The Oklahoma City Thunder continued their winning streak with a road win over the Atlanta Hawks, 101-92. The win runs their current streak to 3 games and 11 of their last 12.
The game as a whole was a departure from the Thunder's big Sunday night rout over the East leading Indiana Pacers, but OKC used the same defensive formula to slow down the Hawks. Atlanta shot only 35.6% from the floor, and backup PG Shelvin Mack was the only player to shoot over 50% on the night. The Thunder were able to ride their defense, which looked like a team liability only a few weeks ago, to cover up an uneven offensive night.
The Thunder were led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocked shots. Serge Ibaka continued his double-double machinery, scoring 19 points while grabbing 10 boards. The Hawks were led by Mack, who finished with 17 points. Paul Millsap finished with 23 and 12, but shot only 5-18 from the floor.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Hawks have had a strange place inside the Thunder's heads over the past few seasons. In every occasion the Thunder have come into these games as the prohibitive favorites and they play solid basketball for most of the outing, but for some reason things would fall apart late and the Hawks would escape with the surprise win.
Tuesday night's game was no different, as the Thunder, outplaying Atlanta for most of the night, let up on the throttle in multiple moments and saw their double digit lead slip to a single possession. Only by way of their defense and timely offensive production by Durant and a struggling Russell Westbrook were they able to hold off Atlanta this time around.
The win wasn't pretty, but in an 82 game season, there are going to be a handful of grind-it-out wins where the Thunder simply have to play competently. Given that this is the 2nd week where the Thunder have back-to-backs on Tuesday and Wednesday, the goal was to get the win and get out of town unscathed.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
We often say that in games like this, the key details don't show up in the stat sheet. While this may be true to some extent, the box score still tells us much of what we need to know about the Thunder's winning defensive formula.
OKC did a superb job in limiting Millsap's touches in the paint, and were it not for his shooting 11-12 from the FT line, Millsap would have been only slightly more effective than his frontcourt partner, Al Horford. Horford was held to only 7 points on the night, which means that Atlanta's stout big men were held to a combined 30 points on 8-28 shooting. Since the Thunder's interior defense was so good, led in part by Kendrick Perkins (24 minutes) and Nick Collison (21 minutes), OKC did not have to cheat off the outside shooters and they held Atlanta's 3-point game, including Kyle Korver, to a 34.6% shooting night.
Korver, in the midst of a historic 3-point shooting run, managed only 1-6 on the night. Of particular note, the Thunder's defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha did not play in this game due to an injury sustained against Indiana. In his place was Andre Roberson, the rookie who had recently been assigned to Tulsa. Roberson returned to OKC and played a huge hand in shutting down Korver, contributing the exact kind of intensity that rookies can bring when they are fighting for minutes. On that note, consider this - Scott Brooks has been much maligned in the past (deservedly so) for not giving young players real game experience. This season, he has taken great measures to reverse this trend, and Roberson getting the starting nod (12 minutes, 2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block) is a testament to Brooks' growth. That could have easily been Derek Fisher in the starting role, and we would again be lamenting Brooks' frustrating habits. Not so this night, and great work by the rookie Roberson.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Aside from the Thunder's defensive display, the rebounding total was promising. This is the kind of game where the Thunder might have not only lost on the glass but in the actual game overall had they succumbed to giving the other team too many shot opportunities. Yet the shots taken were practically equal, and while the Hawks did get a slight win in the offensive rebounding category, on the whole the Thunder defensive rebounding was critical.
Between Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook, the trio grabbed 29 of the team's 44 defensive rebounds. The bench + Roberson grabbed 21 boards. It was a significant team effort and cannot be overlooked.
Lastly, Westbrook struggled to another bad shooting night, and his body language indicates that he is often as baffled as we are as to the shots he is missing. I am sympathetic to this frustrating, though I must say that he needs to slow down on the 3-point attempts, especially in the 1st quarter. Westbrook is much better suited to start gashing a defense with his drive penetration than to try and outshoot them from long range. That said, I have yet to see anyone else write that Russ nearly finished with a triple-double, recording 11 assists and 9 rebounds. Unlike a lot of upper level players, Westbrook continues to compete even when his shot isn't falling.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder get little rest from banging with the Hawks big men, because Wednesday night they get to face their small market brethren, and the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder will no doubt be looking for a measure of revenge after watching their season fall apart last year, and this will be their first shot at it.
Even though the Grizz are beat up, most notably missing Marc Gasol, the premise is the same. Great defense + strong defensive rebounding can deliver wins.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 30 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 19 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, 6-21 shooting and his own general frustration.
Thunder Plunderer: Shelvin Mack, 17 points, 3-5 from 3-point range
Next game: @ the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 7PM CDT
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