What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Thunder continued what they began last Friday night in Utah. For the first time in a long time, the Thunder opened the game looking strong on defense and put an opponent on their heels early. We were barely seven minutes into the game and the Thunder had already opened up a 16-4 lead. Even though the Jazz were able to whittle that lead down to six by the end of the 1st quarter, the Thunder had set both the offensive and defensive tempo. OKC exposed one of the Jazz' biggest weaknesses - they don't play well from behind. The lead remained in that 12 point range for much of the remainder of the game.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Thunder's across-the-board talent really manifested itself tonight. The Jazz are now 14-14. They're not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, and they will vie for a playoff spot come April. However, the difference in talent from player 1 through 12 was very apparent. The Thunder bench actually outscored the Jazz starters, 49-41. That point discrepancy doesn't even take into account the fact that the Thunder also have two All-Stars in their starting line-up.
To be sure, much of that offensive production was offered by James Harden, who once again demonstrated his affinity for playing in front of the home crowd. Harden did everything that we've come to expect from him - a game high 22 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, all the while playing a team-high 30 minutes.
A special shout-out also goes to Reggie Jackson tonight. On the same day when I pontificated whether Scott Brooks might employ him in a more productive manner, there he was tonight pressuring the Jazz ball handler up the court in the second half as the game was spiraling out of reach for Utah. While I cannot simply say that one thing caused another, the fact is that Jackson seemed much more at ease tonight during his 25 minutes of action. As a result, he handed out a game-high 8 assists and also had 2 steals. His best assist of the night was a beautiful look to Ibaka on the fast break with just under four minutes to play in the game. Jackson did a much better job trusting in his instincts rather than try to think his way through the game, and the results were palpable.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
Once again, the Thunder did a great job controlling the paint against the Jazz duo of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Millsap only attempted nine shots for the game, scoring 10, and Jefferson managed only 15 points off of 19 shots. Neither one was effective offensively, and once the Jazz interior game fizzled out, Utah did not have the perimeter scorers who could pick up the slack.
Serge Ibaka was a dominant force again. In all, he totaled 16 points, 10 rebounds (4 offensive), and 6 blocks. More importantly, his activity around the rim made the Jazz post players look slow and out of sorts. Kendrick Perkins did not match his double-double from last game, but he did manage to grab 7 rebounds and an amazing 6 assists, one of which was a sweet behind the back pass to Ibaka for the slam.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
I think that what these past two games shows us is that if an opposing team does not have a backcourt that can challenge Russell Westbrook and company, then that team is going to have a very difficult time gaining any sort of edge. Consider - all six of the Thunder's losses this season have come at the hands of teams who feature good to great guards who can really control an offense: Portland (Ray Felton), Dallas (Jason Kidd & Jason Terry), Washington (John Wall), the Clippers (Chris Paul & Chauncey Billups), San Antonio (Tony Parker), and Sacramento (Tyreke Evans). If teams can bring offensive pressure on the Thunder from the perimeter spot, the OKC defense really has to scramble to keep them in check.
By contrast, if the team does not have viable scoring threats, like we saw in these past two games against the Jazz, then OKC can focus on just controlling the paint and not worry much about getting lost on defense. Their next game against Houston will challenge this notion, as the Rockets feature both Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, so the Thunder will need to re-focus for their game tomorrow.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 22 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 16 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks
Thunder Blunder: None
Thunder Plunderer: Al Jefferson, 15 points, 5 rebounds
Next Game: vs the Houston Rockets, Wednesday February 15, 7:00 PM Central Standard Time