The Thunder came into tonight's game having won six in a row, knocking off the biggest attention-grabber in the league (Heat), and destroying everybody else. It was not unreasonable to think that they would continue this march; I know I was convinced. The Raptors have had a difficult season, going one stretch having lost 13 in a row. I was certain that with the presence of Kevin Durant this time around, coupled with the tougher interior defense and rebounding, that the first game would prove to be a fluke. I'm sure folks will ask how this loss at home happened, or whether the team deserves a mulligan after playing so well through the first 2/3 of March. I'm also quite used to seeing "upsets" in the NBA. In most cases, talent disparity is only incremental. Here is my question:
How is it that the Raptors have only won 20 games this season?
I haven't had the opportunity to watch any of the Raptors' season so far, save for their two wins against the Thunder. But based on their two wins - the first, an easy rout of the Thunder in Toronto, and tonight, a gutsy grind it out win in OKC, I really don't understand how they are a lottery team. Based on what I saw, and the energy and skill present, I would have to be convinced that they're not as good as, say, the Charlotte Bobcats or Indiana Pacers.
Here is what I saw, and I'm still trying to make sense of what I saw:
In the first half of tonight's game, it became clear very quickly that the Raptors believed that they had an advantage over the Thunder with their overall team quickness. This concept might be surprising on its face; when you think of the Thunder, you immediately think of their athleticism. However, after one quarter of play and the Raptors taking an early four point lead, it was clear that on a collective basis, the Raptors had an edge. The question then became whether they could continue to dictate the tempo throughout the rest of the game.
But wait, you say. What about Russell Westbrook? He should not have any trouble staying out in front of Jose Calderon, right? While it is true that Westbrook is by far the superior athlete and there is no way Calderon can boast of Russell's offensive prowess, the reality is that at this point in Westbrook's career, he is not as good a decision-maker as Calderon. This discrepancy is made even more pronounced when the game is played at a high pace. Westbrook gets locked into an either/or mode. Calderon is almost exclusively a pass-first point guard. In the end, Calderon only had three points, but he finished with nine assists and zero turnovers.
Clearly the renewed defensive focus helped constrain the Raptors attack, yes? On a total game basis, yes, the defense did do much better than the last time out when the Raptors were just running free for open shots. This time out, the Thunder held the Raptors to only 95 points on 43.2% shooting from the field. However, in the two middle quarters, the Raptors offense was much more proficient and they were frequently able to confound the Thunder defense with high screens and adept interior passing. The Raptors guards frequently exposed something that the Thunder defenders have had an issue with since day 1: dribble-drive penetration. On the ball and in open space, only James Harden seems to be able to keep his feet set, his posture low, and keep the ball handler out of the lane.
The Raptors' featured offensive threat, Andrea Bargnani, was able to get open looks from about 15 feet and out. He did not have the same dominant game as in December, but he was able to knock down two 3-pointers and get another seven from the free throw line. More importantly, he kept the Thunder interior pulled away from the rim. For the first time in what seems like a month, Serge Ibaka did not have a single block. Complicating the matter, the Raptors also got an additional 12 points from James Johnson and 13 points from Reggie Evans. The Thunder simply could not make up any ground in these two middle quarters to build a lead.
Aha, but here is where you say, "But at least the Thunder have Kevin Durant." Well, yes. Kevin did have 20 points, which is 20 more than he had in game one. Unfortunately, he needed 21 shots to get it. The entire game Durant looked like he was off-balance. He was only able to get close to the rim infrequently; most of the time he was 20 feet away or shooting a fade-away. The combination of DeMar DeRozan, James Johnson, Reggie Evans, and Amir Johnson constantly rotating over on Durant prevented him from getting into any sort of offensive flow. And because he needed so many additional shots to get a mere 20 points, this meant that everybody else wasn't getting open shots, either.
So how did the Thunder find themselves up by three with under two minutes to play?
Big Game James.
(yes, I'm sorry, I can't help it. I know Lakers fans will excoriate me, but there it is. That's what I'm calling the Beardhawk. Well, actually, that's not a bad nickname, either.)
Yes, the defense held the Raptors to a game-low 19 points in the ultimate quarter and this defense was instrumental in keeping the game within reach. I must state though that the defense wasn't anything particularly superior to what was shown in the 1st or second quarters though; the Raptors just happened to miss more shots. But it was the presence of Harden throughout the quarter that finally gave the Thunder some semblance of shooting discretion. He scored eight points in the 4th, all of them from the free throw line. He was able to score 23 points off of only nine shots. It is Harden more than any other player who seems to have the discipline to know when NOT to shoot and work longer for a better opportunity.
Once the Thunder were back into spitting distance, they finally began to assert themselves in a way they had not before. Durant finally started to get to the rim, and Serge Ibaka was able to get free for some scores. When Durant attacked the rim and drew the foul, his two free throws gave the Thunder what seemed to be a sure cushion to weather the final round. Unfortunately, the Raptors regained their composure at the worst possible moment. They had only managed 14 points in the quarter at this point, but needed all of three seconds to spring Leandro Barbosa free for a wide open 3-pointer to tie the game. After a Westbrook miss, Barbosa again had the ball in his hands and ran a beautiful screen and roll with Amir Johnson, who finished at the rim to give the Raptors the lead back.
The final play was fitting; Scott Brooks actually ran a very good set play for Durant, but just like he had done 14 times before, KD missed everything.
Depressing for the Thunder, but good on the Raptors. The only thing they had to compete for tonight was a lottery pick, and yet they played harder, quicker, smarter, and more clutch than the streaking Thunder. I hope they hang in there; this could be a team to pay attention to in a year's time (let's hope!).
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 23 Points, 2 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 1 steal.
Thunder Down Under: Nobody; interior play non-existent
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant, 6-21 shooting, 1-6 from 3-point range.
Thunder Plunderer: Leandro Barbosa, 19 Points, 3-5 from three in only 14 minutes of play.
Next Game: vs the Utah Jazz, Wednesday, March 23th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.