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Oklahoma City Thunder 98, Houston Rockets 95: 2011-2012 Game 9 Recap; Thunder Struggle Early, Close Late

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Box Score

The funny thing about elite basketball players, you see, is that they can be pretty terrible for the majority of a game. Perhaps they even put their own team in a hole. Then, when all things seem lost, you think to yourself, "too bad our guy just didn't have it tonight." You might even think about turning off the game. But then in the blink of an eye, you are reminded why elite players are considered as such.

The Thunder have Kevin Durant.

Through three quarters, Durant had played the exact opposite of how he performed last night. In yesterday evening's game, Durant seemed like he had taken a huge step forward in becoming an offensive creator. He was dribbling, passing, driving the ball, and finishing from all over the court and it was beautiful to watch. Lo and behold, with the Rockets on the docket for two games in a row, I thought we'd get a repeat performance. Unfortunately, those hopes were vanquished early when Durant and the gang stopped doing all the things that worked Friday night. Durant was hoisting threes, taking long jumpers early in the shot clock, and turning the ball over. He sat down. When Durant left the game in the 3rd quarter after having committed a handful of turnovers and missed a bevy of low percentage shots, the team trailed Houston by 12, 70-58.

Certainly there was enough time to recover, but the Thunder had to readjust their focus. The rest of the team went to work, creating hope that the Thunder would not throw away a game against an inferior opponent. For most of the game through three quarters, the Thunder were playing down to the level of their opponent rather than taking command of their destiny. Finally in the 3rd, the team remembered what it can do well against the Rockets defense. Russell Westbrook played his best offensive game of the season, consistently getting inside the defense to find soft spots to hoist his mid-range jumpers. He worked in tandem with James Harden, who continued to press the Rockets and drive to the rim to get layups and free throws. When all was said and done, Westbrook had led the team back from the cusp of falling apart to a tie game heading into the 4th quarter.

The game see-sawed back and forth through the 4th quarter until it was finally time for Durant to re-enter with his team up by three. The rational side of my brain said, "Durant isn't locked in tonight. Let's hope he doesn't throw away his teammates' hard work." The creative side of my brain said, "Durant is one of the three best players in the NBA. He can transcend his own bad play."

In a close, crunch time game, Kevin Durant scored the final 13 Thunder points. He took good shots, he made difficult shots, he got to the free throw line for easy shots, and in the end, the Thunder held on to win.

Not very many teams can say that they have a player who can reverse his personal course like Durant did tonight, but the Thunder can. Thank goodness they can also boast of Westbrook too, or else Durant's end-game performance never would have even had the chance to arrive.

Random notes:

  • The biggest concern of the night for the Thunder was the apparent knee injury that Eric Maynor sustained in the 4th quarter. As Royce Young at CBS Sports reports, Maynor was driving to the rim when his right knee buckled and he went down immediately. Maynor was later carried off by the staff, and we are awaiting preliminary results to see how bad Maynor's injury is. Maynor is the perfect backup for the Thunder, providing a great change of pace from the hard-charging Westbrook and Eric has excellent chemistry with his teammates. OKC's other backup point guards are Royal Ivey and Reggie Jackson, both of which would be a huge drop-off from Maynor.
  • Serge Ibaka vanished on us again. As great as he was last night, he was seemingly nowhere to be found on Saturday night. Tonight's game was certainly more physical inside and Luis Scola was much more active, but Ibaka is capable of handling that type of play. I'd be willing to bet that the Thunder's truncated offensive flow had a lot to do with Ibaka's disappearance. Because there were so many jump shots taken early in the shot clock, the offense really never allowed for the 2nd or 3rd scoring options to manifest. As a result, Ibaka got very few touches and saw meager minutes on the night.
  • Stepping in and stepping up in Ibaka's place was veteran Nazr Mohammed, whom I thought was probably the MVP of the first half of play. In only 18 minutes of action, Mohammed did a great job scoring and rebounding the ball, even showing off some nice dribble-drive moves to get to the rim. I believe Nazr is one of the most underrated components to the Thunder's 2nd unit. James Harden is great, Maynor is steady, and Nick Collison is the glue, but Nazr brings a special blend of experience and game smarts that almost always pays off in some manner.
  • Through 3.5 quarters of play, if you asked me who the best player on the court was, I probably would have said Goran Dragic. He almost single-handedly pushed the Rockets out to a 12 point lead in the 3rd quarter with a series of drives, dishes, and 3-point shots. I know Kyle Lowry is a nice player and all, but I think Dragic is either earning himself more minutes or a bigger future payday with his play.

Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 27 points, 2 assists, 6 rebounds

Thunder Down Under: Nazr Mohammed 17 points, 6 rebounds in 18 minutes of play

Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, 2 points, 6 rebounds in 18 minutes of play

Thunder Plunder: Goran Dragic, 20 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds

Next Game: Sunday, January 8 vs the San Antonio Spurs at 6PM CST