What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I don't know at what point in Michael Jordan's career that people realized he was great. Heck, I don't know at what point in LeBron James' career that I realized he was great. But until this game, I really hadn't realized what level Kevin Durant is playing at right now.
I mean, I always knew that KD was very, very good. I mean, he's hit game-winners, been one of the most solid offensive rocks you can ever imagine, increased his hustle stats every year, constantly improved his defense, and even had a few record-setting scoring performances. I know. Believe me, I know.
But I never really felt like other teams were at the point of, "When are we going to be able to stop this guy?" No matter how a game seemed to unfold, it seemed that he was only as good as his team. Sure, he could carry mediocre performances to victories, or be pointed to as one of few key reasons that the Thunder won. But never until today have I been able to say:
Kevin Durant won, despite the Thunder.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to sip a ton of haterade right now. The rest of the team is extremely important, and not everybody put in a bad performance tonight. Serge Ibaka's help defense was key, as were the offensive contributions of Jackson and Lamb. But by every stretch of the imagination, the Thunder should have lost this game.
Why? The cards were stacked against their favor. Offensively, the Thunder were really struggling with turning the ball over and stalling out at critical times. In terms of percentages overall, the Thunder managed to do really well, but KD is a huge part of that. Furthermore, the Thunder should have been able to take better advantage of such an undersized team. Individually, Serge Ibaka was having a tough time getting open, as the Hawks recognized he was no threat to put the ball on the floor. Reggie Jackson was getting frustrated by the quicker guards, and couldn't manage to muscle his way into the lane.
Defensively, the Thunder were an absolute disaster. I plan on writing about this a bit more later, but the Hawks, like the 76ers, are a team that totally relies on speed an positioning. Their bigs are offensively minded, mobile, and have range. Meanwhile, their guards are extremely quick and agile, running up and down the floor with surprising ease. Combine this with a offensive attack that has a ton of ball movement, and you have the perfect recipe for beating the Thunder. The Thunder are big and long, but can get torn up by some of the league's quicker off-ball guards (Barea, Bayless, Thomas). The Hawks are basically a collection of those guards, along with big men who somehow manage to do the same thing when running to the block.
Of course, I've gone too long without mentioning the main advantage that the Hawks had tonight, which was second chance points. They managed to obliterate the Thunder on the offensive rebounding end, all while not playing a single player over 6'10". How? Well, first of all, the Hawks committed their players to getting the offensive board over getting back on defense as a part of their strategy. Secondly, the Hawks committed a ton of players to the paint whenever a player drove to the basket, increasing the likelihood that a shot would end up back in their hands. Thirdly, the Thunder overwhelmingly commit to defense in the paint, and are prone to letting a few defensive boards slip away on bad nights. This was one of those nights.
So really, there wasn't a single factor that pointed the Thunder's way, other than a few hustle blocks by Ibaka and a acceptable offensive efficiency. Other than Kevin Durant, that is.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
KD, KD, KD, and KD.
Also, as a fifth reason, the Hawks really seemed to stray from their traditional strategy at the end of the game. As Kevin Durant heated up and ate into their lead, they seemed to stop caring about ball movement. Instead, they became increasingly reliant on their stars, regularly dumping it off to Milsap and Williams for isolation plays. The Thunder started trapping, and Atlanta's offense stalled out. Had they been able to keep their pace going for just a few more minutes, they might have won the game.
Lastly, I also think the Hawks lost a huge opportunity when Derek Fisher was on the floor for the majority of the fourth quarter. Dennis Schroeder has absolutely shredded Fish towards the end of the second quarter, prompting Scott Brooks to hold Fish out for the entire third. Schroeder was in for a couple of possessions against Fisher to start the fourth, but was quickly subbed out. The Hawks then didn't make any attempt to exploit the Fisher matchup beyond the normal flow of the offense. Why? I have no idea.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
Tonight, this game keeps them atop the Western Conference, and sees them emerge from a tough stretch almost completely unscathed. This game proved that the Thunder do have an achilles heel, but also that they can overcome that weakness with the power of their stars. Westbrook's return looms, and the as-of-yet unknown date seems to inspire a lot of confidence. Many fans are expecting perfection and blowouts, but it's hard to see Thunder basketball get more thrilling than this.
Moving forward, the greatest test for the Thunder looms on Wednesday, as they travel to Miami to see the Heat. The last time the Thunder beat them, some guy whose name rhymes with Shames Shmarden was on our team.
Yes. We still have old ghosts. And beating the Heat, Wade or no Wade, would do wonders to get the monkey finally off the Thunder's back. Not only in terms of KD's rise to greatness and eventual MVP, but for the Thunder's potential as a championship team.