What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I hope you stuck with this game until the end.
I know I was tempted to abandon ship about four minutes into the 4th quarter. It wasn't so much that the Thunder were down by some impossible deficit; the lead was hovering around 11 points, which is a point differential that can be erased in a heartbeat. It was more about how the Thunder were playing up to that point. Once the Magic pushed the lead up to double digits, they played some exceptional offensive basketball in keeping it right there. Dwight Howard was playing some really good post basketball. I don't know what to make of the guy's motivations these days, but I really liked what I was seeing in terms of his ability to catch the ball deep and use compact motions to get off his hook shots and drop steps. As a team, the Magic seemed to have a really good offensive plan in place. They in effect were using the Thunder's superior quickness against them. Orlando found a great rhythm in getting the Thunder to chase them over the tops of screens and then send their cutters to the rim. Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, and Jameer Nelson got some great looks at the rim by utilizing this strategy.
In any event, I thought the Thunder were cooked because they couldn't solve the Magic offense.
Until they suddenly did.
The Thunder figured things out midway through the 4th quarter. They stopped chasing the Magic over screens, they settled back and played better straight up defense, stopped gambling, and the Magic offense evaporated right before our very eyes.
This ability that OKC has to actually learn on the fly is one of the most frustrating yet rewarding things about watching them play. It is almost like watching your kid learn how to ride a bike. You see them make the same mistakes over and over again and you think they're about to give up, but they do not. They stick with it, recommit to themselves that they can figure it out, and then in the end more often than not they solve the problem. And the moment you think that they can't do it again, they do it again.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Thunder were able to correct their defense before they ran out of time. As a Thunder fan, I was getting quite frustrated watching the OKC players keep gambling on passes, run over the top of screens, and leave their defenders free to cut to the rim. Howard is a constant and 3-point shooting can come and go, but this was just bad defensive basketball that we saw for three quarters. It was as if the Thunder were not properly prepared to deal with the Magic offensive system. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is a very good coach and you could see that he had a distinct game plan in place to thwart the Thunder defense, which is at its best when it doesn't gamble, but simply plays fundamental defensive basketball and over time OKC's superior talent takes hold.
Credit goes to Scott Brooks for switching to a smaller line-up at the game's most critical juncture. Not only did he go small to increase his team's overall quickness, but the group consisting of Westbrook, Durant, James Harden, Royal Ivey, and Nick Collison also brought a better defensive philosophy with them. Instead of trying to fight through screens, they began to switch on everything. Orlando is a very good passing team, but they on the whole are not quick enough to take advantage when they get player mismatches. It was a great defensive shift at the right time.
The Thunder does not have a great defense at this time, but they do have a defense that can play great. In the 4th quarter, they played great. Over the course of the first nine minutes of the 4th quarter, they held the Magic to only eight points. That is the way you come back on teams in the NBA. When the Thunder outscored them through that point 23-8 and finally took the lead at 90-89, OKC knew that they had figured things out.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
Russell Westbrook almost single-handedly kept the Thunder in the game for three quarters. He finished with 29 points on 11-21 shooting, had 10 assists, and only two turnovers. Moreover, he could see that the Thunder did not have a clear game plan in how to attack the Magic defense. Orlando is not particularly quick on the perimeter, but they know that they have defensive player of the year Dwight Howard protecting the rim so they were able to press up on the Thunder shooters and force them into a one pass-one shot type of offense. The only guy who seemed to recognize that he had a major physical advantage over his defensive counterpart was Westbrook, and for all four quarters, Westbrook pressed the issue.
Westbrook's jumper was hit or miss, but fortunately for the Thunder he recognized that Jameer Nelson cannot stay in front of him or deal with Westbrook's vertical explosiveness. Westbrook got by Nelson with ease on his way to a number of shots right at the rim, and even better, would post up and catch lob passes from his teammates, going up strong for point-blank shots.
In short, Westbrook was the workhorse tonight and he was the guy who was singularly responsible for putting the team in a position offensively where, once they got some defensive stops, Durant had the opportunity to take over.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
This is another one of those glass half-empty/half-full kinds of games. On the one hand, the Thunder once again demonstrated that they still have a long way to go in becoming a competent five man offensive team by way of comparison with Van Gundy's Magic. Van Gundy has been coaching for a long time now, has a wealth of basketball knowledge (not to mention a pretty sweet handle), and you see how it is borne out in the way his team executes. The Thunder and coach Brooks are not at that level yet.
On the other hand, there is something admirable, enjoyable, and hopeful in watching a team that refuses to give up. The more they hang in there in games and pull them out in the end, the more confidence they build in themselves, knowing that nothing is beyond their grasp. OKC is often compared with teams like the Chris Webber-led Sacramento Kings from the early '00's, because of the tremendous collection of talent they have at their disposal. While this may be true, I don't think I ever saw the mental fortitude in those Kings teams that I see exhibited in this Thunder squad on a nightly basis. It can and will carry them a long way.
But to the Finals? I don't know...what does Charles Barkley think?
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 38 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 29 points, 10 assists, 1 steal, only 2 TO's
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, only 4 points and 2 rebounds in 23 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Dwight Howard, 33 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Next Game: Saturday at the Atlanta Hawks, 6:00 PM Central Standard Time