Defense does it for the Thunder; OKC beats Phoenix 96-91
With five minutes left, I thought we were about to watch the same movie we just saw. And the ending wasn’t a very fun one. Oklahoma City closed the third quarter on a big run, built a double-digit lead and had a ton of momentum. But it all fell flat in the fourth. The offensive execution went flying out the door, passes got sloppy and worst of all, they missed open looks.
And honestly, nothing changed for the entire fourth quarter. The Thunder’s offensive execution stayed poor and they missed more shots. Spoiler alert: the Thunder ended up winning. But it wasn’t by snapping out of the funk. They grinded out possessions, went three minutes at a time without scoring and shot just 39 percent for the game, but did what needed to be done to just win. It was the type of game that you kind of wonder how your team finished on top, but despite only scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had just enough to edge Phoenix, 96-91.
Sure, to see this happen a second straight game and a second straight time against Phoenix is a little disconcerting. The fact Kevin Durant entered the fourth with 29 and finished with 35 and went 1-4 from the floor might make you feel uneasy. But the fact the Thunder came out on top in this type of game is enough for me to feel fantastic.
Durant’s lone field goal was as big as any he’s made this season. Russell Westbrook made an enormous play blocking Steve Nash at the rim with 20 seconds up and OKC leading by five. Serge Ibaka hit a massive bucket in the paint with a minute left. Whenever the Thunder needed a big play or needed someone to step up, they got it. This was a gut-check type of game and Oklahoma City answered the bell. No three-game losing streaks here.
After giving up 57 points in the first half, OKC locked down in the third allowing the Suns to just 12 points. And then the Thunder played stellar defense in the fourth, holding the Suns to only 22 points. The top offense in the NBA, by efficiency standards, was held to just 34 points in the second half. That’s incredible. The Thunder got back to basics on the defensive end against the Nuggets Wednesday. But tonight, they re-discovered their identity and because of the shutdown defensively, OKC won this game. That’s almost as sweet as the win itself.
- Nenad Krstic sat this one out and Nick Collison started in his steed. Collison was in foul trouble for the most part, but Serge Ibaka stepped in and maybe played his finest game as a professional. Fifteen points on 6-11 shooting, nine rebounds and three blocks. He’s becoming an absolute force.
- And not just the productivity on the statsheet, Ibaka was part of the reason Amare Stoudemire scored just seven points in the second half. Amare had 17 in the first half and ran circles around Etan Thomas who looked a half-step slow. But Ibaka got nasty, got physical and played stellar defense.
- Kevin Durant is just so stinking good. He passed Michael Jordan on the free throws made in a season list by going 14-16 from the stripe. Oh, and he had 35 points and nine boards. No big.
- It looked like KD is pretty beat up though. He had a wrap around his right calf and right upper thigh. It’s that time in the season where a 45-minute ice bath is the norm after each game.
- Russell Westbrook couldn’t get a shot to drop for the life of him (4-16 from the floor), but he was excellent tonight. He had 10 assists to just one turnover and did a pretty great job defensively on Steve Nash in the second half.
- James Harden went headbandless for the first time in 18 games tonight. It didn’t work out so great for him, as he went for just two points on 0-4 shooting.
- I for one, am a fan of Nick Collison’s mini-beard. Now, if he’d just tighten up the sides a bit, shave off the chin and clean up the neck, we’d have the mustache we’ve all been dreaming about.
- Scott Brooks called off practice yesterday and shucked the shootaround. He sensed his guys were worn out and it was a perfect call. The Thunder showed a ton of energy and effort tonight and looked fresher than they have in a few weeks.
- How about Thabo tonight! Fifteen on 6-10 shooting, including 2-2 from 3. And OKC needed it in a big way in this one.
- I don’t know what the deal is, but Jeff Green is just an awesome finisher. And he’s even better as an off-balance, awkward finisher. Even when Uncle Jeff is bumped and falling down, it seems like he’s always going to make it. He’s just got great touch around the rim. Everything lands soft and he’s got the presence to get everything up on the rim, no matter what.
- How about the sequence of Serge stealing the ball in the open floor, dribbling a few times and finishing a break all by himself? That was tasty.
- If it comes down to it, OKC now holds the tiebreaker over Phoenix, 2-1.
- Phoenix shot 45 percent to OKC’s 39. The reason OKC won? The Thunder took 13 more shots than the Suns. Phoenix lost this game because of turnovers (19 for the game). OKC turned it over just 13 times and the Suns scored only nine points off them.
That’s win No. 49, giving the Thunder a great shot at 50 this Sunday night against Golden State. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. The possibility of 50 wins seemed like a longshot even two weeks ago. This was just a massive win for multiple reasons, the most important being the fact that it looks like the Thunder has found their identity on the defensive end again. The rotations were great, the energy was at a high level and athletic players made athletic plays. It was about stopping the man in front of you tonight and if you scored on the other end, that’s bonus. We’d been burned the last two games so the confidence level sagged a bit in the fanbase, but this one has restored a lot of positive feelings, at least for me.
Next up: At Golden State Sunday night.