This evening's game against the Bobcats goes down as another win in the record books, and we are now privileged to see the Thunder in the midst of their longest winning streak of the season at six. The Bobcats, improbably competing for a playoff spot despite a mere 29 wins so far in the season, have a shortfall in talent but plenty of incentive to play hard. The Thunder on the other hand recently had their signature win of the season this past Wednesday, which was a game as big as any mental hurdle that they have faced this year. Because of this, tonight's game was a classic let-down trap, the kind where the team is at risk of not having the emotion or energy following such a big win.
If you were to watch the first half with this in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking the Thunder were in trouble. While the team got out to a decent start in the first quarter, you could begin to see the tell-tale signs of a team that had not fully recharged its batteries after its time in South Beach. The Thunder carried a double digit lead heading into the half when they seemed to hit a wall. On offense, drives to the rim were suddenly falling short, open outside shots were no longer on target, and as we've often seen, motion ground to a halt. This is no bad thing though; every team goes through offensive droughts. What made the game competitive at this point though was that the Bobcats began to do the thing that enables lesser teams to stick around - they began to rebound well.
The Bobcats crashed the boards and the Thunder tried to figure out what was going wrong to the NBA's sudden "team of the moment." When all was said and done, in the 2nd quarter the Bobcats had tallied 17 rebounds compared to the Thunder's seven. Even more painful, seven of those Bobcat rebounds came on the offensive end, which allowed the Bobcats to pull back into contention. The Thunder, fresh on the heels of beating the Miami Heat, were now looking at a mere two point advantage heading into the break.
Perhaps a bit of a breather and some coaching would help refocus, yes? No.
A scant three minutes into the 3rd quarter, the Thunder were facing a deficit. They had failed to get their offense going, and despite Russell Westbrook finally finishing some plays, the offense looked out of synch and the Bobcats were beginning to find the range from 3-point land. Thus begins the three elements that turned a one point deficit into a blowout win.
- Kevin Durant's flurry. I believe that seeing themselves down to an inferior Bobcats team lit a fire under young Kevin's behind. As soon as Boris Diaw stroked the three that put Charlotte in front, Durant went into attack mode. He scored the next six points in such a rapid succession that we the viewer were immediately reminded as to how much better Durant is at scoring the ball than practically everyone else. While the Bobcats continued to keep it close, especially with Stephen Jackson hitting 3-point shots, the Thunder had reasserted themselves as the superior offensive team. Over the course of the next six minutes, they pushed the lead back to nine.
Durant finished his fine third quarter with an exceptional final shot possession. He was being checked by Jackson, and Jackson though aging still has a defensive presence of mind. Jackson gave a hard foul to Durant with 12 seconds to go, as the Bobcats were under the foul limit. Durant received the ball once more, and he looked as if he wanted to earn some payback by taking on Jackson again one-on-one. As the seconds ticked away, Durant made his move, driving the left side of the lane into the teeth of the defense. However, instead of elevating for a tough jumper, at the last moment Durant flipped the ball back to a cutting Nazr Mohammed, who laid the ball in before the sound of the horn. The play was a perfect blend of psychology, momentum, and playmaking.
- James Harden's safety net. As Westbrook continues to oscillate between unstoppable and stopping himself, Harden has stepped up to fill in the valleys to go along with Westbrook's peaks. Although he still takes about two too many threes per game for my taste, you cannot fault the man for contributing offense that comes completely within the flow of the game. If you take away the four 3-pointers that Harden missed, he only missed one other shot from the floor the entire game, in the process of ringing up an efficient 21 points. With Durant and Westbrook occupying the defense's attention, Harden has found a wonderful niche at the ends of games.
While during the first three quarters of the game Harden is often paired up with Eric Maynor and Nick Collison and thus serves as the offensive focal point, it does seem that Harden is also getting end-game minutes and is more than willing to take big shots in big moments. It is most fun to watch him pair up with Westbrook, because while both are extremely athletic, their games are dissimilar. While Westbrook's mode is to attack like a battering ram, Harden possesses a more elegant repertoire, working between the creases to pick his spots. He is going to become a match-up terror for teams once the playoffs begin.
- Defensive pressure changes the complexion late. We all know that tonight's game was Kendrick Perkins' home debut, and he did not disappoint. While his conditioning still isn't all the way back, I was extremely impressed with his movement both offensively and defensively. When the 4th quarter rolled around, it was really his time to shine, and Perkins did it without even touching the ball.
The great championship teams of the past few decades - the Lakers, the Spurs, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls, have all had one unifying defensive trait. They all possessed the ability to go on defensive runs that completely shut the other team down for key stretches in the game. It was as if the teammates collectively agreed in the huddle, "No points allowed for the next five minutes." And these stretches would essentially demoralize the opponent that they gave up.
Against the Bobcats, which to be sure are not a good offensive group, the Thunder still impressively had one of these streaks, and it was quarterbacked by Perkins. From the six minute mark on, the Thunder went on a 15-0 run and it was entirely keyed by defensive stops. The defense stretched itself out past the 3-point line. Driving lanes disappeared. Passing angles evaporated. Russell Westbrook dunked. And then he dunked some more. You could see the collective energy of the Bobcats fade away; they had no idea how to penetrate this blanket defense. In one particular play that showcased Perkins' talent, his man screened him off from the ball, and then Tyrus Thomas came off the screen down the right sideline. Perkins slid off the screen and made himself impossibly long and completely shielded off the much quicker Thomas from the basket. Perkins' lateral movement on the play surprised me; Thomas had no chance of getting around him. It was play that typified the defense who did not allow a single point until about 90 seconds were left, and by that point the lead had ballooned to 14 and the game was over.
The biggest benefit to this change in the team's strategy is how the players are so much more in tune with what is going on, especially defensively. Perkins has brought an accountability to the team that was not there before. Perkins is constantly in his teammates ear, working to get them to play harder and smarter. I like his moxy and confidence, especially given since he's only been with the team a few weeks.
I am eager to see how the defense holds up against the Raptors, who need a little bit of payback after they embarrassed the Thunder early this season.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 21 Points, 3 Rebounds, 3 Assists.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 13 Points, 11 Rebounds, 5 Blocks, 1 Assist.
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, 0-5 in first half, 3 turnovers.
Thunder Plunderer: Stephen Jackson, 18 Points, 4 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Steal.
Next Game: vs the Toronto Raptors, Sunday, March 20th, 6 PM Central Standard Time.