Last night's win against the Pistons will likely go down the memory trail as a game where the Thunder did what they had to do against an inferior team, and that will be that. The Pistons are a mess, and it would have been inexcusable for a team with playoff aspirations to drop a game to a team in such disarray at home. Competition is a funny thing though, and a player and a team can never truly rest knowing what the opposition will bring until the game unfolds.
I think this is what we saw last night. The Pistons came out looking extremely efficient on offense, and the Thunder shot the ball poorly, leading to the Thunder trailing for almost all of the 1st. It was one of those stretches where the viewer might say (as I did), "Wow, this team doesn't look like a 23 win team. The Thunder could be in trouble." And it is at that point when the superior team must decide whether it is going to give into the pressure of the suddenly competitive game, or whether it will trust in its own makeup and mantra.
After the lethargic first quarter, here were the two elements that keyed the subsequent three quarters:
- The offense started to find open shooters.
During the 1st quarter in particular, the Thunder were not playing in a patient manner, often settling for the quick jump shot. It has been a familiar theme all season; it just seems like they take a quarter to settle down offensively. If they do happen to have a strong 1st, it is almost exclusively because they're shooting the ball particularly well, not merely because the Thunder are running their offense proficiently. In this game against the Pistons, there was a striking difference between how the Pistons were moving the ball in and out of the post and generating short jumpers and how the Thunder were making one pass and hoisting up the outside shot.
When the second quarter began to unfold, the Thunder offense began to realize how they could attack the Pistons defense. Detroit, even despite their struggles this year, still have a number of guys in Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince who are individually good on the ball defenders and can get stops if the opposing team makes it too easy. But when the Thunder began to move the ball more quickly, most notably with James Harden and Eric Maynor facilitating the offense, pockets in the defense began to materialize. Harden and Daequan Cook shot the 3-pointer extremely well, and the Thunder were able to reverse a four point deficit and turn it into a five point halftime lead. The stretch wasn't exceptional basketball, but it was a good display of offensive competency that allowed the Thunder's natural talent to distance itself from the Pistons.
- The Thunder identified what was hurting them.
During the 1st quarter surge when the Pistons kept things interesting, they were doing two things particularly well. They were making good passes in and out of the post to get open shots around the rim, and they were running Rip Hamilton off his usual array of screens to get open shots. The Thunder looked confused, as if to question whether the Pistons were actually good enough to play in such a way. Hamilton was keeping the Pistons in the game almost by himself, and it was easy to see why. He was peeling off screens so effortlessly that often times no defender was within five feet of him as he elevated for makable shots.
Here is how the Thunder solved that problem. Instead of attempting to fight through the screens and continue to allow their defense to fall apart, the Thunder extended their defensive pressure out past the 3-point line. In doing so, OKC accomplished two things - 1) they took away the passing lanes that the guards had in getting Hamilton the ball; and 2) it rendered Hamilton's baseline runs a waste of energy and he eventually stopped playing hard. Heading into the 4th quarter, it was apparent that the Pistons had no idea how to counter the defensive adjustment, and it was only due to a late offensive slump by the Thunder that the Pistons were able to make the final score respectable.
As this game goes into the books of history, hopefully it will be remembered for some strong defensive play and an offensive efficiency in the second half. Both of these attributes will be helpful when the Thunder head into Cleveland on Sunday.
(Oh, and btw, I almost called the final score of this game, which would make me now about 1 for 63 in my predictions. Hooah!)
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 22 Points, 3 Assists, 3 Steals, 4-6 from 3-point range.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 16 Points, 8 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 2 blocks.
Thunder Blunder: Nazr Mohammed, only one rebound in 15 minutes.
Thunder Plunderer: Richard Hamilton, 20 Points, 2 Assists, 1 Steal.
Next Game: at the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday, March 13th, 12 PM Central Standard Time.