What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Thunder's mini-road trip ends with a loss that could easily have occurred either to the 76ers or the Magic. The games that this one immediately brought to mind were actually the two games against the Hawks from last year. I'm not sure if it is the make-up of the two teams playing each other, but whereas a team like Denver seems to bring out the best energy from OKC, Atlanta brings out the worst. The two games last year, even though they resulted in wins, seemed devoid of any real energy or urgency. The Hawks loss on Saturday felt the same way.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder lost?
Begin with the fact that the Hawks are a good team, regardless of whether they had Joe Johnson or not. They're going to make the playoffs this season just like they have the last four seasons. While they have yet to figure out how to make the next jump from 'good' to 'contender,' each season is always typified by some satisfying wins over some of the best teams in the league. So we must first acknowledge that while the Thunder are a better team than the Hawks this season, the fact that the Hawks were competitive and had a chance to win in the end is not a surprise.
The reason though why the Thunder lost was that they again did not seem to have a clear sense of how to beat the Hawks team. While there is certainly something to be said for a team that is good enough that it knows how to impose its will and style of play on another, for all of OKC's prodigious talents, they are not yet there. They can certainly overwhelm another team with their speed, athleticism, and offensive ability, but we usually don't get the sense that they come into a game knowing exactly how to take advantage of the other teams' tendencies, especially on defense.
However, when they don't come in with a game plan specific to their opponent for the night, losses like this one can result, just like in the way OKC flirted with a loss against Golden State earlier this season. If they don't play up to their capabilities in all aspects of the game, they allow a streaky but explosive player like Josh Smith the opportunity to win the game in the end, which is what he did Saturday night. OKC should know all to well that when a team allows a good/great player the opportunity to win the game, it should not be surprising when the player does just that.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
Russell Westbrook was a warrior on the night, coming back from a sprained ankle to play, and it was a shame that his celebrated running mate did not have the same general focus. With OKC finishing the last leg of their road trip, this felt like the kind of game where they would have to manufacture the win by virtue of point generation and rebounding. While it is hard to gripe about Kevin Durant scoring 35 points with almost half of those coming from the free throw line, the stat line that makes me rub my eyes is his 3-10 shooting from 3-point range. Whenever a guy like Charles Barkley starts to criticize the Thunder for being a 'jump shooting team,' this is the one area where his point sticks. I firmly believe that a team cannot have its best offensive player reliant on 3-point shooting. Durant loses his overall effectiveness drastically when his shot attempts balloon over about 5 per game, and when it reaches double digits it is almost always in a loss. If Durant just shoots threes, he marginalizes everything. It makes him a less effective passer, pulls him away from higher percentage shots, eliminates his ability to get rebounds, and his teammates are less effective as well.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
Dallas is coming to town Monday night. If OKC is going to have an unfocused letdown game like Saturday night, it is far better to be against a Hawks team than a team like Dallas, whom the Thunder could likely see in the Western Conference playoffs.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 25 points, 4 assists, 1 block
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant, who shot 3-10 from the 3-point line
Thunder Plunderer: Josh Smith, 30 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists
Next Game: vs Dallas Mavericks, Monday, March 5, 7:00PM Central Standard Time