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Oklahoma City Thunder 99, Portland Trail Blazers 90: 2010-2011 Game 72 Recap; Westbrook 3's, Thunder D Seal the Deal

Yahoo! Box Score

The Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in what could be a preview for the upcoming playoffs, if not in the form of match-up, at least in the form of intensity. the Blazers have chased the Thunder for most of the season, and in their two early season match-ups the Thunder had proven to be better than them by one and two points, respectively. The two teams are close, to be sure.

This win officially marks the inclusion of the Thunder into this season's playoffs. I think the Blazers will get there as well, although it remains to be seen where they will be seeded. Could last night have been a preview of the first round match-up?

The game itself had all the feel of a playoff match-up. If you have watched the NBA playoffs for any amount of time, you know that there is a certain rhythm both to the games and to the series. As the teams familiarize themselves with one another, the games become as much a process of positioning like a game of chess as with athletic exploits. I think that last night's game fits within that mold because each team had its opportunity to surge (Thunder in the 2nd, Blazers in the 3rd), and with nine minutes to go in the 4th, the teams were knotted at 79. For the next two minutes, the two teams struggled to gain a leg up on the other, and the score remained at 79 for over two minutes. 

Which way would the wind blow on this night?

Those two minutes represent a powerful insight into what makes playoff basketball great. If you later examined the box score or looked at the play by play breakdown of the game, you would never know that it was the most pivotal point in the game. No points were scored. Turnovers were committed. Fouls were given. There is nothing numerically that can describe how tense those moments were. However, just like a goal-line stand, it was the moment when the Thunder pushed back against the Gerald Wallace onslaught. He had almost single-handedly brought the Blazers back into the game. He did it through a stellar array of shot-making, and the Thunder could not counter. It was Wallace's 3-point play with nine minutes to go that tied the game. 79-79. Which way would the coin fall? 

I have long held the belief that there is something psychological about a team who, after losing a big lead, still maintains the advantage as long as the team laying chase does not ever take the lead. Even if the score is tied at some point, it has always seemed to me that if the leading team can just avoid giving up the lead, even for a single possession, that the chasing team would eventually fold. I think there is something about that psychological hurdle represented by a lead change that the trailing team needs to overcome. If they can do it, then victory is within grasp. But if the moment arises for the trailing team and they have the opportunities to take the lead and yet fail, it does seem like the opportunity for victory quickly dissipates. 

And so it was last night. Portland could not, and OKC would not, allow the lead to change hands. After those tense two minutes of play, Russell Westbrook began to step up in a way that we have seen him do a number of times this year. Despite the fact that he is not a great shooter, Westbrook seems to take a little bit more time to size up his shots, he becomes a little more patient, and he hits the biggest shots of the game. At this critical juncture, Westbrook stepped up and hit an 11 footer to give the Thunder back the lead. Even though the Blazers tied the score twice more, for the rest of the game they were back in the trailing position. Westbrook continued to assert himself, drilling three huge 3-pointers in the final five minutes to take away any chance the Blazers had at tying the game again. Eventually Gerald Wallace began to miss shots, and there was nobody else to pick up the torch to push the Thunder to the limit. The Thunder showed their quality and did not blink.

Some other key points:

  • Gerald Wallace. The Blazers scored a major acquisition when they were able to trade for Wallace. He just might be the guy to replace Brandon Roy's sad but now seemingly inevitable injury-robbed career. He has always been a dynamic scorer, but the question was always whether or not he could do it while playing for a good team in games that matter. I think we are seeing the answer to that question. He scored 40 on the night from inside and out, and as the 3rd quarter wound down, the big question was whether anybody else was going to come along side of him to help the team overcome the Thunder's lead. Here is where I think the Thunder coaching staff took a strategic position regarding Wallace. I think they decided that they would allow him to continue to go one-on-one and not give any help defense, but the Thunder would also not allow anybody else for Portland to get their games in gear. Good players and even great players eventually miss, and if their team is going to have a shot as the underdog, somebody else has to be able to step up and make the shot. Last night, the Blazers did not have another player who was able to hit that shot.
  • Thunder defense. The Thunder did an excellent job defending the Blazers, although it may not have seemed like it based on Wallace's final numbers. However, if the Thunder can hold a Portland team that has built quite the resume over the past month to only 90 points, and 40 of those came from one man, this is the sign of a successful strategy. 

    The Thunder did a very solid job defending LaMarcus Aldridge for most of the night. He was at his most effective when shooting his medium range jump shots, but I believe that is a shot the Thunder were willing to concede because it made Aldridge one-dimensional. From the wing position, he could only shoot. He could not suck in double-teams, he could not pass out of the post, and he could not rebound. As a result, the Blazers' two best offensive players last night were only effective when the ball was exclusively in their hands. As a result, nobody else for the Blazers was able to give a meaningful contribution, and Andre Miller was their 3rd highest point scorer with nine.

    Lastly, it was the Thunder's defense on Wallace with a minute to go and the Thunder clinging to a four point lead that essentially sealed the game. As mentioned above, Wallace was really the only guy in the offensive set that was a threat. With the ball at the top of the key, Wallace drove past Durant and headed to what seemed to be a sure layup. As Wallace rose to shoot, the Thunder's muscle moved to meet him. Kendrick Perkins read the drive perfectly and blocked the layup beautifully. Miller grabbed the offensive rebound and tried to score a put-back, but this time Serge Ibaka met Miller's shot and sent it up the court for a break-away lay-in. Actually, just watch it:
  • Ibaka on offense, Durant on defense. Bill Simmons noted a while back that Ibaka is a remarkable player this season in that you can actually see him getting better month by month. This reality is evident when you watch him play on both sides of the ball, but it his offensive game that is really surprising. Little by little, Ibaka has added a post-game to his repertoire, and he can now score with a little fade-away, an up-and-under move, and he has even shown flashes of having a jump-hook shot. Last night he was the most efficient offensive player for the Thunder, and there is no reason to think that it will not continue. Ibaka's offensive play is going to be a critical component to the playoff run.

    Lest we forget Mr. Durant, many will look at his numbers today and conclude he had a bad game. While Durant's offensive numbers were still not up to his standards, it is important to note that it is probably a byproduct of the schedule he's carried on this past year and his still developing physique. I don't think Durant really ever recovered from the past full year of basketball, and it seems like his offensive energy waxes and wanes because of it. Going against Gerald Wallace, Durant did not have the strength to get position for good shots. However, Durant is showing the signs of mature leadership in his ability to contribute in other ways. Durant matched up against Wallace late and did a good job challenging Wallace's jump shot. Also, despite playing with five fouls, Durant collected five blocks. Well done.
Will the Thunder see the Blazers again this season?

(answer - of course - they play again on April 1st)

Thunder WonderRussell Westbrook, 28 points, 7 assists7 rebounds, 4-5 from 3-point land.

Thunder Down UnderSerge Ibaka, 18 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks

Thunder BlunderJames harden, 8 points on 2-8 shooting.

Thunder PlundererGerald Wallace, 40 points, 7 rebounds.

Next Game: vs the Golden State Warriors, Tuesday, March 29th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.