"There he goes again."
This is the line I spoke during the game to no one in particular, because you are probably not surprised to hear that I watched the Thunder defeat the Timberwolves in the dim of the evening and alone. So very alone.
In tonight's game, the Thunder defeated the young Timberwolves in a game that was probably over before it began. The Wolves are winding down a disappointing season that has 17 wins to its credit and their best player on injured reserve. They continue to play hard but flawed basketball and lose to everyone. The Thunder, as we know and celebrate, are on the opposite trajectory. They are also young and inexperienced, and yet by virtue of direction, leadership, and game plan are bound for a high playoff seed.
It matters not that this game was actually a two-point contest late in the 3rd quarter. We the viewers knew that the Thunder were throttling the intensity up and down as the situation dictated it, and once the game got too close for comfort, the Thunder had bullets in the chamber still waiting to be fired.
I think that tonight's game told us several things though, and for that it was worth experiencing and considering. The first thing is the philosophy behind how to play in such games as these, and the second is actual tangible evidence of what we were seeing.
Whenever a team such as the Thunder finds itself in a game like this evening's, against an inferior opponent who is down and out for the rest of the season with little to play for except a lottery pick, it is always a good question to ask how exactly they plan to win the game. I don't think this is as simple as it sounds, at least for the coaching staff. The Wolves are not the Lakers, the Heat, or even the Jazz. They are a team that does not know exactly how to win.
How will the Thunder approach these kinds of games? The first priority is of course to win, but do they do it exerting as little energy as possible? Is an eight point win truly as meaningful as a 20 point win? Is it necessary to continue the defensive streak of holding a team under 100?
This is the philosophy I believe the Thunder took tonight: they sought to get all of their big men involved in the offense, regardless of whether it took points off the board or out of Durant and Westbrook's pockets. Here were the results:
- Kendrick Perkins: 13 points
- Serge Ibaka: 12 points
- Nick Collison: 12 points
- Nazr Mohammed: 14 points
I believe this intention is to look toward the future, not simply the current.
The Thunder did not play as consistently or as intensely as we have seen in the past, nor did they need to. This fact does not mean that there was nothing that they did that is worth mention. I think the following were testaments as to how the Thunder is going to continue to shape itself.
Kendrick Perkins, providing his usual amount of tenacity and intimidation, finally decided to impress us with a little bit of offense. Perk is never going to be mistaken for Hakeem Olajuwon or even Dwight Howard, but for the first time in his brief Thunder career he showed a little bit of offensive flair. Early on in the 1st quarter he unveiled a nice little hook shot. In several sequences Perkins showed deft ball movement without the ball, the most polished of which was a high screen and roll with Kevin Durant that led to a Perkins lay-in. Of all of these, his best (and most unexpected) move was to take the ball on the left wing, back up his defender, and then deftly hit a short fade-away jump shot. Perk, we didn't know you had it in you.
I don't think it was a gimmick, either. I think that the Thunder teammates were purposefully looking for Perkins on the offensive end of the court, almost as if to say to him, "we know what you're doing for us defensively, so now it's our turn to help you offensively." Perkins responded by going 6-6 for 13 points. Confidence builders like this game matter, and it was the perfect opportunity to build some of that confidence in a risk-free environment. Heck, by the end of the season they might even get Perkins' free throw percentage up to 50%.
- Defense of the high screen and rolls. If you recall, two games ago the Raptors tore apart the Thunder with high pick and roll plays, including the one that proved to be the deciding points. I do wonder if Kurt Rambis took this inspiration and designed his entire game plan around it. If he did, then I wonder if he ever considered changing it. The Thunder clearly worked on defending this type of play leading into this game. The Wolves ran the high screen over and over, and repeatedly the Thunder players defended it with steals, challenged shots, and tipped passes. There were stretches where it seemed like the Thunder defenders knew it was coming before the screen even came.
- Thabo Sefolosha finished with four. Yes, that means four points, but it also means four blocks. That is remarkable - four blocks from the shooting guard position. I think that Perkins' outward display of confidence for Sefolosha has buoyed his defensive swagger and Thabo is really starting to exert himself defensively. He is learning that he can shut down guys, and he can do it with regularity.
- You need a big three? Kevin Durant will get you two of them. Durant had a relatively quiet game. However, as the Wolves moved within two, there was Durant stepping up to knock down a huge 3-pointer to push the lead back to five. After a made Wolves shot and the 3rd quarter running out, he hit another deep 3-pointer to push the lead to six. The Wolves never threatened after that. Even as things for a brief spell seemed shaky, Durant knew exactly what was needed and when.
- "There he goes again."
If you miss the meaning of my personal quote, it is what I kept saying every time I saw Russell Westbrook swipe another pass or pick Luke Ridnour's pocket. There were at least two times when it looked like the badger took it right out of poor Luke's hands and Ridnour looked like he had just had his lunch money stolen and was powerless to do anything about it. I kind of felt bad for him as Westbrook was going in for another breakaway score.
The great thing about Westbrook's performance tonight is that he set up himself to dominate Ridnour on defense, not offense. This led to a reduction in runaway drives and the like, and instead had him locked in on the defensive end.
It is not my intent to disparage the Wolves, because they did their best to show up tonight and they competed as hard as they could. I still think that they could go places down the road, with Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, and now with Anthony Randolph. That is a pretty decent front line right there. However, it could not have been more evident as in tonight as to how badly the Wolves screwed up their point guard situation two years ago in drafting Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio. Ridnour isn't bad, but he's probably best as a back-up. Also, Kurt Rambis has to figure out how to get better in game situations, because his management has frequently left the team without much hope.
So we bid the Wolves farewell until next season, when hopefully they'll have reconfigured themselves in a more competitive manner. Excelsior.