What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Thunder are becoming a strong 4th quarter team. That's a good thing, I guess, because being a great 4th quarter team is apparently a lot better than being a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd quarter team, but boy can it be agonizing at times. The Suns were a great team through three quarters. This game unfolded very similarly to how the Magic game went a week ago, except for the fact that the Suns have superior offensive players. Through three quarters, the Suns played just about perfect offensive basketball. They had 26 assists on 34 made baskets. Steve Nash had the Thunder completely flummoxed; there were times when he would roll off of picks and then just jog into the lane for an easy lay-in and the Thunder had no idea how it happened.
With four minutes to play in the 3rd, the Thunder looked finished. Down by 16 at 84-68, they could not generate any form of offense, Kevin Durant was completely locked up by Grant Hill, and while Serge Ibaka never stopped battling under the rim, the only Thunder player who really seemed like he understood what to do was James Harden. And with the Suns playing the way they were, that was not going to be enough.
And then something switched on. Maybe Zeus released the Kraken, but from the four minute mark on to the end of the game, the Thunder outscored the Suns 47-20, including a torrid stretch where the Thunder buried the Suns with a 35-11 run. The defense rose to a suffocating level where the Suns could not even get clean looks at the rim. Nash, who had 13 assists in the first half alone, finished with 13 for the game. Once the Thunder took the lead at 91-90, the game was forever reversed.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Thunder never gave up their desire to win the game, even when they fell behind late in the 3rd quarter. A big part of their re-energized focus so late in the game was that they began to figure out how to deal with the Suns' pick and roll offense, but more importantly, the Thunder second unit is superior to the Suns' second unit. More specifically, James Harden. Harden scored a career high 30 points off of only 8-12 shooting, and he did it with his normal array of drives, 3-point shooting, and free throw production. With his 30, he outscored the Suns bench by himself.
The Suns bench was completely unprepared for the Thunder surge at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th, and by the time Steve Nash was ready to come back into the game, his team was trailing for the first time since the first minutes of the game.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
There were some pretty ridiculous stat lines from this game:
- Kevin Durant - 30 points
- Russell Westbrook - 31 points
- James Harden - 30 points
- Serge Ibaka - 18 points, 20 rebounds
And yet, if you asked coach Scott Brooks, the answer has more to do with the bench player who didn't score a single point:
"It’s amazing. [Royal Ivey] has 17 minutes, doesn’t score, doesn’t get an assist, doesn’t get a rebound but he had a big impact on the basketball game just with his toughness."
To Ivey's credit, I think he did a bit more than just play tough. As we discussed in the game preview, the Thunder had to have a plan on how to defend Nash's high pick and roll, and I pontificated that they would be best served to not be chasing Nash over the tops of screens because that would free up guys like Gortat to roll to the rim. Well, in the first half, Gortat rolled and rolled and rolled, finishing with a team-high 28 points. When Ivey checked in the game, he did a much better job staying underneath the screens, fighting through them, and not allowing the Suns guards to turn the corner. Said Brooks:
"Guys were coming off open screens, but Royal doesn’t allow himself to get screened...You have a choice ever time. Defensively, it’s to either get screened or don’t get screened and he makes the right choice by not getting screened. I thought he was a big part of our win, but you look at his stat line and it shows nothing."
I don't think enough credence is given to Ivey's emergence during this season after Eric Maynor went down. To be sure it isn't like he's the OKC version of Jeremy Lin or anything, but Ivey did not play AT ALL in meaningful minutes last year or most of this year. However, Brooks needed a defensive spark, because Thabo Sefolosha is out, Daequan Cook is not a great defender, and Reggie Jackson is still learning the ropes. Ivey came in cold and immediately began to produce. Not only is that a testimony to his readiness, but also to the fact that he is fully invested in the Thunder locker room, has relationships with all his teammates, and would rather do battle with these guys than seek out a situation with another team where he might play more minutes. Championship teams absolutely need guys like Ivey to understand and be ready. Last year's champs had that player in Brian Cardinal; the Thunder have it with Ivey.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
As much fun as it was to watch the Thunder stage a great comeback, the first three quarters of the game still should make us queasy. I don't know if it was that they overlooked the Suns a bit, hadn't properly prepared the right frame of mind, or did not have a good game plan, but they seemed wholly unprepared for what the Suns were trying to do offensively. Honestly, I was stunned how good the Suns looked offensively, and I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn't 2005.
There were times in the game where the Thunder players lost their cool as well. Russell Westbrook got a technical and was probably 30 seconds away from an ejection had his teammates not come and restrained him. Durant was held in check by Grant Hill for much of the game, and he too was growing frustrated at his lack of production. (As an aside though, it is rare that a player can channel his anger into effective play. Jordan could do it and Kobe used to be able to do it, but most guys just end up trying too hard. But the Durant turnaround jumper he had over Hill late in the game exemplified Durant's ability to use the anger and channel it into something positive).
The NBA season comes with all sorts of challenges and tests, many of which are not expected. The Thunder survived another one last night, but let us hope the lesson sinks in and they do a better job on Friday against the Cavaliers.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 30 points of of only 8-12 shooting, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 18 points, 20 rebounds (9 offensive), 3 blocks
Thunder Blunder: The rest of the Thunder bench, which combined for zero points
Thunder Plunderer: Marcin Gortat, 28 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks
Next Game: vs Cleveland Cavaliers, Friday March 9, 7:00 PM Central Standard Time