The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Houston Rockets, 117-86. On a night where there was an expectation of a tight battle between two of the best teams in the West, one on a strong winning streak and the other picking up the pieces following the news that Russell Westbrook will be lost for 2 months, outlook was uncertain. The Thunder wasted no time eliminating that uncertainty by getting to business and showing the Rockets the difference between being a good team in a contender. OKC raced out to a 13-0 lead and were ahead by double digits for the majority of the rest of the game.
OKC followed up their early run by going on a 15-5 run to begin the 3rd and a 19-10 run over the first half of the 4th quarter. After that point, the benches cleared and we got an un-ironic Ryan Gomes sighting.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who was in full-on attack mode from the beginning, but he did so in a very controlled way. Durant finished with 33 points on 11-17 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds and 5 assists. Durant was aided by Reggie Jackson, who ran the point well and avoided a lot of wasted shots this time around, finishing with 16 points and 8 assists while committing zero turnovers.
The Rockets were led by a strangely unstoppable Aaron Brooks, who finished with a team-high 17 points, which included 2 ridiculous 3-pointers, one of which was a half-court buzzer beater at the end of the 3rd.
|Final - 12.29.2013||1||2||3||4||Total|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||26||30||34||27||117|
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Often times, in the grand scheme of things, games in the month of December don't really matter. Teams play 82 of these things before getting to the real season in the playoffs, and a loss against the best is mathematically the same as a loss against the worst. Sometimes, however, games in the month of December DO matter. They matter not because the game is somehow worth more, but because of what that game can tell you about the make-up of your team.
On this night, we learned a whole lot about the make-up of this Thunder team. On this night, against a Rockets team that has OKC's former teammate, that has taken steps to make themselves a contender, and wanted to make a statement against one of the best, the Thunder wrapped them up early and wouldn't let up. This game mattered.
I don't like to think of myself as the vindictive sort, but I find myself in a strange place when I'm actively rooting against a team that I am in favor of in principle. Rockets GM Daryl Morey is, like Sam Presti, a smart guy trying to build a smart team the smart way. It just so happens that it has come at the expense of the Thunder. Yet here I am, reveling in a Bill the Butcher level beating and it is oh so satisfying. I dig great hamburgers as much as the next gent (FWIW, I'm partial to 1) Shake Shack; 2) Five Guys; 3) Red Robin) but sometimes the great burger isn't quite enough. Sometimes, the meal starts with an Old Fashioned, peaks with a filet minon, and concludes with Nigusie espresso and souffle. It's just right.
Here is a rundown of standout moments:
- The Thunder defense was SHARP all night long. Right from the outset, we saw the same kind of commitment on position defense that we have seen over the past few weeks. Thunder guarded the rim, kept Dwight Howard and James Harden from picking up a lot of easy buckets in the lane, and ran out on shooters aggressively but not recklessly. The result was that they held the Rockets to 36.5% shooting and held them to 20 points below their season average.
- At the heart of the defense? None other than the much maligned Kendrick Perkins. Perk has built his somewhat inflated reputation on bein a stopper against the likes of Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and the other Ticonderoga-class big men in the NBA. On this night, Perk was the semi-immovable object, standing up Howard and forcing him into a 4-13 shooting night that produced a grand 9 points and a number of very frustrating moments for the recuperating Howard. On top of that, Perk grabbed 9 rebounds and finished a +25 on the night.
- Kevin Durant played like he swallowed the red pill before embarking on a tear through the Rockets defense. He was example A on the night on how the Thunder, to a man, sought to display the warrior spirit that designates Russell Westbrook as one of the fiercest competitors in the NBA. KD punctuated the night with a slick blind between the legs bounce pass to a trailing Jeremy Lamb, who completed an and-1 play. Durant punctuated the basket roaring like Denzel Washington in Training Day.
- Serge Ibaka's final numbers didn't show it (8 points, 5 boards, 2 blocks) but he was critical in setting the Thunder's defense time and time again by denying the Rockets' driving lanes. His highlight of the night was a perfect read on a Harden layup, grabbing the ball, and firing a full-court outlet pass to Thabo Sefolosha who threw it down at the other end.
- The Thunder bench played surprisingly well, giving their offense the balance it so greatly needs. On the whole, the bench finished with 45 points, 22 of which were put down by Jeremy Lamb. Lamb shot 8-10 on the night to score his career high, but more important than that, he stepped up as the de facto PG late in the game, working some exceptional 2-man game plays that kept the Rockets at bay. Lamb finished with 5 assists on the night, also a career-high.
- Perry Jones. Mr. Utility. Set him up, let him go, watch him produce 8 points on 4-5 shooting. Corner jumpers, finishes at the rim. This is what he does.
- Reggie Jackson, getting back to smart shot selection. He finished with 7-12 for 16 on the night and got away from so much of the ISO plays that sunk his percentages last week.
- Lastly, Thabo Sefolosha was once again a veteran leader who was instrumental in getting OKC off to their early lead. It sounds almost silly to write it, but Thabo getting off to quick starts matters. It radically changes how defenses have to deal with the Thunder offense.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Well, let us run down our checklist from the preview:
1. Score a lot.
Check. The Thunder scored 117 points on the night, with their low quarter actually being their 1st quarter with 26. OKC had 28 assists on 47 made shots and committed only 10 turnovers.
2. Shoot the three well.
Check. The Thunder were looking for Thabo Sefolosha early in the game, and even though he only finished 1-6 from beyond the arc on the night, his aggressiveness on the perimeter helped set the tone. The Thunder finished the game 10-22, or 45.5% from 3-point range, vastly superior to the Rockets' vaunted 3-point attack, which went only 7-28 on the night. Durant and Jeremy Lamb went 3-5 and 3-4, respectively.
3. Shoot everything else well, too.
Check. The Thunder shot exceptionally well, which included 57.3% from the floor, 54 points in the paint, and 18 fast break points. That, combined with their tenacious D, spelled doom for the Rockets.
4. Keep the FTs close.
Push. There was a free throw disparity, as the Rockets got to the line 15 more times, but it was largely inconsequential due to the status of the game for most of the contest. Even though the Rockets finished on the plus side, it is important to note that they only shot 54.8% from the stripe. James Harden, who recently shot 22-25 from the FT line, got there only 5 times on the night. Dwight Howard only managed 1-7, which meant that even when the Thunder did have to foul him they were not hurt by it.
5. Hope Houston Can't Hit a 3.
Check. The Rockets finished 7-28, but it was really the opening quarter where the Rockets only went 1-6 that greatly contributed to their early deficit. Harden finished 0-3, so when he wasn't getting easy points at the FT line, he was missing step-back 3-pointers. Of particular note, the Thunder did an outstanding job closing out on the shooters, giving Houston precious few open looks from long range. When the shooters tried to pump fake and drive, OKC's rotations were tight and gave up very few driving lanes.
6. Benefit from injuries and constantly shifting lineups.
Check. The only caveat on the night is that the Rockets were playing their 4th game in 5 nights. While the previous 3 were all wins by comfortable margins, they were against the Grizzlies, Spurs, and Pelicans, so without a doubt the Rockets were weary, and they played like it early on.
That said, OKC was without Westbrook. I think at the very least it evens things out.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Take your pick, but to me it was all about the defense. Holding the high scoring Rockets to 36.5% from the floor, 25% from 3-point range, and 20 points below their team average is one thing. More important though is how OKC did it. To be sure, the Rockets played some weary basketball and their percentages showed it, but what I liked was how OKC took away all of the things that the Rockets like to do.
The Thunder guards got up on the Rockets tight on the perimeter, leaving very few open looks beyond the arc. They closed the driving lanes on the penetration, and when the kick-outs did come, OKC was aggressive in their rotations to take away space. Remarkably, the Rockets only finished with 9 turnovers, but that goes to show that playing great defense doesn't always manifest in easy measurables. OKC caused 9 TO's and blocked 5 shots, yet their defense never looked more focused and the Rockets' final percentages support it.
In fact, if the Rockets hadn't picked up an unusually high number of random offensive rebounds, or saw their backup PG Aaron Brooks become randomly unstoppable for stretches, this easily could have been a 40 point rout instead of a 31 point win.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
This game, albeit with several caveats, carries with it the kind of focus that the Thunder are going to need over these next two months. Everybody was locked in, everybody contributed, and the bench adjusted nicely now that their leader Jackson is playing with the starters.
The great advantage of it all is that great defense becomes addictive. Shooting comes and goes, but when a team knows that they can shut down another team for long stretches, they begin to understand how they can demoralize opponents. Even with the Thunder's high shooting percentages tonight, the truth is that they didn't play great offense. They missed a lot of openings, especially in the 1st half. However, because their defense yielded so little, the Rockets were never able to make up any ground. Houston's energy slowly dissipated, their leader Harden ineffective, and the ending never in doubt.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 33 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, 1 steal
Thunder Down Under: Jeremy Lamb, career high 22 points on 8-10 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 1 block
Thunder Blunder: None
Thunder Plunderer: Aaron Brooks, 17 points, 2 assists
Next game: vs Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, Dec. 31 at 7PM CST
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