Final Score: Thunder 97, Hornets 92
Points: Westbrook with 29, David West with 24
Rebounds: David West with 13, Ibaka with 9
Assists: Westbrook with 10, Chris Paul with 7
Coming into this game, we have been wondering if the Thunder have turned a corner. We have wondered if they could play four sound quarters. Inherently, we wonder if the team can demonstrate playoff level intensity without the mental lapses and effort naps.
This game had some playoff flavor to it.
Right out of the gates, the two teams were flying up and down the court. Chris Paul was repeatedly setting up his big men, West and Okefor, for open shots in the paint. They were playing at a rapid pace that suffered little even when Paul went out and reserve PG Jarret Jack came in.
Despite their high energy, the Thunder did well to match them almost point for point in the first half. With the exception of Sefolosha, every player was looking to be aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. Perhaps that took away a bit from their defensive focus in the first 24 minutes, but it was good to see the Thunder adapt on the fly to what the Hornets were doing. NOLA is not a great offensive team, but they are offensively efficient, ever-led by Chris Paul, who plays the PG position like a pit bull. By the end of the first half, both teams had impressive offensive stats, with the Thunder shooting the ball at a 51.4% rate, with the Hornets besting them, shooting 55.8%.
In a way, you could get angry at the defensive effort, although I don’t think that’s really what caused the Thunder to be down seven at the half. They played the Hornets almost even in the 2nd, right up until the end when a rash of turnovers allowed the Hornets to pull ahead, punctuated by Chris Paul stealing an inbounds pass and getting a layup with six seconds left. In total, the Thunder had amassed 12 team turnovers that prevented them from doing further damage to the Hornets.
By the half, it was pretty evident that Paul was getting in Westbrook’s head. Westbrook was getting very frustrated with the way Paul was bodying up to him, holding him, and keeping his hands on #0. Although Westbrook had seven assists at the half, it was offset by five turnovers, the last one an offensive charge where Westbrook looked like he was about to lose his cool and retaliate for a half-second.
Despite the errors at the end of the half, I was optimistic, because unlike other games where the team fell behind, in this game it was not due to lack of effort or energy. Both were there, and it was palpable. I didn’t have the doubts that I had during the win against the Timberwolves, because it was obvious that this team was engaged. It isn’t useful anymore to think that teams “hate” each other these days, in the sense that the Bulls “hated” the Pistons back in their hayday. But it is obvious that these two teams get fired up going at each other, and I knew that the Thunder, already having a blueprint from their first game, could change the course of this one by maintaining that energy.
You can summarize the reversal of fortunes this easily: the Thunder held the Hornets to 12 points and only four field goals in the 3rd quarter. The message sent was, “we can play your game, and here, let us show you ours.” I love that. The Thunder elevated its defense even further, refusing to yield to the easy layups and open jumpers that the Hornets feasted on in the first half. Westbrook finally figured out how to attack Paul without Paul being able to get his body up and into Westbrook. Westbrook went on to play the duration of the second half committing only two turnovers.
By the time the 4th quarter rolled around, the Thunder knew exactly what they were doing, and the Hornets were flailing. One particular set of sequences really caught my eye. Durant had been having difficulty finding open spots for his jumper, mostly because Trevor Ariza is an excellent defender, both on the ball as well as in pursuit. So instead of forcing jumpers, Durant got into the two man game once again with Westbrook. But this time, instead of Westbrook setting up Durant, they switched roles. Westbrook twice set a high screen for Durant, with Durant coming off the screen into the middle of the court. The first time, Westbrook screened and then faded to the corner, and Durant swung the ball back out to him for an uncontested jumper. The second time, they ran the exact same play, except this time Westbrook rolled straight to the rim. Once again, Durant whipped him a perfect pass, and Westbrook finished strong at the rim, getting the bucket as well as an “and-1.”
Not finished quite yet, Durant later ran almost the exact same play with Jeff Green, but from the other side of the court. Green cut to the rim and drew the foul. The set-up is pretty brilliant, really. Durant possesses passing lanes that few do; the ball is coming from a trajectory about 10 feet in the air, and he can see things that others can’t. What makes the play especially difficult to defend is the fact that the defense can never try to go under the screen or attempt to switch off, because all Durant has to do then is just take a step back and shoot the wide open jumper. It is an excellent wrinkle that they’ve added to their offensive set, and I look forward to seeing it some more.
By the end of the game, you could see on the faces of the Hornets that they had been pushed back and demoralized. It was most evident in their sudden failure at the free throw line, where they missed a handful that could have kept them in the game. I think that’s the aspect of the game that I enjoyed the most; that the Thunder played with a competitive and aggressive attitude that you see most often in the playoffs.
It makes me want more.
Next game: Cavaliers at Thunder on Sunday, Dec. 12 at 7:00PM EST