The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Atlanta Hawks on the road, 100-92. The Thunder exacted a bit of revenge from an earlier home loss to the Hawks during a stretch where OKC was still searching to find its identity. Oddly enough, that identity that they have found over the past two weeks largely took a back seat to a known formula - the combination of Durant and Westbrook is a lot to overcome.
Durant scored a season-high 41 points on the night, including 4-8 from 3-point range while grabbing 13 rebounds. His partner Westbrook did an equally commendable job, scoring 27 points while handing out 11 assists. Westbrook did a much better job controlling the Thunder offense this time out and as a result, the reduction in turnovers paid big dividends in the end.
The Hawks were led by Jeff Teague, who finished with 19 points and 9 assists. Josh Smith, who missed the first match-up between the two teams, returned to the court and contributed 17 points and 12 rebounds.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The difference between the first meeting between these two teams and this one could not be more stark, and the difference is in Kevin Durant. If you recall from the early season loss, Kevin Durant was looking to be a playmaker all game long and forgot about generating his own offense. When he tried to turn it on, it was too late. This time out, Durant was in attack mode throughout the 2nd half. It was a good thing too, because the Hawks battled back from a 17 point deficit to within 2 possessions on multiple occasions. Flashbacks from the early season collapse were present and OKC was on the verge of collapsing. However, Durant was already in his scorer's mindset and continued to overpower the Hawks defense.
In the first game, we didn't really know what the Hawks were, since they had purged a number of players in the offseason. This time out, we know what they are - a defensive-minded team (6th in the league) that doesn't make mistakes and knows how to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers. The Thunder did a much better job playing at the proper pace in this game, cut down their turnovers, and set up Durant in position so he could score at will.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Aside from Durant's return to being, well, himself, the Thunder did an outstanding job on the boards, which limited the Hawks' ability to get offensive rebounds and easy put-backs. This was not a flashy game because that is not how the Hawks play; they entrench themselves, show great patience, and wait for the other team to play too fast and waste opportunities. The Thunder countered this slow pace by controlling the defensive glass, grabbing 39 rebounds (compared to the Hawks' 30) while limiting Atlanta to a single team offensive rebound advantage in the game, 14-13.
The Thunder players who did the heavy lifting were Durant, who grabbed 12 defensive rebounds, and Serge Ibaka, who grabbed 10 defensive boards (14 overall). Ibaka in particular is worth mentioning because if you look at his stat line, you might think that Ibaka disappeared a bit, only scoring 4 points off of 2-9 shooting. However, I believe this was a huge step forward for Ibaka tonight. A year ago, if Ibaka only had 4 points in a game, that probably also meant that he only grabbed 4 rebounds and spent most of the game floating around looking for something to do. This time out, despite the poor shooting performance, Ibaka remained engaged in the game, grabbing a game-high 14 boards and still stayed active on defense, blocking 3 shots.
One of the elements we need to remember about defensive rebounding is that it starts with good defense. Good position defense leads to rebounders being in good position to box out, and the rebounds fall into their laps. Such was the case tonight, where the Thunder did a great job playing position defense and did not allow the Hawks to get to the rim. The Hawks defense is one of the league's best, but tonight the Thunder showed they can defend as well. With only 3:31 remaining in the game, they were holding the Hawks to a mere 80 total points.
Despite a bit of a stumble from the middle of the 3rd quarter to the middle of the 4th, the Thunder defense helped keep them focused and Durant brought them home in the end.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Rebounding and defense were the two key cogs in the Thunder's win.
The Thunder outrebounded the Hawks, 52-44 and were not dominated on the offensive glass as they were in the 1st game, losing that battle by 1, 14-13.
The Thunder aided their rebounding by only allowing the Hawks to shoot 38.3% from the floor on the night, including 9-24 from 3-point range. Only one Hawk player (Jeff Teague) managed to shoot over 50%. The Hawks' two big scorers, Al Horford and Josh Smith, were held to a combined 13-33 for only 30 points.
Meanwhile, the Durant/Westbrook duo combined for 68 points, as the Thunder supporting cast struggled from the field on the night. Ibaka had a letdown game after torching the Spurs earlier this week, and Kevin Martin could not get his shot to fall either, scoring only 6 points on 3-9 shooting. Durant in particular was much more aggressive on the night, working his way to the high post as well as to the low block and getting whatever he wanted. He was a bit too reliant on the 3-point shot, but even there he was 4-8 on the night. Durant is playing peerless offensive basketball right now, getting his points in a remarkably efficient manner, and he understood tonight that he needed to take this aggressive approach in order to hold off the Hawks.
Meanwhile, Westbrook showed outstanding control of the Thunder offense, measuring his drives and the pace at which he engaged. He continues to grow as a set-up man for Durant, and so it is important to note that Durant is getting touches in good spots on the floor because Westbrook is setting him up that way. It is an outstanding partnership that continues to evolve by the game.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder get little rest tonight because they will have to take a plane up to the tropical climate of Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves tomorrow night. The Wolves have Ricky Rubio back and are looking to begin building something for a playoff push. Tomorrow's game will be a stark contrast to tonight's slower affair, so the Thunder will need to be ready to meet the playmaking ability of Rubio and Love.
As for this game, it was a strong win where the Thunder as a team did not play well but saw their stars elevate their games when necessary. The name of the game is winning in an efficient manner, and when the supporting Thunder players did not bring their normal production, OKC seamlessly boosted their star duo to primary offensive focus and came away with a good road win.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 41 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 27 points, 11 assists
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Martin, only 6 points on 3-9 shooting and 0-4 from 3-point range
Thunder Plunderer: Jeff Teague, 19 points, 9 assists
Next game: at the Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow night, Dec. 20, at 6PM CDT
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