The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Utah Jazz, 99-94. The Thunder once again struggled early on both ends of the court, yielding to the Jazz interior game which resulted in a halftime deficit of 6 points. However, OKC began to turn things around in the 3rd quarter, as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant worked the 2-man game to perfection, continuously generating open mid-range looks that Durant was able to convert.
It appeared that the 3rd quarter push was in vain however as the Jazz took their lead back to 7 points. However, the Durant/Westbrook combo once again exerted itself and went on a 14 point mini-run, which gave the Thunder a 2 point lead at 92-90. With the game on the line and 2 minutes to play, it was the new guy Dion Waiters who scored the next 5 points. The first two came on a fast break dunk triggered by a Westbrook steal, and the 2nd was a game-shifting 3-pointer that came off of a Durant feed. The Thunder defended the 3-point shot the rest of the way and finished their week with a win.
The Thunder were led by Durant, who had a game-high 32 points to go with 5 rebounds and 6 assists. Westbrook, who has suffered from poor play over the last week, finished with a strong 25-12-4 and 3 steals.
The Jazz were led by Gordon Hayward's 27 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Exhale. At least a little bit.
During the 2nd quarter and then the first half of the 4th, it appeared as if we were going to have to go down a dark road with this team. However, something clearly shifted mid-way through the 3rd, even though OKC wasn't able to come all the way back at that point. It was subtle, but there seemed to once again be an ease at which the Thunder were playing. There was no more frantic play, or panic, or anything that has marked the last 2 losses. Instead it was a calmness of knowing that the two best players on the court both wore Thunder jerseys.
Once the Thunder got rolling in the 4th, it seemed that it would just be a matter of time before they overtook Utah, who had no answer for Durant in the post. The only question was whether OKC could generate enough stops on the other end after allowing Utah to shoot over 50% for most of the night. Fortunately they got just enough stops as well as a few missed free throws, and OKC moves ahead.
A special note for Dion Waiters, who after struggling in his debut received the crunch time minutes tonight (notably instead of Reggie Jackson). This is significant - after Waiters got the big fast break slam, Durant set him up for a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but Waiters badly clanked it. The next possession, Durant backed up his words for Waiters, that he would make Dion feel welcome in OKC. Durant made almost the exact same play, drove the ball to the rim, and kicked it out to Waiters at the exact same spot. This time, Waiters buried it. Big time shot from "Burger Feet."
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
While there are still plenty of issues, as a win over a team 10 games under .500 isn't going to automatically vault OKC back into the playoff hunt, the biggest sign of improvement was a collective patience on offense. Westbrook, when he is at his best, utilizes his rare speed and athleticism to break down defenses in order to set up his teammates. For long stretches, he set up Durant again and again and again, getting KD easy shots so that minimal effort was spent. This is the type of thing we have been harping on over the past week - when OKC works together, even on a simplistic basis, they turn into a lethal offensive force that makes scoring look easy out of the 2-man game.
What made Durant's shots so easy was how he was getting them. Instead of him driving the ball or sitting in the post and waiting, the Thunder used a variety of motions and screens to allow him to catch the ball on the move and deep in the post. Once he was able to catch the ball while moving, Hayward had no chance of defending Durant's shots. The result was that KD shot 5-6 in the 4th and never even had to take a tough shot.
Let's take a small breath. Everything is not yet awesome, but the specials are back on the job.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 32 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 25 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals
Thunder Blunder: Reggie Jackson, 5 points, 3 rebounds in 15 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Gordon Hayward, 27 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
Next game: @ Houston Rockets on Jan. 15 at 7PM CDT