In a wobbly game from start to finish, the Thunder managed to stay in the game and hold on against the Phoenix Suns. The entirety of the game was interesting to watch, as it seemed like each team took its turns hitting the accelerator pad only to blow up their engine and fall back. The Suns won the first quarter by six; the Thunder took the second by eight; the Suns won the third by 10, and the Thunder won the final quarter by 11. Fortunately there was no fifth quarter, because odds are that the Suns would have suddenly made eight three pointers in a row to win by 15.
The Suns had two predominant forces going for them last night:
- They have been surging of late, closing in on a .500 record and recent wins over the Hornets and Celtics;
- Steve Nash was infamously snubbed from the All-Star game, seemingly because Russell Westbrook took his spot, and so Suns faithful were looking for some sweet payback.
The Thunder percevered, however, and here are three throughts I had while watching them finish off the Suns:
1. The Thunder exhibited excellent match-up awareness.
If you look across the box score, you will see that the Thunder were extremely balanced in scoring across the board. Jeff Green led the way with 28, Kevin Durant had 24, Westbrook had 19, Serge Ibaka had 18, and James Harden had 13. The balance in scoring is most notable since in the past few games Durant has been on a scoring tear but with very little secondary scoring help. The fact that they were able to balance things out is significant for long term success.
What makes the scoring balance even more important though is in the way the Thunder accomplished it. Durant was being guarded by Grant Hill for most of the game, and did a very good job limiting Durant's open looks. A game after scoring 43, it might seem to be a let-down that Durant only had 24. However, what was important was that, unlike in the Thunder's last loss to the Hornets, Durant did not try to shoot his way to another 40. Rather, he shot a very respectable 8-16 on the night, only took two 3-pointers (he missed both), and seemed very content to play set-up man and grab rebounds. Instead of the Thunder trying to force their offense through Durant, they instead looked to Jeff Green, who played one of his best games of the season. He had a clear quickness advantage over Channing Frye, and he used it to get good, makable shots and finished shooting an outstanding 10-17 from the floor. This time out, the Thunder recognized Green's match-up advantage and they stayed with it.
Finally, Westbrook showed exceptional patience in waiting for his turn to attack. Unlike against the Wizards and Hornets, Westbrook didn't try to set the house on fire against Nash to prove his All-Star quality. Instead, Westbrook waited until the 4th quarter when he knew the Suns would be paying extra attention to Durant, and then he went to work. He is quicker, stronger, and a better leaper than Nash, and he used all of these traits to get good offensive possessions. He ran several pick and rolls with Ibaka, he drove to the rim and finished strong, and hit his biggest shot of the night with 39 seconds remaining to give the Thunder a two possession lead. In total he had nine points in the final quarter and spear-headed the Thunder come-back.
2. The Thunder bench came up big again.
Due to the recent injuries of Thabo Sefolosha and Nedad Krstic, the Thunder have had to shuffle their line-ups. Last night both of those guys did suit up and play, but were extremely limited in their effectiveness. Sefolosha played 11 minutes and Krstic played 12. Given these deficiencies, the Thunder bench was called on to play heavier minutes than normal, and they responded well.
Ibaka followed up his previous monster defensive game with an extremely efficient offensive game. He shot 9-10 on the night, looking to score only when he knew he was within his offensive range. Serge has been working on adding a post-up turn-around shot, and he was able to get it to drop last night at a critical juncture. His bucket gave the Thunder their first lead of the quarter. A bit later, Ibaka came up with a huge offensive tip off of a Westbrook drive that kept the Thunder up by two possessions. The Suns did not have anyone who could match up against Ibaka, and he did extremely well in taking advantage.
James Harden earned a complete stat line, tallying 13 points, six rebounds, five assists, and only one turnover. He still relied on the 3-point shot a bit much, making only 2-8. However, I still feel that is more a function of how he is being used than anything else. Harden was most effective when he was playing along side Green and Durant was on the bench. He had to big assists at the beginning of the 4th as well as a short bucket of his own, all before Durant re-entered the game with eight minutes to play. I think that when Harden is in the game with Westbrook, Green, and Durant, he is always going to defer to those three unless one of them sets him up for a spot-up three. However, if one of them is sitting (like Durant), Harden feels much more comfortable looking for his own spots. This is a big reason why he looks hesitant as a starter but tends to flourish when he's coming off the bench.
Nick Collison: +/- 25 in 23 minutes of play. Nothing more needs to be said.
3. That sideline out of bounds play is a tricky beast.
With 32 seconds remaining in the game and the Thunder up by four, the Thunder played excellent defense and forced the Suns into a miss, and Durant rebounded the ball, calling timeout. Since there was more than a full shot clock of time left, the Thunder knew or should have known that they would have to come up with a decent offensive possession; they didn't need to score necessarily, but they did need to take most of the shot clock in order to close the game out. The Thunder ran a side-line play to Durant, who screened high for the ball and took the pass in the corner of the side-line and half-court. For some reason, instead of passing the ball, Durant looked like he was waiting for the Suns to foul him. He waited and waited, but the Suns only continued to trap him hard. Durant eventually ran out of room and stepped over the half-court line, causing a back-court violation. That play was bad enough; it's a mistake you frequently see in JV basketball. To see it made at this level is maddening.
What made the end of the game even more-so was, after a Suns basket and the Thunder calling timeout to advance the ball again, they called the exact same sideline play. Durant flashed high, the Suns trapped him in the corner, and if not for Durant receiving an extremely favorable whistle from a suspect Suns foul (one of several on the evening, I must admit), he would have turned the ball over again.
The two plays were reminiscent of the in-bounds play against the Hornets that played a big part in costing them the game. Suffice to say, the Thunder have got to figure out a better late-game in-bounds play as the playoffs approach, because rest assured an identical situation is going to arise when the stakes are much higher. Hornets coach Monty Williams, along with Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich are all excellent defensive tacticians. They will know how to capitalize on plays like these if the Thunder aren't better prepared.
Thunder Wonder: Jeff Green, 28 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 10-17 from the field, 3-5 on 3-pointers
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 18 points, 6 rebounds (3 offensive), 2 blocks, two huge clutch baskets in the 4th
Thunder Blunder: Thabo Sefolosha, 0 points on 0-2 shooting in only 11 minutes of play
Thunder Plunderer: Vince Carter, 33 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists
Next Game: @ the Utah Jazz, Saturday Feb. 5 at 8PM Standard Central Time