The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Phoenix Suns on New Year's Eve, meaning that OKC is now 5-0 on December 31st games. Despite a shaky first half, the Thunder never surrendered the lead and ultimately put themselves in a position to pull ahead when the Suns offense started to falter in the 4th quarter.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who even on a rare poor shooting night still scored 30 points. He was joined by Russell Westbrook, who overcame a bloodied face in the 1st half to fill the box score once again, finishing with 24 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, and only a single turnover.
The Suns were led by an old nemesis Luis Scola, who used an inside and outside game to score a team-high 24 points while grabbing 6 rebounds. Point guard Goran Dragic started the game off hot, but the Thunder defense eventually caused him to wilt, as he finished with 16 points while turning the ball over 5 times.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Tonight's win concludes the year 2012, and for Thunder fans, it ends on a positive note. Any time a game takes place on one of the more festive evenings of the year we are left to wonder whether these fellows are looking ahead to the after-parties rather than worried about executing good pick-and-roll defense, but for the most part the Thunder stayed engaged throughout. The first half was a bit of a sloppy affair, as the Thunder offense was playing to the Suns' pace while taking a lot of quick jump shots. Even though many of these shots were good looks, they were not falling. Durant and Kevin Martin struggled greatly from the perimeter, and as a result the Thunder could only manage a 1 point halftime lead despite a great advantage in talent.
The Thunder defense got going late in the game, and really OKC only needed one dominant quarter of play to put away the Suns. That quarter came in the 4th, where the Thunder held the Suns to only 14 points throughout until a couple late buckets closed the gap marginally.
As for the Suns, I can't help but feel a bit of sadness toward them. They still run a fast-paced screen-and-roll offense that is a lot of fun to watch. However, they simply do not have the same level of talent anymore to make it effective. Gone are the days of a league MVP setting up fellow All-Stars, and it is unfortunate that they are now in perpetual rebuilding mode.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
It will be interesting to consider this game as it likely goes down the memory hole, because if you look at the box score (linked at the top) you would think that the Thunder played a very good game. As a team they shot over 50%, won the rebounding battle, got 23 assists, and only turned the ball over 5 times. And yet, this was a 2 point game nearly 3 minutes into the 4th quarter. How do we rationalize these disparate ends?
I think the key in this perplexing scenario is that through 3 quarters, the Thunder were simply missing a lot of shots. They started a bit haphazardly, trying to find the right groove against the Suns' fast-paced execution, but over time OKC did discover the right pace at which they wanted to play, and they were producing good shots. They just missed them. Whether it was Durant, Westbrook, Martin (who was only 2-12 for 6 points) or even Serge Ibaka, they simply missed shots that we're accustomed to seeing them make. A torrid 4th quarter evened out their shooting percentages, but up to that point OKC's inability to make shots placed the outcome of the game in doubt.
Fortunately, games last 4 quarters and when OKC finally found the range, they crushed the Suns' hopes. OKC for intents and purposes closed out the game on a 23-8 run, which all but ended any doubts. By the time the 2 minute mark was passed, Scott Brooks was clearing out the bench.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
This was the kind of game that, in the past (and especially against past Suns teams), the Thunder could have found themselves trailing entering the 4th quarter because they were trying to play too fast and end up making unforced errors. However, despite the fast pace and shoddy shooting, the Thunder did a remarkable job protecting the basketball and not allowing turnovers to erode their effort.
On the night, the Thunder as a team only committed 5 total turnovers, including one apiece from Westbrook and backup PG Reggie Jackson. The Thunder's ability to protect the ball amidst the Suns' frenetic defense went a long way to making sure that the Thunder got the scoring opportunities they needed. In a rare turn of events, the Thunder actually generated 9 more shots than the Suns, aided in part by their low turnovers (Phoenix finished with 13) and by winning on the offensive glass (14-10).
Jackson in particular did a good job during his 15 minutes of playing time. Jackson actually found himself starting the 2nd half, as Westbrook suffered a bloodied face at the very end of the 1st half due to an errant Luis Scola elbow.
Jackson continues to show good growth by a better understanding of his role on the team and the pace at which he is supposed to play. Furthermore, Jackson looks much more comfortable shooting the ball, and he finished with 6 points on 3-3 shooting to go along with 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
On to 2013. A championship awaits.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 24 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 10 points, 9 rebounds (4 offensive), 2 assists, 1 steal
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Martin, only 2-12 shooting for 6 points
Thunder Plunderer: Luis Scola, 24 points, 6 rebounds
Next game: vs the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, Jan. 2 at 7PM CDT
If you are looking for tickets to upcoming games, you can find Oklahoma City Thunder tickets here.