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Five Thoughts: Thunder 118, Bucks 112

Five Thoughts: Thunder 118, Bucks 112

The Thunder took down the Eastern Conference’s top team on Sunday night in Oklahoma City, beating the Milwaukee Bucks by a final score of 118-112. Here are five thoughts from OKC’s fifth-straight victory.

(1) Paul George is a closer

Paul George may have officially entered the MVP race on Sunday night against the Bucks. The Thunder’s superstar swingman out-dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo on national television, scoring a game-high 36 points on 8-of-12 shooting from long range. He added 13 rebounds, three assists, and three steals for good measure.

George was particularly masterful late, shooting 4-of-6 for 12 points in the fourth quarter to help OKC seal the deal. He put an exclamation on it with two unbelievable plays in the final minutes — further dispelling the old rumor that he lacks the clutch gene.

With 1:15 remaining and OKC clinging to a 108-104 lead, George drove hard to the rack and provided the highlight of the night with a powerful dunk over Antetokounmpo:

After Eric Bledsoe brought the Bucks to within three with a three-pointer on Milwaukee’s next possession, George again answered the bell and closed it out on OKC’s next trip down. His long ball with 48 seconds to go (his eigth of the night) put the Thunder back up six and all but ended the Bucks’ hopes of a late comeback.

Crunch time magic from Mr. George.

If his heroics in the clutch aren’t enough to impress you, a quick glance at his on/off numbers in the win should do the trick:

PG On38+169847.457.711495.3+18.6
PG Off10-102044.416.783.3125-41.7

The Thunder were a complete and total train wreck with George on the bench, scoring 83.3 points per 100 possessions while surrendering 125 points per 100 possessions to Milwaukee. That flipped-flopped with him on the floor, as the ORTG jumped to 114 and the DRTG fell to 95.3.

In terms of value, it’s difficult to have more of it than George did last night.

Though the road to MVP likely runs through Houston, George’s resume is getting increasingly difficult to ignore as the season progresses. He’s knocked down multiple game-winners, playing Defensive Player of the Year-level defense, and has saved his best play for the Thunder’s biggest opponents. His per-game averages are up to 27.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, four assists, and 2.3 steals. His three-point shooting has also crawled to 40.2 percent on nearly nine attempts per game.

If the Thunder keep winning and PG13 continues serving as the catalyst, his MVP candidacy won’t be flying under the radar for much longer. The dude is playing out of his mind.

(2) Bad night for Russell Westbrook

As great as George was against the Bucks, Russell Westbrook was equally bad in the 118-112 victory. Though he finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists (his 16th triple-double of the season), he shot just 5-of-20 and wrapped up his night as a team-low -11.

Westbrook’s on/off numbers were very, very ugly:

Russ On36-118345.145.5101.2116-14.8
Russ Off12+173552.260129.669.2+60.4

Despite a season-long shooting slump, it can typically be argued that Westbrook’s impact in other areas is enough to offset his inability to put the ball in the basket. That wasn’t the case against the Bucks. With Westbrook off the floor, the offense was 28 points per 100 possessions better and the defense gave up 46 fewer points per 100 possessions. All in all, the Bucks outscored OKC by 11 in Westbrook’s 36 minutes. The Thunder outscored Milwaukee by 17 in the nearly 12 minutes the former MVP watched from the sideline.

Though the defense was terrible with Westbrook on the floor, he really struggled offensively against the NBA’s number one defense. The Bucks cut off the paint and invited him into the mid-range — which didn’t yield positive results for the Thunder:

Westbrook vs Milwaukee (stats.nba.com)

Unable to get to the rim, Westbrook went 2-for-11 in the mid-range and gave up trying to get much closer. The lack of aggression resulted in just one trip to the free throw line for the Brodie. When you factor in how the defense performed in his 36 minutes, it’s difficult to locate many positives here. It was an ineffective performance that can’t be saved by pointing at the triple-double. PG and Dennis Schroder bailed him out.

(3) Lineups

In the same vein…

The Thunder starters posted an offensive rating of 114.7 in their 15 minutes together, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from long range. Things were fine offensively. The issue was on the other end of the floor.

In those same 15 minutes, the starters gave up 46 points on 59.3 percent shooting to the Bucks, good for a defensive rating of 127.8. Milwaukee shot 8-of-12 from deep against the lineup. For the game, the starters were -7 and had a net rating of -13.1.

Luckily for Billy Donovan, his bench (which is a dumpster fire at times) came through with some valuable contributions to help propel the Thunder to victory.

With Westbrook struggling, Dennis Schroder helped curb the defensive bleeding and scored 14 points (+10) in his 28 minutes. Nerlens Noel filled in for a temporarily banged up Steven Adams and did his thing defensively, as OKC had a DRTG of 77.5 in his 17 minutes. Patrick Patterson (+7) and Abdel Nader (+7) rounded out Donovan’s 9-man rotation and were both part of some important lineups.

Schroder/Nader/George/Patterson/Noel was the most productive lineup of the evening, outscoring Milwaukee 21-13 in their six and a half minutes together. The group had a defensive rating of 81.3 in their combined stints from the second and third quarters.

Schroder/Nader/George/Patterson/Adams was a +5 in seven minutes. The Schroder + starters lineup followed with a +4 in a little more than seven minutes of their own.

Long story short: Schroder was very important in relief of Westbrook and PG13 had to be on the floor in order for the Thunder to get anything going. His success in lineups that didn’t include Russ was the difference for OKC.

4. Unsung Heroes

Though George and his heroics were the story line, the win over Milwaukee likely doesn’t happen without strong performances from Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson, and Steven Adams. They don’t stand out in terms of plus/minus numbers, but they did the dirty work in difficult match-ups.

Grant drew the start on Antetokounmpo and played him about as well as humanly possible. The Greek Freak was 0-of-6 for three total points at the halftime break, which allowed OKC to establish a lead they never surrendered. Though the superstar MVP candidate finished with 27 points — 18 of which came with Grant as the primary defender — you couldn’t ask for much more from the first line of defense. Grant finished his night with 16 points, five blocks, and helped set the tone early.

Terrance Ferguson continued firing with confidence, shooting 6-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-5 from long range. He contributed 15 points in his 27 minutes of floor time, and complemented the shooting with another solid night on the defensive end. Check out this effort against the 6-11 Antetokounmpo:

Though the sharpshooting Brook Lopez kept him too spread out in the early going, Adams finished his night with 14 points, eight rebounds, and a +1 in his 31 minutes. He made his presence felt in a dominant third quarter, putting up 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the frame — routinely attacking the league’s best interior defense. His efforts helped the Thunder keep pace in the third, which was necessary considering the Bucks scored 37 in the 12 minutes of play and looked poised to come back.

Also — Kiwi Step:

(5) Streaking

The Thunder have won five straight after losing five of six between January 6 and January 17. At 31-18, they’re third in the Western Conference with a one-game lead on fourth-place Portland. They trail the second-place Nuggets by 2.5 games and the first-place Warriors by four games.

via ESPN

The immediate schedule is favorable, as OKC will travel to Orlando on Tuesday for a tilt with the 20-30 Magic. They’ll then head to Miami on Friday for a showdown with the 24-24 Heat. With that in mind, there’s no reason to think the winning streak can’t reach seven games before Sunday’s nationally-televised contest in Boston against the 30-19 Celtics.

After that, the Thunder will face Orlando next Tuesday in OKC, then the Grizzlies next Thursday in Memphis. Should the team take care of business against Boston, a 10-game streak is very much on the table. Not bad for a squad that looked lost earlier this month.

Regardless of what’s coming here in the short term, the Thunder’s final 33 games of the 2018-19 season won’t be a cakewalk. Tankathon still lists OKC’s remaining schedule as the toughest in the league, with opponents combining for a winning percentage of 55.6 percent. They’ll see the Bucks again, have one more with Golden State, and face the Raptors and Nuggets two times each. It won’t be an easy path forward.

That being said, the Thunder’s current five-game winning streak includes victories over the Sixers, Trail Blazers, and Bucks — teams with a combined record of 96-41. If OKC can beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, while continuing solid play against tougher opponents, they should stay right in the thick of the hunt for home court advantage in the postseason.