There are two ways to look at this one.
2) The Oklahoma City Thunder barely held on to a 24-point lead to squeeze by a Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers team that is nearing full tank mode.
It's almost the weekend, it's been a long week, so I'm tending to take the optimistic approach of No. 1, especially since I got a little cynical yesterday over the Caron Butler situation. Still, no one would hold it against you for not feeling all that great about the win.
After three quarters. Scott Brooks was completely content letting the bench unit finish it out after the team had built an 85-68 lead heading into the fourth. That was completely welcome by everyone, too, given that the Thunder have a quick turnaround tomorrow night against the suddenly-kind-of-terrifying Toronto Raptors. Russell Westbrook was sitting out as part of the team's plan to rest him on back-to-backs and protect his knee. The bench could handle a 17-point lead, right?
The lead stayed pretty firm at 95-71 halfway through the quarter, but an 11-0 run meant that Kevin Durant wouldn't be able to sit it out after all. To the Cavs' credit, they didn't let him affect the game even when he got back in and they kept going, pushing it to a 21-2 run and the Thunder lead to just 97-92 with a minute left.
A huge offensive rebound by Serge Ibaka led to Durant free throws though, and after knocking down both the Thunder kept the Cavs at bay.
Durant was huge, as usual, finishing with 35 points, 11 rebounds (including a defensive board off a Spencer Hawes miss with the score 99-95, leading to two more free throws to ice it), and 6 assists. It's his 12th game of 30+/10+/5+ this season, which is tops in the league ahead of Kevin Love who has nine such games.
It wasn't as easy as it could have been, but it's always an advantage to be able to turn to Kevin Durant.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
One of the best parts of this game is that Russell Westbrook not playing is basically a non-story. The Thunder have been clear all along they will take it slow, particularly with back-to-backs. But unlike the Dallas loss on Sunday when his absence was clearly felt, it was much easier to just watch tonight's game and not think about how much easier it would be with Westbrook on the floor. Of course, now that I'm talking about it, I'm thinking it, so maybe we should just move on.
As for those that filled in Westbrook's minutes, it wasn't as bad as blowing a 24-point lead may suggest. In fact, for three quarters, both the starters and bench units worked efficiently. Reggie Jackson, in the starting role, was far more under control than he has been at many times this year, finishing with 13 points and six assists. He still struggled with his shot, but he was poised throughout, which is always when he plays his best.
Also big off the bench were Derek Fisher and (dramatic pause) Jeremy Lamb! Fisher had 12 points and four steals, including 3-6 from 3-point range. Lamb, meanwhile, actually found himself in the rotation again, logging 26 minutes and scoring 10 points, grabbing 3 rebounds, dishing out 2 assists, and coming up with 2 blocks.
Was he great? Not necessarily, but he definitely showed flashes of why he is far too valuable to keep on the bench in a mop up role like he has been. It's not always doing things that show up in the box score, but Lamb has an ability to handle the ball and move it up the court, as well as run the pick and roll, which guys like Caron Butler simply are not able to do.
Butler, for his part, also played 26 minutes, and was a game-high +24. He was just 3-10 from the floor, and I honestly can't remember him being all that involved, so that +24 was a surprise. But again, he's a good player, and also deserves a spot in the rotation. Brooks kept him even with Lamb tonight, but that was without Westbrook. It will be interesting to see going forward if he continues to have the two split time more, or if this was just a special occasion with Westbrook out.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Hopefully there's no limit to answering this question the same way, but the answer, like it tends to be, is Kevin Durant. We could go on and on about how great he's been, but it would just be regurgitating what has already been said here so many times before.
His 25+ point streak is at 33, seven behind Jordan, and he reached that mark in the third quarter. While I'm sure all Thunder fans are guilty of watching with a somewhat biased eye, his ability to control the game and lead his team really is a joy to watch. He was pulling up for 37-footers at one point, but it felt entirely in the flow of the game. He continued his strong play out of pick and rolls, both with Jackson and Ibaka, and even had a nice two-man game going with Nick Collison in the first half.
Going from having a guy like Westbrook to lean on one night, to having to shift into full-on leader mode, isn't as easy as he makes it look. But that's just where we are with Kevin Durant.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Rebounding. The Thunder held an 18-9 edge on the offensive boards and a 53-36 edge in total rebounds. Ibaka was huge once again, pulling in 11 boards (4 offensive). One thing Ibaka is showing more and more is how much more physical he is willing to be. Even as recently as last season, he would tend to drift, settle for short floaters instead of finishing hard at the rim, and he would sometimes become too reliant on his teammates for rebounds.
Now, he's no longer afraid of the contact. He catches passes down low and flushes them down with force. That new mindset has impacted his rebounding too, as he continues to find ways to get inside and isn't afraid to fight for a ball in the air. The offensive ones are particularly beneficial, given his decision-making once he possesses the ball. It's no longer about grabbing the offensive board and trying to score. Ibaka isn't afraid to pull it down, let the offense regroup, and start an entirely new possession.
His tipping ability is just as effective, and he showed it on that key late possession that led to the Durant free throws. He sensed the Cavs crowded in the middle and had enough court awareness and vision to tip it to Lamb at the elbow.
It's not just Ibaka putting in a concerted effort on the boards. Durant continues his career-year on the glass. The team as a whole seems to understand when their teammates may need help, and they aren't afraid to charge in from the wings to help gang rebound. Limiting extra possessions, and creating them on the other end, goes a long way in deciding a game, particularly when it gets close late.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
Mostly, it means that the Thunder are getting valuable experience heading into the playoffs. Big runs happen in April and May, and it's the teams that can withstand them that tend to prevail in the end. The Thunder showed the mental toughness necessary to avoid a total collapse, and can take the trip over the border with peace of mind that they are still playing winning basketball.
The game also gave a good indication that Brooks is still tinkering with his rotations. That is to be expected, given the injuries and signings and roster shakeups this year. As long as Brooks is willing to give his guys a shot, and find the best combinations, it will be hard to fret with his decisions come playoff time. The team just needs to be clicking at the right time, and save for a stretch in the fourth quarter, they seem to be on the right path.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 35 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists.
There's a "recap template" that we like to follow here, and this section is setup with the awards already bolded and a blank space for the name. I'm wondering if we should just leave "Kevin Durant" here now, too.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Andre Roberson: 4 points (2-8 shooting), 4 rebounds, -11.
Roberson, despite being a good defender, still has his fair share of gaffes on that end. Add to that the fact that his offense is so incredibly difficult to watch, I just wonder if his defense is all that great for him to be getting minutes at all, especially with Jones, Lamb, Butler and Fisher all able to fill the role as well.
Thunder Plunderer: Dion Waiters: 30 points, 4 assists.
at Toronto Raptors. Tomorrow. 6 p.m. Central Standard Time