Oklahoma City Thunder 122, Phoenix Suns 118: 2010-2011 Game 61 Recap; Russell Westbrook, James Harden Double-Win the Day

Yahoo! Box Score

In a festive atmosphere last night, and on an evening where once again some premature confetti purportedly fell, the Thunder pulled out a teeth gnashing overtime win against the Phoenix Suns. I think we can retire the Thunder-Suns script at this point. In every game played thus far, we've seen a close battle throughout with the Suns leading most of the way. Things start to get chippy in the 3rd, and by the 4th quarter the game gets tense and is decided in the last few possessions of the game. In game one, the Suns were able to hold off the Thunder, who simply could not get shots to fall (three point loss). In the second game, Russell Westbrook finished the game strong in propelling the Thunder out into a lead late, and the team hung on (four point win).

In this third iteration, the Thunder were outscored in each of the first three quarters, but then surged ahead mid-way through the fourth. I thought things would end there, but with the Thunder failing to increase their lead late in the game, the Suns were able to catch up and make things interesting. A big Vince Carter 3-pointer sent things into overtime. 

In the overtime period, both the Suns and Thunder brought success, with the former having gone 4-2 and the latter 5-1. The Thunder were able to hold on in the end, once again taking advantage of a huge free throw disparity with nine attempts in the OT period, and making seven. Russell Westbrook and James Harden played the key roles, with Harden getting five of the team's 13 OT points, and Westbrook hitting the game-icing free throws as time ran out.

Here were my previously stated anticipative keys:

 

  1. Russell Westbrook vs Steve Nash: This battle bore out itself extremely well. Overall, I think that Westbrook did win the match-up, despite Nash's 11 points and 14 assists against only two turnovers. While Westbrook did have a few ill-advised shots and drove the ball recklessly on more than one occasion, for the most part he displayed the kind of patience that he had against the Hawks. He knew that he could take Nash off the dribble whenever he wanted, but the key for Westbrook is knowing what he's going to do with the ball once he gets past the first level of defense.

    The play that typified Westbrook's patience beautifully came late in the game when he beat his man off the dribble, but instead of attacking further or pulling up to shoot the jumper, he tossed a nice soft lob to James Harden, who came flying in for the ally-oop. It was a beautiful play at a critical moment in the game.  On the night, Westbrook finished with the kind of stat line that we would expect against a Suns team that doesn't guard the perimeter well - 32 points, 11 assists, 2 steals.

  2. Marcin Gortat vs Thunder Bigs: I think I was correct in my assessment that it would only take some time for Gortat to fit into the Suns offensive scheme. What I did not anticipate is the ability that Gortat would possess in, not only finishing plays, but creating plays. When we think back as to how this game remained as close as it did, I think two things should be prominent - a) the Suns' clutch 3-point shooting; and b) Gortat's passing out of the high screen and rolls. 

    I thought the Thunder did quite a good job defending Nash last night. They trapped him aggressively outside of the 3-point arc and kept him running sideline to sideline, instead of letting Nash get into the lane. However, while the Suns were not able to spring Nash free in open space, they were able to get Gortat lose in the paint. I couldn't believe how many times he could be seen running through the lane with nobody on him, ready to receive a pass. It is a testament to the play of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison that Gortat was held to 20 points. If Gortat had any sort of effective mid-range jump shot, he could easily have had over 30. Never the less, when he did receive the screen and roll passes, it was his passing out of the paint that really kept the Suns competitive. Gortat finished with four assists, but it felt like more because of his ability to swing the ball to the open spots on the court.
Big Game James

As big a factor that Westbrook's play was, the real key to this game was the play of James Harden. I thought Coach Scott Brooks did a really good job balancing the minutes between Harden, Thabo Sefolosha, and Daequan Cook. Each of these men had key contributions at critical junctures. While Cook did not shoot as well as past games, it was his big 3-pointer that tied the game at 95 mid-way through the 4th. Sefolosha grabbed nine big rebounds and had two blocks in the game, all the while playing physical defense.

It was Harden's play, however, that allowed the Thunder to sustain their run in the absence of Kevin Durant's normal offensive display. Harden seems to be developing an exceptional rapport with Westbrook, and it works because both of them are athletic and explosive and they play to each other's strengths without overlapping too much. Harden got his 26 off of only 12 shots in the game, and much to my delight, eased up on the 3-point shooting (he went 2-4). Instead, Harden frequently worked the pick and rolls with Nick Collison to spring either himself or his teammates free, as he also tallied four assists to go with his points.

Lastly, Harden looks so much more comfortable now in working his offensive game; I think it has been a subtle shift where he trusts himself more because his teammates and coach trust in him. Instead of adding gratuitous offense, Harden now seems to know that if he does not get his game working, the Thunder cannot win. His jump shot looks much more fluid and he is looking for dunks instead of layups. It is worth nothing that Harden played almost the entire OT period, and had five points and an offensive rebound.  Big Game indeed.

The Officiating

I'd be remiss if I did not address the officiating in the game. In a word, it was bad. There were numerous missed calls, the offensive charge/defensive block calls seemed extremely arbitrary, and of course there was the massive free throw disparity (Thunder 47, Suns 14). 

The worst though were two calls that quite possibly tipped the scales in the Thunder's favor:
  1. The no-call on Steve Nash. With 14 seconds remaining in the game and the Suns with the ball trailing by a point, Westbrook quite clearly pushed Nash in the back, which caused Nash to lose the ball. The lead increased to three points, and in the end the best the Suns could do was tie (which they did).
  2. The phantom foul on Steve Nash. With only 34 seconds remaining in the OT and the Suns up two, James Harden dunked the ball on a fast break play. Nash had stuck out his arm, but clearly pulled it back before there was any sort of contact with Harden. In fact, nobody hit Harden at all as he dunked the ball. The refs however seemed like they were anticipating the foul and called it anyway, despite the lack of contact. Harden hit the free throw, the Thunder took the lead, and the Suns never caught them after that moment.
I'm happy the Thunder won, and they still had to make the plays necessary to hold on, but these calls were so bad, and came at such critical points, that it is hard not to sympathize with the Suns faithful for using the word "referee" as a curse word this morning. The league needs to do better than this.

 

Thunder WonderRussell Westbrook, 32 Points, 2 Rebounds, 11 Assists, 1 Steals.

Thunder Down UnderJames Harden, 26 Points, 6 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 2 Steals, 0 turnovers.

Thunder BlunderKevin Durant, 3-14 from the field, missed numerous clutch shots.

Thunder PlundererVince Carter, 29 Points, 4 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 1 Steal.

Next Game: at the Memphis Grizzlies, Monday, March 7th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.

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