The Oklahoma City Thunder and their fanbase can breathe a little easier this Thursday morning, as the Thunder were able to get back on the winning track by defeating the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are a curious case to consider in the waning light of this NBA season due to the inner turmoil and transition they have experienced. Every season at least one team goes through a transition where they fire their coach, trade away players, and then hope the players will stay interested enough in the rest of the season so the franchise doesn't look terrible. Rarely though do you see such a transition happen in the middle of the season when that team is sitting in a playoff position and has a record eight games over .500.
Last night's game, despite the loss, should give the Jazz some hope because, while it did end in a double digit loss, on a per quarter basis the Thunder had a good fight on their hands. There is still a bevy of talent on the Utah team, such talent that any team located in a city such as Cleveland or Washington would love to have.
The game itself was played at a much slower pace than the two teams' previous encounters and had an unusual vibe to it, much different than in the Raptors game. Against Toronto, there was a sense of growing agitation in the Thunder's body language, as they kept trying to build some momentum only to have it constantly be undone by a bad shot, a bad defensive sequence, or a missed rebound. Against the Jazz though, I got the sense as if the Thunder were waiting for something to happen. And while I was waiting for something to happen, I kept thinking about this quote by Kevin Durant, which he made after the Raptors loss:
"It felt like I (was) a senior in college and we lost in the (NCAA) Tournament. I could have done so much more to help us win."
As Durant played a seemingly passive game through most of the first half, I wondered how that sentiment that he expressed was playing itself out. From the outside looking in, it seemed like the approach took two forms:
- After struggling mightily shooting the ball against the Raptors, Durant was much more assertive in getting the ball in better positions to score. He had 12 points at halftime, but 10 of those points were off of free throws. Meanwhile, he had only taken a total of three shots. For an offensive savant like Durant, this may seem strange, since most shooters reclaim their muse by continuing to shoot. However, the approach that Durant took in this game, to me, showed some remarkable wisdom.
The scorers that remain scorers throughout their extended careers do so by knowing when to stop shooting and start getting to the free throw line. The free throw line becomes their refuge, much like a practice putting green is for struggling golfers. It allows for solitude and focus on all of the little things that a shooter has to put his trust in - the feel of the seams of the ball properly fitting in one's palm, the balance in the hips and shoulders, and the mechanics of the follow-through. The sequence, repeated over and over, reminds the shooter intrinsically and extrinsically of all the things that go into shooting the ball properly. It is added benefit that these "practice shots" also show up as real points. Kevin was re-discovering his shooting touch in the safest and most productive harbor available.
The second way in which I thought Durant saw to it to help his team was by giving his mercurial teammate Russell Westbrook the opportunity to shine. Westbrook has struggled mightily from the field as of late, both in shot selection and in finishing around the rim. He is always going to have a handful of shots that come from an out-of-control place, but that has to be accepted if you also want to tap into his offensive powers of destruction. I think that, in a way, Durant was foregoing his own shots in the beginning to allow Westbrook to reclaim his own mojo too. I think they both know that the team cannot be great unless both of them are playing at a high level.
To his great credit, Westbrook took the call and played with a fierce control. We still saw the same level of aggressiveness out of him; whenever Westbrook wanted to get into the lane, he did get into the lane. However, this time around we saw less of the haphazard shot selection and much more control in his attack. Instead of barreling into the defensive interior, we were able to see that medium-range jump shot that has been coming along this season. When Westbrook is looking for THAT shot, it is becoming automatic. But when it is a second thought after his driving lane is cut off, his shooting mechanics are way off and it seldom has a chance of going in.
- After being held without a block against the Raptors (in large part due to effective game-planning by Toronto), Air Congo was back in full force, sending four shots away from the rim. On top of that, Serge Ibaka had his jumper working and gave the team an excellent scoring lift when the pockets of space presented themselves.
- The Thunder bench played extremely timid in the first half. The unit seemed out of sync and their lack of aggressiveness prevented the team from building on its 1st quarter lead. Fortunately, they all came alive in the 2nd half, keeping the Thunder out in front as the 4th quarter began. Nazr Mohammed had his most effective offensive day as a member of the team, netting 10 points to go along with four rebounds.
- James Harden had a bit of an off-night, his first in about two months. I think it is in part because the Jazz had game planned against the Thunder's effective use of back door plays, and Harden was not able to get some of those quick cuts to the rim. Compounding things, he allowed his dribble-drives to be taken into the lane rather than to his preferred spot, the baseline. As a result, he was not able to finish has he normally does, and picked up an offensive charge in the process.