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In their fourth straight game without Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't seem to miss his presence. It was a thrashing from start to finish in Chesapeake Energy Arena last night, as the Thunder continually build up an ever-increasing lead over the Pelicans. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it would have taken a miracle to get Charlotte back in the game.
Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 29 Points. He did an excellent job of scoring out of the pick and roll, and particularly taking advantage of Jefferson's lack of speed on the hedge. Russ was able to get almost any shot he wanted, and completely controlled the game in the third quarter. Kemba Walker, on the other hand, shot a disastrous 2 of 13 from the floor. Walker had a ton of trouble with the Thunder playing really pressure-heavy defense on the pick and roll, with Westbrook fighting over screens and the big men hedging high. Walker's roll man would typically get into the paint, but the Thunder would always have someone to meet him. The Hornets would try to get the ball out to the open guy on the perimeter at that point, but they never had anyone hot enough to rely on. Charlotte's offense got more and more crowded as the game went on.
Of course, the other big story of the night was Al Jefferson. He was outright dominated by Adams and Perk. Perk let him get absolutely nothing, while Adams only allowed a couple of tough jumpers. Adams was even able to beat Jefferson for a couple of offensive boards. With Jefferson unable to score or draw a double-team, the Hornet offense became one-dimensional very quickly.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
I'm honestly not that surprised. The Thunder have never played the Horncats often, but in recent years the team from the east has never been able to get off the ground. Perk is simply the perfect counter to Jefferson, while Westbrook is the perfect counter to Walker. I could still see Jefferson or Walker finding success against us in the right offense, but the Hornets just don't have a lot of offensive weapons to help them out. Marvin Williams outright bricked a couple of open threes. Gerald Henderson bricked a ton of wide open mid-range shots. P.J. Hairston showcased some terrible decision making and threw up a ton of tough threes. Gary Neal couldn't get any separation and was forcing his shots all night. Kidd-gilchrist and Biyombo are complete non-factors.
Literally the only Hornet I have universally positive words for at this point is Cody Zeller. He plays a bit dirty, and it really fond of grabbing other players' arms in an attempt to tangle them up. (He goaded Morrow into a dumb foul this way.) But Zeller's dirty tactics are just an indication of how smart he is as a player. He's extremely aware of his positioning on the court, constantly finding open space and knowing how to beat his man in transition. More than that, Zeller's physical ability is unreal. I've seen him shove Ibaka out of the way for a few impressive boards, as well as being the only reliable hedger on the Hornets' pick and roll defense. If you think I'm all hot air, watch Zeller take advantage of Collison's pressure on this play. Unreal.
On the Thunder's end of things, only Ibaka and Westbrook took more than 6 shots. That might look like ballhogging, but when you consider just how badly the Hornets were defending the pick and roll, I'd say Ibaka's chucking was justified. The most important thing was that the Hornets respected Ibaka's jumper on D, which opened up a lot of space. The Thunder never respected Williams on the other end, and that closed up a lot of space. Still, I do think that Ibaka needs to work on his release. It's too slow, and he never gets time to dip the ball below his waist before he shoots. It results in a lot of missed threes, but given just how well Ibaka has progressed over the years, I'm not complaining.
Amongst the others, Reggie Jackson had a really decent game. The numbers might not be there, but his willingness to share the ball and nose for exploiting mismatches really helped the Thunder dismantle the Hornets today. Sometimes, you just don't need him to score, especially when the Hornets are going to hedge higher on him than they did Westbrook. Perry Jones and Andre Roberson are also unsung heroes. Both of them were really on point with their defensive rotations, and closed out on a good number of players on the weak side. Roberson was a bit smarter about his shot selection, but Jones has taken some worse shots than what I've seen out of him today.
I don't want to finish this section without talking a bit about Anthony Morrow. I've rightly criticized his defense before, and he does lose the plot at times. But tonight, he was really good at providing pressure, and managed to force a couple of turnovers by running to the center of the floor and knocking the ball loose. Morrow's almost playing the Sefolosha role, acting as that pesky defensive nail of pressure in the center of the floor. Check out the pokes below and tell me you're not impressed:
What graphic stands out to you as indicative of this game?
That's Charlotte's first quarter shot chart. To be fair, the Thunder only have a couple more shots from the wings during this quarter, but their offense was actually consistently working while the Hornets could do nothing to adjust. Meanwhile, the Hornets just looked incredibly one-dimensional, using nothing but high screens and post-ups. Granted, Steve Clifford is smart enough to call a lot of creative high screens, but they were all just thinly veiled ways of saying that the Hornets wanted to get to the rim or have Walker fire up a shot on every single play.
What does this win mean for the Thunder moving forward?
The Thunder are now 3-2 in games with KD out and Russ running the ship. But OKC's recent two game win streak against the Hornets and Spurs has to really give the fans some confidence in their team. The Thunder are playing really active, pressure-heavy defense that forces other teams into bad shots and silly turnovers. On offense, they're using a variety of sets and showing a willingness to share the ball.
The couple things that really worried me coming out of the Blazer and Laker games a few days ago seem to be alleviated. Jones and Lamb haven't made as many egregious errors on defense, while Russ has played with a bit more poise and control. At this point, if things fell in the right place, I could easily see the Thunder eclipsing the Hornets and Suns for the 8th seed even without Durant.
Still, the Thunder are going to want their main scorer as soon as possible. His presence bumps down the minutes of Lamb and Jones, which is still a good thing at this point. Furthermore, the Thunder still have an outside chance of climbing above a couple of the teams in the lower part of the West playoff bracket. If that means the Thunder can avoid a first round matchup with the Warriors or Grizz, arguably the Thunder's two toughest opponents at this point, then that's a good thing. So really....KD still can't come back soon enough. But winning these games now is very important, so I've got nothing to complain about.
The win puts the Thunder at 15-16. OKC is 2.5 games behind Phoenix for the 8th spot in the West, currently sitting in 10th. Furthermore, OKC is 9 games out of the conference and division lead, held by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, duh
Thunder Down Under: Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins for their joint defense on Jefferson
Thunder Plunderer: Cody Zeller, lol
Thunder Blunder: Jeremy Lamb, because I'm mean and saw him fail to set his feet properly before a shot (AGAIN)
Next Game: At the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, December 28th, 6 PM Central Standard Time.
What did you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!