Each time the Thunder have played the Hornets this year, the games have been competitive. Most recently, the Hornets defeated the Thunder because of a timely Chris Paul steal and a last-second David West shot. The two teams match up well to present an entertaining game; the Thunder, with a little bit more youth and talent, vs the Hornets, with a little bit more tenacity and cohesiveness.
Last night's game presented a series of tests for the Thunder:
- How would the Thunder respond after a) the last second loss against the Hornets; and b) allowing the Heat to steal a win when the Thunder had the game in their fingertips.
- How would Russell Westbrook respond after Chris Paul won their previous head-to-head match-up?
- How would Kevin Durant respond to Trevor Ariza's defense?
1. The Thunder still tend to play to their opposition, but their opposition has been good. The two wins against the Wolves and Wizards were underwhelming team efforts, to say the least, but they were followed up by extremely spirited efforts against the Heat and Hornets. What this tells us is that the Thunder are exactly where you'd expect them to be - young, inexperienced, and more subject to emotional whims than older teams like the Celtics or Mavericks. They do however respond well to the intensity that better teams bring to the table.
The best thing about this win was that after suffering another lackluster defensive 2nd quarter, the Thunder really increased the defensive intensity. The Hornets were able to hang in the game defensively by limiting everyone not named Durant in the offensive box score. However, the Thunder were able to counter this defensive pressure and reverse it entirely, holding the Hornets to only 17 3rd quarter points. They began to figure out how to force Chris Paul to take sub-optimal angles in his attack, and instead of layups NO had to settle for a lot of jumpers. The team trapped aggressively, stayed on the ball more effectively, and in the end the Hornets could not muster the offense they needed.
2. Westbrook did not respond well. As the game moved from the 2nd quarter to the 3rd, it became apparent that Paul had gotten into Westbrook's head. In the previous game, Westbrook actually bit at one of Paul's little "roll the ball and see if you can get the guy to jump" move, and then Paul raced by him for a layup. This time out, there were two occasions where Westbrook seemingly out of nowhere jumped at Paul and got called for the foul. In the third quarter, with just under eight minutes to go, Paul had the ball out near midcourt with one second remaining on the shot-clock. I don't know if he said something to Westbrook, or if he did some sort of "come and get it" gesture, but suddenly Westbrook exploded toward Paul, swiped at the ball, and got called for a foul when the Hornets were a second away from a shot clock violation. It didn't make sense, and it was probably a good thing that it led to Westbrook's 4th foul and extended minutes on the bench. He has been playing a bit recklessly as of late, and hopefully his next time out against the Suns he'll be in a bit more control.
3. You saw it.
If you want some more, here is something worth thinking about. In the month of December, Durant averaged 5.7 rebounds. In January, that number jumped to 7.7. I see a direct correlation between his willingness to go after the ball and his renewed offensive aggressiveness. When you're under the rim getting banged around while chasing a defensive rebound, it becomes easier to redirect that energy on the other end to strong finishes where you get to dish out some punishment. A focus on rebounding has moved Durant closer to the rim, so he has been more apt to post up as well as drive the ball, which has opened everything else up as well.
The last thing I think that is worth commenting on is how the Thunder responded when Westbrook went to the bench. In the last game, backup point guard Eric Maynor was torn apart by Paul. He wasn't ready for Paul's style of play or his tenacity. This time out, he was. Maynor calmly ran the show, set up Durant's hot hand whenever he could, and did not let Paul get to him the way Westbrook did. Maynor's final stats were modest - nine points, three assists, an offensive rebound. Most critical though, he had zero turnovers, and as a team, the Thunder had zero turnovers in the 3rd quarter. Durant was the machine that tore apart the Hornets, but Maynor played a critical role in making sure the machine was operating at maximum efficiency.
Finally, everything about the 3rd quarter was a joy to watch, especially from a defensive standpoint. Watching them perform that way is probably what is most frustrating; we know the Thunder can do it. It isn't like they lack the ability or have forgotten how. It is purely mental. Somehow, their former coach was able to tap into that defensive psyche to get them to play aggressive defense. This season, it seems like they have had to rely on their own collective memory.
Let's see if they remember it for the next game. Bring on the Suns.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 43 Points, 10 Rebounds, 5 assists, 1 Steal, 1 Block
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 8 Points, 12 Rebounds, 6 Blocks
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, 5 turnovers, 4 personal fouls, 27 minutes played, and letting Chris Paul get into his head several times
Thunder Plunderer: David West, 20 points, 15 rebounds
Next Game: at the Phoenix Suns, Friday, February 4th, 8 PM Central Standard Time