Whew, that was a close one.
As far as games against lesser teams go, this one started out pretty typically. Neither team was trying too hard in the first, and they both stayed on a relatively even keel. The Timberwolves thrived on driving to the basket since our interior defense was pretty weak, while the Thunder took advantages of lapses in Minnesota's defense, with the occasional drive or two.
As the second quarter dawned, both teams started to play a faster paced game. The Thunder accomplished this by going with a lineup of an outside oriented center (Krstic), an undersized Power Forward who can score adeptly and pester bigger men (Green), a defensive guard (Sefolosha), a scoring guard (Harden) and a distributor (Maynor). It worked okay, because it forced Jefferson out of the paint, but in another way, it failed, because the Timberwolves guards were still able to take advantage of the lack of defense on the interior. But, during the second half of the second quarter, Durant and Westbrook were substituted in for Maynor and Harden, which is a massive upgrade. It worked better, because oftentimes, the Minnesota defenders would double-team Durant, allowing for someone else to make a play, and Krstic would do a good job stopping Jefferson from being a defensive factor. But, while the Thunder were finding ways to score, little things like bad turnovers and short lapses in defense kept them from getting a true run going.
The Timberwovles seemed to know how to exploit the Thunder during the beginning of the second half. Damien Wilkins just exploded, getting fast break points, dunking on Krstic inside, and setting himself up for a relatively uncontested jumper. The Thunder knew that this was unacceptable, so they went on a monster of a run. And by a monster of a run, I mean a monster of a run. The Timberwolves didn't score for 6 minutes, and the Thunder scored 15 points straight, to go up 74 to 63. At this point, I felt like the game was over, and it was another job well done by the Thunder. Oh, how I was so wrong.
Below: More Recapping, Analysis, Awards
The Timberwolves started going on a run of their own, scoring a couple of essential baskets at the end of the third, and going on a tear to start the fourth. Eventually, with 6:01 to go in the fourth, the Thunder were only up by 1, 81 to 80.
But, the Thunder knew what they had to do. They went on an absolute tear of mid-range jumpers, taking advantage of the Timberwolves' relatively weak defense. The result was a 13 to 6 run, leaving the Thunder with a 94 to 86 lead, with only 2:14 to go.
Unfortunately, the Thunder wouldn't score for the rest of the game. As a result of a couple of missed shots and a bad pass, the Timberwolves were still able to drive into the lane and score right over the head of Ibaka. It's not really his fault, as the Thunder either let a smaller man get by them and face Ibaka one on one, or didn't double team Jefferson in time to prevent the score. The end result was The Thunder clinging to a two point lead with 41 seconds to go.
So, the Thunder have the ball. And with 12 seconds left on the shot clock, Russell Westbrook decides it's a good time to make a goal line charge into the lane. In doing so, he ran right over Al Jefferson, and was called for an offensive foul.
Now, it's the Timberwolves ball. They immediately give the ball to Jefferson, who backs down Ibaka. Grant Long, a defensive officionado, accurately predicts when Jefferson will shoot the ball. The ball bangs off of the backboard and the rim, supposedly into the hands of Jeff Green. But, he loses the ball, and a scramble ensues. Apparently, Al Jefferson tipped the ball out of bounds as it went under Green's legs. Personally, I couldn't tell if it touched Jefferson's hand or Green's ankle last, and there was no indisputable video evidence either way. But, the refs called it Thunder Ball, and it looked like this game was 2 free throws away from being over.
The first inbounds was the foul to give, and the ball was almost stolen from Green by Brewer, but he hung on. During the second inbounds, Durant was covered. So, Jeff Green, the inbounder, looks to throw it to Westbrook. Unfortunately, it went right past Westbrook, and bounced off of James Harden's chest. He was looking to set a pick, I'm assuming, so his hands were nowhere to be found. The ball then bounced off of Westbrooks leg, and right into the hands of Ramon Sessions. He gets it out to Wilkins, who runs it up court and hands it off to Brewer near the 3 Point Line. Brewer charges into the lane, but the shot is easily blocked out of bounds by Green.
But, the Thunder weren't out of the woods yet. There were still 2.2 seconds to go, and the Timberwolves had possession. The Timberwolves inbounded from their own baseline. Wilkins first looked to Flynn cutting to the basket, but he was well covered. Brewer was sitting in the corner, but he was smothered by Green. So, at the last possible moment, Flynn runs back out to the three point line. He gets the ball, covered by Sefolosha. He throws up a desperate shot, and it clanks off the front of the rim. Green gets the rebound, and the game is over. The Thunder very narrowly avoid a disastrous loss.
One of the more annoying aspects of this game was Damien Wilkins. Yeah, he wasn't the top scorer for the Timberwolves or anything, but his scores always seemed to come at just the wrong time. Like in the first, when he took advantage of the soft defense of Krstic. Or at the end of the second, when he had a 3 point play, almost making the Thunder's recent run irrelevant. And then assisting in the beginning of the second quarter run. And then dunking over Krstic, who had played servicable defense up to that point. And then helping make the end of 3rd quarter deficit irrelevant. Because he was so adept at scoring at the best possible time for his team, I award the Thunder Plunderer award to him. Al Jefferson would get it, but he was kept in check for much of the first half by Nenad Krstic of all people, so I just wouldn't feel right giving him the award.
On the Thunder side of things, Kevin Durant was definitely the top performer, and the Thunder Wonder. 31 Points, 10 Rebounds, 3 Assists, and 2 Steals round out his excellent night. It's hard finding a Thunder Down Under, but in the end, I have to give it to Jeff Green. He had a critical block at the end of the game, along with 15 Points, 9 Rebounds, and 3 Assists. Not an outstanding game, but a solid one nonetheless.
Obviously, the Thunder Blunder is, again, Russell Westbrook. He had 9 Assist, but come on man, 7 turnovers? And he had 9 points, but he only shot 30% from the field, going 3 of 10. I've gone over this before, but he's got to keep his turnovers to at least 4 per game, even if there is a bunch of quick, nitpicky Timberwolves guards running around after you.
In the end, the Timberwolves aren't a very talented team. But, they are lead by a good coach in Kurt Rambis, who was able to recognize the Thunder's main weakness: Fast teams. He went small all game, forcing the Thunder to defend the post against charging guards. If the Thunder tried to double-team in the post, the Timberwolves could just kick it out to one of their guards, leaving the Thunder in a Catch-22 when the ball was passed to Jefferson. Luckily, the Thunder were able to muscle their way into good jump shots and beat the Timberwolves sheerly by having more talent. I can't even remember that last time I was able to say that about an NBA team that I've followed....
Next Game: at the Memphis Grizzlies, Friday, January 21st, 7 PM Central Standard Time.