WTLC and Sonics Rising's virtual clash between the '12 Thunder and the '96 Sonics rages on. Game 1 saw Seattle overwhelm the young Thunder roster. Here is how Game 2 shook out.
OK, so by now you should be pretty familiar with this. The Thunder, after looking careless and sloppy in Game 1, found a way to focus their energy in Game 2 and came up with gigantic win, tipping home court in their favor as the series shifts to Oklahoma City.
True to form, the Thunder still made plenty of mistakes, still weren't especially crisp with the ball movement, and still missed a lot of forced shots. But they were aggressive when they needed to be and it was enough for a win.
The game started off nicely for the Thunder, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming out looking to take control early. The two stars scored 16 of the first 18 for OKC, and 21 of the 25 in the opening quarter, as the Thunder took a 25-20 lead into the first intermission.
OKC then fended off numerous comeback attempts from the Sonics all throughout the second quarter, as it seemed like every time Seattle pulled it within a possession, the Thunder responded to keep the lead. A 3-pointer by Detlef Schrempf at the end of the half cut the Thunder lead down to one heading into the intermission, though, 47-46.
The Big Three of Durant, Westbrook and James Harden came to life to start the second half, though, getting to the line often, as well as hitting some big jump shots to take their biggest lead of the game of nine points with a minute left in the third quarter. Sam Perkins hit a huge 3-pointer to prevent the Thunder a chance to extend the lead to double digits, but Nick Collison (!) hit a runner at the buzzer to give OKC a 72-64 lead heading into the final frame.
That's when the usual bad stuff started happening. The fourth quarter consisted of what Thunder fans have become all too familiar with over the years: stalled offense, squandering of a lead and frantic finish.
The Thunder held on to the lead for as long as they could, but after settling for too many jumpers and a couple careless turnovers, the Sonics made the inevitable comeback and took the lead, 86-85, with five minutes to go. The two teams traded points down the stretch and with OKC up 91-90, Schrempf found an easy bucket with 40 seconds left to give the Sonics a lead and a chance to steal the game.
Then, as he has done so many times in his career, the Reaper came to the rescue.
Following Schrempf's make, the ball moved (!) and found its way to Kendrick Perkins, who was in the close game for defensive purposes. The usually stone-handed Perkins showed off his underrated passing ability to find an open Durant who banked in the jumper with 22 seconds to go. Thunder lead, 93-92, off of something that actually resembled an offensive set. SCOTT BROOKS STRIKES!
Durant then finished off his maestro performance by flashing his defensive ability, sneaking in and stealing a Sonics pass. It led to two free throws from Westbrook and a 95-92 lead with 13 seconds to go. The Thunder defense refused to give up a look and absolutely swarmed the ball on Hershey Hawkins Hail Mary 3-pointer attempts. Thabo Sefolosha swatted the first and, after Hawkins was able to gather it, Perkins swatted away the next as time expired.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
After Game 1, during the ReplyAll conversation, I gave the usual spiel I tend to give following most Thunder losses: the team just needs to play better. It sounds so simple and unimaginative every time, but it's usually all it boils down to. The Thunder is an extremely talented team that can match up with anybody, even one as seemingly deep and skilled as these Sonics.
What the Thunder can't do is fall into the complacent style of play where they rely too heavily on Durant and Westbrook to create points out of thin air. Those two guys are so good that it works more often than it should, but it's not a recipe for success once the games start to really matter.
How'd they do it?
They still didn't shoot well, they didn't assist all that much, and they still relied on those two a bit too heavily. But they put their heads down and wouldn't be denied when they needed it most. A game after taking just two free throws, Westbrook found a way to combat another poor shooting performance by getting to the line. When he was there, he was money, finishing 13-14 from the charity stripe - including two huge ones following the Durant steal to put the Thunder up 3 with 13 seconds left, forcing the Sonics to try and tie from distance.
That's always a promising sign from Westbrook, and it's telling of who he is as a player. He stays confident in his ability to score regardless of whether or not the ball is going in the hoop. Some use that as a criticism of his game, but it's what makes him so special to begin with: the relentless style where he says "numbers be damned, I'm scoring some points."
Another promising sign was Durant on the boards. Durant has always been a capable rebounder, but he seems to dial it up when he senses his team is in desperation mode. It's a subtle change in his game, but it's in key moments when Durant senses his team needs help that he takes it upon himself to be an extra body limiting second chance points from the opposition. It also sets up the offense as they have a playmaker that can get the team moving out quickly in transition.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won/lost?
The aggression first and foremost, but credit goes to the Thunder defense as well, who held a potent Sonics lineup to 43 percent shooting and just 27 percent from behind the arc.
Most of that credit should go to Ibaka, who showed off what a defensive anchor he can be. He blocked eight Sonics attempts, one shy of the franchise high of 9 that he set in a 2011 game against Denver. Still, it was an allt-time great defensive performance from a guy whose defense becomes more and more irreplaceable with each and every game.
The blocks not only directly prevented points, they deterred the Sonics from attacking the rim as relentlessly as they did in Game 1.
It tends to drive the Thunder as a whole when Ibaka can establish himself as that interior presence, as it results in the opposing offense passing out of more drives and settling for longer-range jumpers.
In a game when the Thunder didn't shoot the ball well themselves, the defense did just enough and kept the Sonics from finding an offensive groove.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
On that note, 16 team blocks ties a franchise playoff high and is one shy of the all-time franchise high of 17. Ibaka set the tone, and Sefolosha and Perkins put a stamp on it as time expired. Huge effort from the Thunder defense, and one that will be tough to overcome for Seattle as this series grinds on.
Also, some may cry conspiracy, but the refs clearly weren't affected by the raucous Seattle crowd, as OKC held a 31-20 free throw advantage. I tend to go back to what I said initially, which is that this Thunder team lives at the line. They were second in the league in free throws attempted per game in 2011-12, and they play with such an aggressive style (when they're on), that free throws come naturally.
That number speaks to the bigger picture, which is that the Thunder found a way to score even when they weren't shooting well, and when they do that effectively, there's almost no stopping them.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
It means the series now shifts in the Thunder's favor. They've gotten over the initially nerves of being an underdog, and they did what you're supposed to do on the road: got a split.
You have to expect that shots will start falling more efficiently for Durant and Westbrook, but the key will once again lie in not just relying on those points that come from shot-making. Can the Thunder keep up the aggressive play and stay in the driver's seat in terms of setting the tone? That comes from not only being fearless in attacking the rim, but in feeding off of Ibaka and contesting shots on the defensive end.
Should the Thunder find a way to replicate that, they just may shock the world and pull this off.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 31 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook: 32 points (13-14 FTs), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals
Thunder Blunder: none.
Thunder Plunderer: Shawn Kemp: 22 points (9-13 shooting), 13 rebounds, 7 assists
Head over to Sonics Rising to catch their reaction.