Man, it was fun just to be back at the Peake. Seeing all the old faces again, hearing the real roar of the crowd, and watching a new incarnation of the Oklahoma City Thunder take the floor. Perry Jones, Kevin Martin, Hasheem Thabeet, and even Jeremy Lamb made their real Thunder debuts. Given where this team was during mid-June, it's crazy to think how much things have changed.
And while it's still up to anyone's judgement whether the Thunder are better or worse, I can still guarantee you that they're a darn good team. Watching them tonight, is seemed like they didn't even need Kevin Durant on the floor. And for a good portion of the game, they did it without him. Now, I should say that the Blazers never really looked like they were struggling to keep up, and the Thunder didn't seem like they were toying with an inferior team. The Blazers were playing legitimate basketball, and never really fell apart in a dramatic way.
But I have to say, tonight was a bit of a redemption for Russell Westbrook. He had some major defensive lapses last night against the Spurs, and his performance was an overall dud. But tonight, he looked really solid. He got pretty much whatever he wanted against Lillard offensively. Westbrook beat him to the lane, backed him down, and got to his mid-range spots with ease. On the other end, Lillard was solid, but it wasn't a killer performance. Most importantly, Westbrook (and the terrific Thunder Help D) didn't let him get to the line.
The most troubling thing I saw, by far, was Kendrick Perkins. And I'm not talking about how he rolled his ankle (something that I failed to even notice while sitting in the arena). He just seemed to be off, altogether. Whether he was guarding Hickson or Aldridge, he was really timid. Aldridge continually got decent looks in Perk's face, and Hickson pushed him to the spots he wanted. He was nowhere offensively, hardly grabbed any boards, and just seemed to be a total non-factor. Yeah, he set screens and played help D, but Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet had far better nights, and that speaks for itself.
While we're looking at the negative, it's worth mentioning Serge Ibaka's total shot meltdown during the first quarter. As I previously suggested in the preview, the Thunder immediately looked to Ibaka as a solid jump shooter. He was getting open looks, and should have opened up a huge lead for the team. Instead, he missed 4 shots in 5 minutes, keeping the Thunder solidly flat-footed out of the gate. It was really all down to execution, as the misses were rimming out quite gently and I'd normally have no problem with those plays.
Nick Collison was seeing the exact opposite of Ibaka's problems. He helped make up for Ibaka's follies early in the first with a few baskets, and he delivered some critical points late in the third and early in the fourth, helping to separate the Thunder from the Blazers. He seemed to know the perfect time to cut to the basket, and made some quite impressive looking dunks in traffic. The guy normally plays a very understated style of ball, but his keen awareness on the floor tonight made him one of the Thunder's key cogs.
Also key to that run was Kevin Durant, who didn't really turn it on offensively until late in the game. His overall performance was fantastic, because he was really showcasing some fantastic decision-making and rebounding tonight. He made some really crisp passes to cutting players or open guys, and he always seemed to be on top of where the ball was going to bounce off of the rim. He got the ball poked away a number of times, but the dude shot well, didn't lose anybody on D, fueled the end of game run, and was three assists away from a triple-double. I'm not complaining.
But Kevin Durant will have to be a bit more of a ballhandler, because Kevin Martin clearly isn't the bees knees in that department. Still, he did what he needed to in tonight's game. He wasn't much to speak for on defense, often getting shaken by his man or fooled by tricky plays. In other words, he just seemed to always be two steps behind. But offensively, the guy was a dream. The thing that sets the guy apart is his excellent judgement on when and when not to drive, something that Harden sometimes struggled with during his time on the Thunder. Harden had excellent floor awareness, but sometimes he'd commit a few too many turnovers or get blocked in the lane because he bit off more than he could chew. Martin, at least tonight, didn't have this problem. He took threes when he was open, he faked out guys on the perimeter for solid mid-range opportunities, and he got to the rim when the situation called for it. Solid, consistent scoring off of the bench. Exactly what we need.
Hasheem Thabeet isn't exactly everyone's dream, but he was serviceable tonight. He had a few serious blocks in the paint, put up two easy shots near the rim, and managed to avoid fouling out until the very end of the game. Yeah, a work in progress. Speaking of works in progress, Lamb had a solid garbage time debut, checking into the game so he could cross over and hit a three in the waning seconds.
Speaking of the game as a whole, it's easy to say that Westbrook and Durant had to shoulder a lot of tonight's load, and that's true. But with the ball-dominating Harden gone, I think that the Thunder are making more of an effort to include their other players offensively. They're also very careful to feed the hot hand, and not force the issue when a guy is clearly struggling. And honestly, in my opinion, it's about time. It might hurt Durant's chances as a scoring title, but the Thunder's role players have contributed solidly to the team for a long time, and it's about time they get recognized with a reasonable number of offensive opportunities. Sure, K-Mart isn't going to be able to shoulder as much as Harden was, but I think the Thunder's role players can certainly shoulder a lot more.
The Trail Blazers don't exactly provide a world-class opponent, but they were a plucky bunch. Along with the aforementioned abusing of Perkins with J.J. Hickson down low, they were routinely firing it to LaMarcus Aldridge, who got hot during different times of the game. Lillard and Wes Matthews also had their moments, and found ways to score. But once you got beyond those four, the Blazers really didn't have anyone to speak of. Nicholas Batum was an offensive disaster, missing wide-open threes. Luke Babbitt helped to unwind the sting by hitting some open shots late, but he was so unreliable defensively that it's hard to say his impact was positive.
It's hard just looking through these bench stat lines. Sasha Pavlovic, who was mostly known as a pinch scorer back when he was useful (5 years ago), had an 0fer and 5 fouls in 23 minutes tonight. The rookie center, Meyers Leonard, played physically but got nowhere, and was arguably outperformed by Thabeet. Nolan Smith was a pile of meh in 10 minutes of action. The other guys aren't even worth mentioning.
The bottom line is, the Blazers will be a decent team if the starters don't get tired. And until they can work out some semblance of solid bench play, they'll have a hard time beating well-oiled playoff teams like the Thunder. The Thunder's performance tonight wasn't without fault, but flaws were able to be covered for and the team came out with a solid victory. On to the Hawks!
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 32 Points, 5 Rebounds, 6 Assists
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, 23 Points, 17 Rebounds, 7 Assists
Thunder Blunder: Kendrick Perkins' 0fer
Thunder Plunderer: LaMarcus Aldridge, 22 Points, 15 Rebounds
Next Game: Versus the Atlanta Hawks, Sunday, November 4th, 6 PM Central Daylight Time.
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