Before tonight's game began, the Thunder organization hung their Northwest Division Title banner. It marks the first banner of any kind for the Thunder franchise, since they have left most traces of Seattle behind. On a night when the basketball itself was much an afterthought, the banner itself is the most important thing to remember. The 82nd game is more the culmination of a team's transformation than a simple solution denoted by a win or loss.
"That's the first one. Of course, we want to have some more up there. But to have that up there is pretty cool, another steppingstone for us. Hopefully, we do bigger and better things." - Kevin Durant
The Thunder wrapped up their 2010-2011 season in uneven fashion, battling the Milwaukee Bucks half the time tonight but ultimately foregoing an attempt at victory.
Much like their game against the Sacramento Kings, the Thunder came out in the first half looking to set the tone on defense. It looked like this game would be another low scoring affair right up until OKC started getting careless with the ball once more, finishing with 13 turnovers in the first half. What should have been a lead succumbed to a halftime deficit, as the short-handed Bucks took a three point lead.
At this point in the game, I'm sure everyone was wondering whether or not coach Scott Brooks was paying attention to the Mavericks-Hornets game. If the Mavs were to win, then the results of this game would be rendered moot. With the Mavs game still in doubt mid-way through the 3rd quarter, the Thunder finally exerted themselves. In short order, through stifling defense OKC reversed that three point deficit and pushed it to a double-digit lead. As brief as it was, this defensive stretch was an impressive affair. The perimeter defense pushed the Bucks out past any decent shot opportunity, the passing lanes were cut off, and the fast break was ignited.
My personal favorite part of this stretch was that Russell Westbrook took over the game, and he did it as a point guard should. He tallied four assists in that quarter, leading the fast break expertly. There was one particular sequence that stood out for me. He had the ball leading a three on one fast break. However, instead of charing into the lane and possibly risking an offensive charge, Westbrook understood that spacing was his friend. He stretched the play out wider, dribbling to the left wing. Now, with one defender back and much more room to operate, he was easily able to hit the open man for the finishing play. It seems small, but this is the kind of understanding of the game that separates guys like Chris Paul from guys like Westbrook. It is in the understanding that point guards can create and destroy space at their pleasure, and in doing so they create opportunities for their teammates to score.
The charge however was short-lived, as I'm sure Scott Brooks sniffed out the dominating fashion in which the Mavs were winning. With that game all but decided, there was little left for the Thunder to play for on this evening. In came the back-ups, and the starters received a well deserved round of applause.
If this game were a story, then we would have seen the 2nd and 3rd stringers hold on for a win in the end. Alas, it was not to be. They played valiantly, but unfortunately the Nate Robinson-led offense could not generate enough points or protect the perimeter long enough to keep the Bucks from mounting a comeback. With the game tied at 96, Nazr Mohammed had one final chance to end the game in regulation, but his 15 footer clanked off the rim. Once the game reached overtime, the outcome was all but assured when the Thunder starters stayed nailed to the bench. The Bucks pulled ahead to stay, and hopefully they and their fans received a bit of respite in concluding with a win what I'm sure has been a very frustrating season.
- Kevin Durant officially gained his second consecutive scoring title. He probably could not have cared less. What is more important is the style with which he is playing now.
- Byron Mullens got some quality minutes in the first half, though I openly questioned whether that was the right time to start throwing out 3rd stringers. He did finish with a nice flurry in the end, getting a good putback for a slam.
- James Harden, the primary facilitator for the backups during the extended garbage time, ran a nifty back-door ally-oop with Nate Robinson. He was able to circle behind everyone to catch the well-timed lob.
- With regards to Robinson, it was good to see him out on the court bouncing around and what not, and he does bring a certain vitality to the games. I hope he gets into decent game shape, because in the playoffs you just never know when you're going to need an offensive spark.
- A win...would have been nice. At least for the fans. I'm sure however they all know there are bigger midwestern fish to fry.