What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
My thoughts at:
6:20PM CST - Oh boy, here we go again with the weak starts.
7:20PM CST - The Thunder are the greatest team in the history of Bill Walton's universe.
8:20PM CST - I feel sick.
9:20PM CST - Thank goodness that thing is over.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The first seven minutes of the game where rocky, with OKC falling behind early once again. I actually was not that distressed at that point because the reason why the Celtics had an early 10 point lead was because they were shooting white-hot (80%) and the Thunder were missing just about everything. At the five minute mark, the Thunder trailed 22-12. Then things got interesting.
In the span of the next 17 minutes, the Thunder scored 60 points.
I don't think I've ever seen this team play so well on both ends of the court for an extended stretch as they did during this period of time. They turned a competitive match into one where it looked like OKC was playing a completely different game. The most beautiful thing about it was that it was complete offensive balance across the team. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were getting their points, but so were James Harden and Daequan Cook. Furthermore, the team played in control. They had zero turnovers after one quarter and only two at halftime. So not only where they scoring efficiently, but they also were not giving the Celtics extra opportunities to stay in the game.
However, those 17 minutes came to an end, and so it is these 17 minutes that tell us everything we have come to understand about the Thunder. They have stretches of basketball where they look untouchable, and then they follow it by taking their foot off the gas and start checking the clock like they're trying to make the midnight showing at the downtown cineplex. As a result, insurmountable 25 point leads turn into six point leads with plenty of time on the clock. Such is the dichotomy of the Thunder.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
Turnovers were the story tonight. As noted, in the first half the Thunder only had two turnovers, compared to 10 for the Celtics. This meant that a) OKC wasn't wasting possessions; and b) they were not giving the Celtics easy chances to score. Furthermore, the Thunder also had 20 fast break points in the first half, many of them triggered by those turnovers. OKC was facing a Rajon Rondo-less Celtics team and so they went after 2nd year guard Avery Bradley hard on the perimeter. OKC used aggressive trapping to get steals in the frontcourt and were able to execute their fast break on the other end.
(An aside: I really like Avery Bradley. He's young and prone to mistakes, but boy is he fierce.)
As great as the turnover margin was in the first half, in the second half it reversed itself. The Celtics won the turnover battle in the second half 12-8, which was one of the means they used to fuel their comeback attempt. Of course having a repeat two turnover performance in the 2nd half was a tall order, but by giving it away an inordinate amount of times to the Celtics defense, they equipped Boston with a way to claw back into the game.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
The outcome of this game is one we certainly would not trade, but I think that tonight's win has more to tell us about OKC's weaknesses than of their strengths.
Yes, those 17 minutes were some breathtaking basketball and the Thunder took the Celtics 2nd ranked defense to the woodshed by scoring 72 in a half and 119 for the game, which is 31 points more than Boston usually yields. Even with the stilted 2nd half of offense, OKC still scored at a 94 point pace.
The problem though is that the Thunder defense allowed a very poor Celtics offense, one that does not even average 89 points per game, to score 104 points. That total is almost 16 above Boston's average, and they did it without their starting All-Star point guard. At an 89 points per game average, the Celtics' standard game yields them about 22 points per quarter. So in order to play 'good' defense against this Boston team, their opponent has to hold them to less than that (which is what Dallas did to them on Monday). Tonight, the Thunder gave up way more than that every single quarter.
This is what OKC's season is going to boil down to. There is a reason why they are typically not grouped together with the Bulls and the Heat. It is because when those two teams go up by 25, they stay up 25. They can do it because their defenses (especially the Bulls) are good at preventing the opposition from ever getting back into the game. Their dominance hinges on their defense. In OKC's case, their dominance hinges on their superior offensive talent overwhelming other teams. The only problem is, sometimes offense fails, and it can fail even when you're actually focused and trying hard. Shots sometimes do not go in. But defense...defense rarely fails the team that is committed to it over the course of a season. OKC's defense allowed a poor offensive team to get back into a game in which they had no business being competitive. This is the problem that needs to be solved in the next two months. It is the defense, not offensive distribution, shot selection, or 4th quarter execution, that will determine OKC's fate in the playoffs.
But oh...those 17 minutes...
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 28 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals
Thunder Down Under: Kendrick Perkins, 8 points, 10 rebounds (5 offensive), 1 block
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, only 4 points and 5 rebounds, looking generally out of sync
Thunder Plunderer: Kevin Garnett, 23 points, 13 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 blocks
Next Game: vs the Los Angeles Lakers, February 23, 8:30PM Central Standard Time