon himself to carry the scoring load, and this was fine up to the point in the 4th when he started going one-on-five. He has to learn to have a little bit more awareness of the situation and what is and what is not working.
- James Harden…I don’t know. I’ve resisted Simmons’ bleating that he may be the blown draft pick, but after tonight, I think he may be right. Harden got plenty of minutes to get into the flow of the game. He was engaged, he generated good shots, the spotlight was on him to make up for Durant’s lost offense, but…he just can’t make shots. He’s like a rookie version of Delonte West. Now West is a fine player and could probably start on a number of teams, but he was a 24th pick in the draft. If Harden were a #24 pick, I’d probably say, “Cool, he’s showing me some things, just give him time.” But he wasn’t a 24 pick; he was a #3. And #3 picks need to show you something tangible and consistently that makes them worthy of the investment.The situation reminds me in some way of the Memphis Grizzlies in the early part of last decade. In 2003, they drafted Drew Gooden with their 4th pick. Shortly thereafter, the Logo Jerry West took over the GM duties. Barely half a season later, Gooden in his rookie year was wearing a different jersey. There was just something about him that West saw that, not only did he not like, but he decided that it was irredeemable and he wanted to move Gooden before his value dropped. It is probably not a coincidence that Gooden has now played for nine different teams since he was drafted. The moral is, sometimes you have to admit a mistake and fix it. I’m starting to lean towards fixing it.
All this to say, tonight’s game was not one that we should be complaining about. That win was a huge step forward in the Thunder’s growth as a team. They played cohesively as a unit, minimized their weaknesses, and were unafraid to go up against the team that embarrassed them at home. This win will go a long way toward validating the Thunder’s legitimacy. And once they are back at full strength, they will really start to excel.
Next game: at Milwaukee on Saturday, November 20, 8:30PM EST.