The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Utah Jazz on the road, 90-80. In a game that was radically different from the OKC-Knicks affair two days ago, the Thunder relied on defense, rebounding, and ball protection to defeat a Jazz team that is desperately trying to catch the #8 seed.
The Thunder used an early run to give them a cushion that they would not relinquish, and then bolstered themselves against a final Jazz run in the 4th that got the game down to 4 points with 23 seconds to go. With the game suddenly in doubt, the Thunder responded by getting to the free throw line, getting a huge steal from Russell Westbrook, and then icing the game in the end for a 10 point margin of victory.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who nearly had another triple-double, finishing with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, and a block. He was aided by Russell Westbrook, who tore through the Jazz backcourt at will on his way to 25 points, 3 steals, and the slam you see below.
The Jazz were led by Mo Williams, who finished with 19 points and 6 assists, and Al Jefferson, who finished with 15 points and 11 boards.
The Thunder-Jazz regular season series is now over, with the Thunder winning 3-1.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Question: would you like to see the Jazz in the playoffs for the first round?
If so, the Thunder actually put a dent in that proposition by beating the Jazz tonight. Pending tonight's outcome between the Lakers and Hornets, the Jazz may have slipped out of the #8 seed with but a few games to go. With the Thunder chasing that #1 seed, the Jazz could be the match-up that OKC needs to advance more easily. With all due respect to the Jazz faithful, this is not a good match-up for Utah as the Thunder have adequate personnel to counter anything Utah tries to do, while possessing a scoring punch that Utah cannot match.
Utah's strength, their front line, can give some teams trouble. OKC is not one of them. Through the combination of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and even Hasheem Thabeet, the Thunder are more than prepared to deal with Utah. By turning the Jazz into a perimeter oriented team, the Thunder make them play in a way that they cannot compete on a high level. The Thunder held the Jazz to 80 points tonight off of 39.2% shooting. That's what happens when the Thunder neutralize the Jazz' front line.
What does this game tell us about the playoffs?
Two elements jump out:
1) The Thunder defense is well suited to deal with a team that has two good big men.
While the Jazz may not be able to hang onto the 8th seed, their combination of Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors provides a good proxy for some of the other teams that feature talented front lines.
One of those teams is of course the Lakers. Even though Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have been hampered with injuries, they still present a formidable front line that which the Thunder might have to deal with. The real threat though is the Grizzlies, who feature Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, a talented duo that the Thunder have far more difficulty coping with.
The game is evolving, but these teams with pairs of talented big men still stand in OKC's way. They will have to deal with at least one set of them sooner or later.
2) Playmaking Kevin Durant still wants to make plays, but it renders the Thunder offense impotent.
Durant once again sniffed a triple-double tonight, and what is amazing about whenever this happens is how the Thunder offense seems to deteriorate instead of improve. Durant took only 10 shots in 37 minutes of play, scoring 21 points and handing out 9 assists.
This repeating scenario might seem perplexing, but I believe the issue lies in the idea that when Durant goes into a "I'm setting everybody up!" mode, his attention toward the rim drops off materially and noticeably. If Durant is not an immediate threat at the rim, his team is not yet ready to recognize what he's doing and where he's going.
Durant is going through a crucial growth period by playing this way, and it is good that he's getting games like this now against a relatively unthreatening Jazz team because they are not able to capitalize on the other end. Being the playmaker does not merely mean setting up teammates, but setting them up in a way that they're ready to attack on their own.
Until then, Durant needs to get back to a score-first player and allow his team to move around him. The natural shifting as a result of Durant's playmaking will come in time.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder still trail the Spurs by a game, but given the Spurs' health issues there is great likelihood that they will drop a game. If OKC can win here on out, and if they can get through Golden State on Thursday there is a great likelihood of it happening.
That said, OKC needs to put forth a better offensive effort in their next two games if that is going to happen. The Warriors' offensive ability is well documented, but the Trail Blazers too are a proud bunch and the game is in Portland. there is a trap there too as well.
The end is closing in on us. Four more games. The #1 seed is right there for the taking.
P.S. This is my new victory dance any time I avoid a red traffic light.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 21 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, 1 block
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 16 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Martin, 5 points on 2-9 shooting
Thunder Plunderer: Al Jefferson, 15 points, 11 rebounds
Next game: @ the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, April 11, at 9:30PM CDT
If you are looking for tickets to upcoming games, you can find Oklahoma City Thunder tickets here.