This was a game of rookie debuts, mini-runs, and a whole lot of highlight reel plays.You couldn't ask for more from an early season game, especially considering how much of a snoozefest the Timberwolves had turned into last season. Without further ado, let's get to the recap.
In the first quarter, it was business as usual for both teams. The Thunder were looking to get their offensive machine started by looking to Sefolosha and Perkins, while the Timberwolves were looking for shots that were maybe a bit too fancy while crossing the lane. But when the Timberwolves subbed in Jose Juan Barea, there was a definite momentum shift. Westbrook wanted to make a statement to his former rival early in the game, so he attempted to outwit Barea on his way to the basket. But in the process of backing Barea down, Westbrook committed an offensive foul. The statement had been made, and the Timberwolves kept a small lead throughout the first.
Kevin Durant was in a bit of a dry spell early on, missing some wide open shots. Meanwhile, Beasley was an absolute warrior in the paint, getting his own rebounds and laying it back in.
Ricky Rubio was worlds of improvement over Luke Ridnour. He had the ability to make some really slick passes in traffic. High speeds didn't hinder his decision making, either. When running into the lane, he knows exactly where all of the other 9 players on the floor are, and makes the best decision. I'm not willing to anoint him Steve Nash 2.0 yet, but four assists in 9 minutes is nothing to sneeze at.
In the second quarter, the Thunder had some real defensive problems in the lane. Minnesota was already having some success driving the lane against our starters. With the addition of Ricky Rubio and two high scoring youngsters (Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams), Minnesota almost made driving the lane look too easy. But the Thunder's always good looking transition game kept them in the mix, and they finally re-took the lead with 4:40 to go in the second.
When Rubio left the game in the late second, the T-Wolves looked lost again. The Thunder were scoring with the same consistency as before, but Minnesota's offense just looked staggered. It had evolved into a bunch of isolation plays on the wing that turned out terribly, poorly chosen threes, and badly managed one-man drives into the lane.
Below: The Second Half, A Westbrook-Rubio Duel, The Good and Bad of the New T-Wolves, More Analysis, Awards!
The Thunder pretty consistently kept their lead in the early third. They weren't getting out in transition, but their shutdown paint defense and excellent mid-range game helped them extend their lead. The Timberwolves would have their moments, but the Thunder were always able to recover well. Durant had a particularly impressive display in the late third, hitting a really difficult fadeaway jumper and hitting a really sweet layup around Milicic. He hit six shots in a row, and had 16 points for the quarter.
The game wasn't over yet, though. Minnesota was down by 6 heading into the fourth, but JJ Barea immediately cut it in half with a really deep three. The problems continued for the Thunder as Ricky Rubio re-entered the game in the fourth, helping the Timberwolves with a pair of freethrows and a REALLY sick bounce pass to Derrick Williams for an open fast break jam.
Despite the quick run by the T-Wolves, the Thunder knew how to respond. Daequan Cook returned the favour with a quick three, and the Thunder continued to attack the basket afterwards. The Timberwolves started settling for some tough threes, which didn't do a whole lot for their game. Things didn't stay that way for long, though. The game became a back and forth madhouse, with the Timberwolves finding success in transition while the Thunder worked for open shots.
Westbrook and Rubio really got into it during the fourth. Rubio had a sweet looking mid-range jumper. Rather than getting enraged, he put on the infamous smirk we all know him for. At the other end, he dumped it off to Collison. He at first faked going into the lane, appearing to trot back to the three point line. But in mid-trot, Westbrook immediately cut back into the lane for an easy jam right under Rubio's nose. Welcome to the NBA, Ricky.
Eventually, the Thunder went down by 1 with about 5 minutes to go in the fourth. Finally, we had our first test of the Thunder's fourth quarter offense. The next five plays went like so: A Durant drive that resulted in 2 FT, a in-rhythm Westbrook jumper that hit the back of the rim, a Westbrook drive that resulted in a charge, a Durant Rip Move that resulted in a Block, and another Westbrook drive that resulted in a charge. Here, we're seeing the same problems that we saw last year. Over-reliance on a completely covered Durant and Westbrook, and an almost complete ignorance of the other players on the floor.
But all was not for naught. The Thunder were still killing it defensively, and on the next play, Westbrook pulled out an And 1 in transition. The play after that finally resulted in someone other than Westbrook and Durant touching the ball, as James Harden faked a drive and found Perkins down low. From that point on, the Thunder were back in business and the good ball movement continued.
But Westbrook missed a open shot with only seconds to go, giving the Timberwolves the ball and the final shot, only down by two. Rubio immediately fed it to Beasley, who drove down the baseline. Fortunetely for the Thunder, he ran right into a non-fouling Kendrick Perkins and easily missed the shot. Perk rebounded it and hit two freethrows to seal the deal. Kendrick Perkins is clutch, who knew?
I think the most important thing to take away from this game is that the Timberwolves are a significant threat in today's NBA. Watching this game, I didn't get the feeling that the Timberwolves were some bottom of the league team overachieving and hoping they could defeat the mighty Thunder. I really felt like it was a playoff atmosphere, with two strong young teams going at it.
Still, the Timberwolves face a significant amount of problems moving forward. The biggest of them is probably the lack of a go-to guy in the clutch. Do they look to Michael Beasley? Sometimes he thinks too highly of himself, and his drives can be ill-advised. Kevin Love? He's usually mobbed in the lane at this point. Ricky Rubio is a distributor, and not much of a scorer. And Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams are a bit young for that role. So while they have a lot of options, they don't have a definitive answer, and that will hurt them late in games.
Ibaka is slowly working to gain his confidence back. He sometimes passes up mid-range jumpers that he should be hitting, and his drive into the lane are sometimes ill-advised. But you could see he was working for offensive opportunities tonight, and that he's slowly working himself back into the offensive rotation.
Russell Westbrook's turnover woes continue in a big way. There was one point where Westbrook threw the ball to...nobody. Literally. He just threw it from the top of the arc straight into the crowd sitting on the baseline. He also missed a few very hittable mid-range jumpers late in the game, nearly losing the win. I'm beginning to think we should be a bit concerned about Westbrook. Not in the "Move him to Shooting Guard" sense, (PLEASE, not in that sense), but in the "Let's see how he can take better care of the ball" sense.
All in all, it was a solid win for the Thunder. They currently sit alone at the top of the Western Conference (and the entire NBA) at 2-0, while the Timberwolves are in a four-way tie for tenth at 0-1.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 16 Points in the Third Quarter with 6 Straight Made Shots
Thunder Down Under: Daequan Cook, Two Clutch Threes
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, who is averaging 7 TO's on the year.
Thunder Plunderer: Ricky Rubio, 6 Points, 6 Rebounds, 5 Assists
Next Game: At the Memphis Grizzlies, Wednesday, December 28th, 7 PM Central Standard Time