With 10:00 minutes left in the game on Monday night, the Thunder were on the verge of letting another one slip away. A Taj Gibson jumper forced Scott Brooks to take a timeout with the Thunder's lead cut to 76-75. But then, something that hasn't happened in what feels like forever, happened - OKC clamped down on defense while the other team went cold.
That's all it took. A 13-0 run over the span of six and a half minutes, 18-3 over eight minutes. Timeout Bulls. 94-78, Thunder. Bring in the scrubs. Game over.
How'd they do it? A variety of ways.
For one, the Bulls missed some easy looks - shots that teams like Dallas, Phoenix, the Lakers, Cleveland, pretty much any opponent since the All Star Break, were hitting without much problem.
That's just a caveat here, though, so as not to give too much credit to a Thunder defense that clearly still misses Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, particularly in the 3-point/pick-and-roll defending department. Still, the Thunder definitely looked more locked in than last night. They closed out when they could and forced the Bulls to move the ball and make shots, something that isn't their strong point.
Last night, the open looks were more a result of poor effort. Tonight, it was more breakdowns, something that is still concerning this late in the season, but obviously something you can live with as opposed to lack of effort.
The Thunder still needed to score though, and they did that by doing what they have done so many times in close games - they went to Westbrook and Durant.
Relying on a heavy dose of the high screen and roll with the two stars, the Thunder methodically picked apart the Bulls defense as the game slowed down and the possessions became more and more valuable. This is how it goes it the playoffs, and this is how the two have grown so much over the years.
Westbrook, Durant, pretty much everyone on the team insists Westbrook learned from his time out, seeing things on the court he hadn't seen before. Well, if his past two weeks are any indication, they're right. He's seeing the floor as well as he ever has, making the right the pass, taking the right shot, and just keeping things under control.
He still has his moments - like the Lakers loss, or the beginning of tonight's game, even - when he gets a little carried away and tries to do too much. But those moments are becoming more few and far between, and when he reigns it in, there aren't many other players in the league better-equipped to share the reigns with Kevin Durant down the stretch of a game.
One possession stands out, and it's of course the one possession that is hardest to find video of. With 6:40 left, and the Thunder up eight and looking to put the game away for good, Durant had a mistmatch with Kirk Hinrich on him at the top of the key. KD was calling for the ball right away, but the spacing wasn't right. Westbrook calmly motioned his guys away, allowing Durant space to catch it. Durant put the ball on the ground, a double came and he fed it out to the corner to an open Caron Butler. Hinrich fouled Butler on the attempt, and three free throws later, it was an 11-point lead with six minutes to play.
That patience by Westbrook was key to everything. He knew there was a mismatch, knew Durant would make the right decision, but needed to make sure everything else was right around him first. It's a play that comes with years of experience playing with someone, and seeing that type of decision-making in a key moment like that should be reassuring for Thunder fans as moments like that will only become more common down the stretch and into the postseason, when every possession counts.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Everything is much better when the Thunder wins, isn't it? But here's another thing: Kevin Durant's streak of scoring 25+ points is getting ridiculous. I mean, it already is ridiculous, but it's getting ridiculous. He's approaching MJ's record of 40, and that alone makes it worth celebrating.
It's how he's done it though that makes it all stand out so well. Look, things haven't been great lately. The Thunder is just 6-6 in their last 12, and there have been times when they haven't looked good enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs, let alone get back to the Finals. The one constant throughout all of it has been Durant's scoring. On top of that, it's never felt like he was gunning for 25 either. The only time he was ever noticeably stat-hunting was in the Lakers loss when he was shooting for a triple-double.
Durant has seen the best looks from every team's defense every night all season, and all throughout this streak. He hasn't strayed from his game, he hasn't let poor shooting nights (however rare they are) slow him down. He just keeps going. Making the right plays, grabbing boards when needed, and scoring effortlessly.
It's an incredible run, one that honestly feels like it could go on forever, given how easy he's making it look. The MVP race won't be decided until the final week, so it's pointless to waste too much time on it. But streaks like this create narratives that voters love. Not that the numbers aren't good enough without the streak, but like Lebron's 27 wins in a row last season, this kind of story line makes memories that voters cling to.
It just seems like Durant has been so good that his greatness gets taken for granted from time to time. Hopefully this streak allows everyone a chance to sit back and marvel at just how special he's been.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
I'm not a coach, I'm not in the locker room, so this is entirely conjecture - but it seemed like they were just more focused. The Thunder, historically, has always bounced back well from losses, and it looked like they really took last night's game to heart. Durant even admitted they coasted afterward, and it looked like the entire team made a concerted effort to get their heads back in it tonight.
Again, the Bulls still had open looks, but those seemed fewer and far between. The closeouts seemed more aggressive, and they also seemed to make fewer mental mistakes.
They had 11 turnovers compared to 14 last night, not much of a difference, so maybe it's all just a matter of perception after a win. But there are plenty of numbers that make a better case.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Well, the Thunder once again held an opponent below 40 percent from the field (after doing the same against the Lakers the other night), bringing them to 16-2 on the season when doing that.
The 3-point percentages also were key, and helped balance out the poor defensive rebounding by the Thunder. The Thunder gave up 13 offensive boards, and it was largely through those second-chances that the Bulls stayed close. But the Thunder shot 13-of-25 (52 percent) from deep, compared to just 5-of-22 (23 percent) for the Bulls. The 3-point defense has been was has crippled the Thunder of late, as has the over-reliance on 3-point shooting themselves, so having a vast advantage there was key.
Last one: The Thunder's Big Three plus/minuses tonight: Ibaka +23, Westbrook +22, Durant +22. The next best was Reggie Jackson at +6. Seems like those three were pretty important.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
OKC is still a good team. When they focus and execute, they can hang with anyone. The Bulls are still a pretty solid team, and an outstanding defensive team, and the Thunder just dropped 97 on them. When the stars are clicking like they were tonight, points won't be an issue. It's the defense that has hurt the Thunder of late, and it was still far from perfect tonight, but it's reassuring that the Thunder are still capable of keeping a team below 90 points, regardless of why it may have happened.
Another win, another step closer to the playoffs.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 35 points (11-21 shooting), 12 rebounds, 5 assists, +22
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook: 17 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, +22
Thunder Blunder: Nick Collison: 2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 fouls, -7 in 14 minutes.
Thunder Plunderer: Joakim Noah: 9 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists - I'm not sure if it's more a credit to the Thunder or Bulls that Noah just missed a triple-double, and I hardly even noticed him out there all night.