With the starting lineup restored, the Thunder opened up against the Mavericks 15-3. As NBA games tend to do, it tightened up.
Then to open the fourth quarter, the Thunder outscored the Mavs 15-0, spacing out to a 21-point lead. It became 22 with 6:30 to go, but as NBA games tend to do, it tightened up again. The Mavs cut it to eight, 105-97, with a 14-0 run of their own with four minutes left.
Dirk, who was awesome tonight, missed a contested 13-footer. Russell Westbrook got wild in traffic and turned the ball over. Wes Matthews spotted up in transition and had an open shot to make things especially tense, but missed long. Kevin Durant, as he tends to do, crushed the Mavs’ hopes and dreams with his own 3, putting the Thunder back up 11 and sending OKC to a solid bounce back win.
Coming off whatever you want to call Sunday’s game against the Cavs, the Thunder not-so-conveniently had two days off. Two days to think about that embarrassment, to answer questions about it, to grow more and more annoyed about not being able to wash the taste away immediately. And maybe it was a good thing because there was certainly an edge to the way they played — even if they denied it — and more importantly, it produced a significant adjustment.
For the first time ever, Billy Donovan staggered Durant and Westbrook’s minutes for essentially the entire 48 minutes.
“The biggest thing for me is getting Kevin and Russell in a comfort zone with that,” Donovan said. “This was a little bit different. Kevin came out twice in the first half and twice in the second half. And as a coach, with him being so great offensively, you don’t want to break rhythm. The hard part sometimes, he gets it going middle of that first quarter and then you take him, or do leave him in there. He’s been great in terms of always wanting to do what’s best for the team. I just told him, in particular fourth quarter, I think we’ve got to have either you or Russell out there to start that fourth quarter. I went to it early and we had talked about it the last couple days and he wanted to try it, he was all for it.”
The joke to make is “Hey, Billy finally figured it out!” but in reality, this was more an collaborative adjustment. Durant has always preferred to play the entire first quarter, and most of the third. The reason the staggering was often a problem was because of that. So it was going to take an adjustment as much on the part of Durant as it was Donovan.
“Man, whatever he wants me to do, I’m down,” Durant said. “I felt good. I’ve been in this league long enough I can figure it out. Coach just came to me the other day and said he wanted to try it out and I said it was cool. It doesn’t really affect me. At some point I’m going to get it going, at some point I’m going to make shots. Tonight it just started to come around. I’ve just got to stay patient. I can’t force anything because I’m coming out a little earlier, I’ve just got to play my game. What happens, happens. Just try to play winning basketball.”
The change was this: Durant came out around the six-minute mark, sat for about four minutes, then came back around the two minute-mark of the first quarter, checking in for Westbrook, who sat at his normal time. Durant then started the second quarter and played for an extended time, before Westbrook came back, Durant sat, and then the two reunited for the last few minutes. And repeat for the third and fourth.
What this meant: Either Durant or Westbrook effectively played all 48 minutes. What it also meant: They played less together. On average this season they play 31 minutes a game together. Tonight, it was 25. And considering the Thunder outscore teams by 12.2 points per 100 when they play together, you can see why you want them out there as a duo.
Which is why the Thunder tried to build this so-called deep bench. To enable longer spells for them off, and therefore, more time on together. But now, with 57 games to have the bench reveal itself to be mostly inconsistent garbage, the change is necessary to sustain through games, especially against good teams.
Because tonight, that depth showed up, with Dion Waiters breaking out of his slump, at least for a night, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half which featured 4-of-6 from 3. Enes Kanter added 14 and nine in 17 minutes. Serge Ibaka had 13 and eight. Steven Adams scored 13 of his 15 in a monster third quarter. Randy Foye even hit a pair of 3s. The Thunder looked complete tonight. Maybe it had to do with the rotational change, maybe not.
Either way, they looked like a good team again.
- Spanning the third and fourth, the Mavs missed 14 straight shots. Some of that was very good defense, some of it was the Mavs missing decent looks.
- Andre Roberson looked solid in his first game back. Was a little foul-y, picking up four in 21 minutes. He hit a 3 and got out in transition.
- Westbrook on the rotation change: “It was fine. It was normal for myself, little different for Kevin. But I think he adjusted well and the team adjusted well.”
- Durant on if they played with a point to prove tonight: “We just played our game. We just did a better job of playing our game. We definitely didn’t want to lose three in a row, but guys were relaxed. We were relaxed, we played calm all night. When they made that little run we stayed calm and we stayed together. But no, we played our game. We let everybody on the outside panic and we just tried to stay solid.”
- Westbrook: “No, we came out and competed at a high level defensively. Like I said the last two games, there wasn’t concern, man. We’re a good team when we play the right way and we did that tonight.”
- Gotta say: Didn’t expect Foye to be a regular part of the rotation like this. Maybe this just still just a feeling out, but that certainly wasn’t anticipated when the deal went down.
- Y’all, Randy Foye is Derek Fisher, isn’t he? Right down to the number and everything. He plays the 1 and 2, stands in the corner a lot and by the end of this season we’re all probably going to be griping about how many minutes he’s getting.
- Cameron Payne played only four minutes in the second, then didn’t get any to start the fourth, which is usual. Instead… Randy Fisher got his minutes. It is going to be Fisher over Reggie Jackson all over again?
- How long do you guys think Foye will make it when he coaches the Knicks in two years? More than two seasons?
- One potentially unexpected benefit to Foye: It reduced Waiters’ minutes tonight. A Dion Waiters that is playing 20-25 concentrated minutes, to me, is better than one playing 30-35. That’s an obvious statement, but I wanted to say it anyway.
- Adams just destroyed Zaza Pachulia tonight, especially in the third. Beasted him in every way, both on the offensive glass and on the defensive end.
- Dirk: Still awesome. I love that dude.
- Carlisle went to a three point guard look in the first and third. And the Thunder went to a no point guard look, with Durant mostly operating it. To me, that was a clear win by Donovan over Carlisle. Mainly because Devin Harris ended up guarding Durant for multiple possessions.
- One thing I love about Donovan: When someone asks him about a former Florida player, he often describes them as the player that they were at Florida. Tonight, he mentioned that David Lee “has very good lift.”
- Seriously though, this Salah Mejri thing. How is he the best player of all time only against the Thunder?
- Pregame, I asked Donovan how he weighs what advanced stats, lineup data, etc say about Waiters against the “little things” he likes to talk so much about: “I think the metric piece you’re talking about, and I look at a lot of analytics and numbers things like that, because I do think they’re very valuable, but when he’s guarding Monta Ellis for example, and he’s battling him over every screen and guards are having a tough time going around him, I don’t know if there’s a metric that dictates that or evaluates that kind of stuff. If there’s an area where I think Dion needs to get better, it’s when his man doesn’t have the ball. I think he gets so locked in into trying to take somebody out, that he probably shades a little too much and needs to get back into help a little bit more.”
- Part two of Donovan’s Dion filibuster: “I do think when he has opportunities, and when he’s on the floor with Kevin and Russell, the ball is in their hands a lot, so he’s not getting the opportunity to maybe create and make some plays as much as he did with the second unit. But I think when Dion doesn’t focus about the scoring part and focuses on the other things, I think he’s really effective. He battles defensively on the ball, really, really well. Andre’s gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so, for his defense. I think Dion’s on the ball defense is really good too. He doesn’t have the length Andre has, but he’s certainly really good at moving his feet. But some of those things, I like the numbers, I like looking at them, but also I think sometimes when you’re watching film there’s things that go on that you’re not necessarily able to calculate and figure out. I think Dion’s one of those guys that does do some things, as is Andre. Andre does those things too.”
- Perfect night for me: Waiters was great, Dirk was great and the Thunder looked good.
- Donovan on getting Roberson back: “I think one, getting Andre back certainly helped us defensively, and I thought our defense was really good. With five minutes left in the game, we didn’t really close it there and they did a great job of getting back in it, but I thought our ball movement was really good and I thought we played unselfishly. I thought all of our guys were really unselfish and played the right way and defensively we had some really good continuous stances and stops, for extended periods of time, against a team that is really good offensively.”
Next up: At the Pelicans on Thursday