Final Score: Thunder 114, Nuggets 106
Points: Durant with 44, Billups with 30
Rebounds: Nene with 12, Krstic with 8
Assists: Green with 6, Ty Lawson with 5
Here is the question – at what point did you begin to realize that it was a Kevin Durant Christmas night? Was it the eight point mini-burst at the end of the 2nd quarter when he began to get in a grove? Was it mid-way through the 3rd, on his way to a 21 point quarter outburst to allow the Thunder to pull ahead? Was it in the 4th, when Durant wasn’t even looking to shoot, but instead facilitated the offense in a way that the best small forwards can do?
The answer is, of course, yes.
We’ve all seen it over the past week – Durant has been feeling an offensive flow that he had not experienced through the first month of the season. Too often he had been rushing shots, taking bad angles on drives, and shooting well below 50%. The free throw line was his saving grace. In the last week though, it is as if the record player needle finally found the right grove for his personal melody. He is getting the ball where he wants it and when he wants it, his decisions have been instant, and his decisions have made the offense more fluid. A night like Christmas night was bound to happen, but it is pretty cool that it did happen on our nation’s most vibrant holiday.
As expected, the Nuggets hung tough for much of the game. They came out emotional and jumped to the early 1st quarter lead, as the Thunder looked a bit hesitant to engage. Down mid-way through the 2nd quarter, it was once again the 2nd unit, spurred on by James Harden, that allowed the Thunder to regain some momentum and stem the Denver tide. Harden asserted himself well, getting 14 of his 21 in that pivotal 2nd quarter. It marked the beginning of the Thunder winning the latter three quarters. Harden and Durant worked well together, keeping the Thunder afloat until they could get their feet underneath themselves once more. By the time the third quarter rolled around, Durant in not so many words told his teammates, “I got this. Get ready for your time.” In the 3rd quarter, Durant hit a wide array of shots from all angles. He did it from the 3-point line, he did it from the post, and he did it off the drive. It was the kind of stretch that we all thought we would be seeing nightly from Durant; little did we know that it’s actually quite difficult to do it. Against the Nuggets, Durant made it look easy.
After the defensive struggle against the Knicks, against the Nuggets the Thunder once again found their groove. The 1st quarter was the only one where they gave up more than 30 points. By the 4th, the Thunder had figured it out again. They held the Nuggets to 21 points, and the Thunder supporting cast were ready to step up. Durant was still the offensive focal point, but instead of chasing a 50 point night, he settled in to the post position and played the kind of point-forward game that I had been longing to see. Leading up to these latest spate of games, too far often Durant had relied on his face-up penetration game to try and free himself up for shots, and he became prone to taking off-balance shots and getting his dribble swiped. Against the Nuggets though, he stopped relying on what I would consider the weakest part of his offensive repertoire. Instead, he took a position in the post very similar to Dirk Nowitzki’s – up high, where he can see the court, but with space around him to allow him to work. In the first three quarters, Durant did not see the double-teams coming quickly enough, so in quick and concise moments made his move and shot. In the 4th, the double-teams came faster, and Durant’s burgeoning passing ability was on full display. When asked to comment on it, Durant offered this exceptional quote:
“The only thing I was thinking when I got the ball was hockey assists”
That comment says so much about the growing patience in Durant’s offensive game. If you are not familiar with hockey, Durant is referring to the kind of passing that leads to points/goals. In the NBA, a pass that leads to a bucket is considered an assist. However, in hockey, up to two players can be awarded an assist – the passer who led to the shot (primary assist) and the passer who led to the pass that led to the shot (secondary assist). In other words, Durant was saying that what was important to him in passing out of the post was not simply making the great pass that led to the bucket, but gaining personal achievement by making a pass that LED to the making of the pass that was awarded as an assist. If you watched the 4th unfold, you could see that is exactly what was happening. Durant only had four assists for the game, but he frequently passed the ball quickly and decisively that led to the pass that led to the basket. As long as Durant got the ball early enough in the shot clock, he was able to break down the defense.
During the first quarter of the season, Westbrook operated as the focal point of the offense while the rest of the team worked to figure things out. That was a testimony to Westbrook’s growth as an offensive force. Equally significant though is what Westbrook has done since then – recognize that the team can only go as far as Durant takes them. As such, Westbrook has taken a back seat on offense and fed Durant and the rest of the team. I think they will be much better off in the long run because of Westbrook’s sacrifice.
Christmas night was special; let us hope we get to experience it every year.