Coach Billy Donovan played his starters well into the fourth quarter, and that proved to be the difference as the Thunder slew the Jazz, 113 to 102. Russell Westbrook had arguably the most impressive performance, securing a triple double with 21 points scored. Westbrook's athleticism was clearly too much for opposing PG Trey Burke to deal with. As such, it was easy for Russ to get into the paint and do whatever he needed to do. Kevin Durant was arguably just as impressive as Westbrook, scoring 29 points of his own. It wasn't difficult for Durant to create his own shots in the high post. KD did a nice job of finding threes off the ball as well.
Utah put themselves between a rock and a hard place by shooting 0-10 from outside the paint during the first quarter. As such, the Jazz had to spend the entire game overcoming a 17 point deficit. Coach Snyder's strategy from the second quarter on focused on a high pressure defense that forces turnovers. It worked, and the Jazz were able to work their way back into the game by scoring in transition and getting to the line. But 10 straight points by Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter was just too much to handle for the Jazz.
In terms of performances, the Jazz had an excellent night from their wings. Rodney Hood was their best, scoring 17 points in the second half. Hood did most of his work driving into the paint, but had a couple of clutch fourth quarter threes. Trey Burke wasn't far behind. Despite a 1-7 start in the first half, Trey Burke was able to recover and shoot 6-8 in the second half. Gordon Hayward was, perhaps, the Jazz only consistent option outside of the paint. Hayward did most of his work running around screens off the ball. Lastly, Alec Burks chipped in 14. Burks was really good at exploiting mismatches tonight.
KD's Return to Greatness
I said that Kevin Durant was back during the Nuggets recap, but he's REALLY back today. I mean, we got a taste of clutch KD. During a critical 2.5 minute stretch of the fourth quarter, KD was able to score 10 points. By comparison, the entire Utah Jazz team just scored 2 points. All of those points were lightning quick, too. A couple open threes because the Jazz pressured Westbrook. A spin jumper on Rodney Hood. A surprise cut to the basket before the play even started. In the midst of the run, KD jawed with some Utah Jazz fans on the sideline.
Taking KD's game as a whole, what really struck me was KD's impeccable sense of balance. Most of what KD did came shortly after he caught the ball, and required complex footwork. It's different from early era KD, whom would use a pick and roll to get space a lot of the time. I'm also extremely impressed with just how many different spots KD is going to on the floor. Take a look at how evenly spaced Durant's shot chart is when compared with the specific spots of Westbrook and Ibaka:
It's a perfect illustration of why Durant is so important to this team. If the opponents know to close out on specific areas of the floor, it's going to be much harder for OKC to find offense. But if Durant can keep his opponents guessing as to where he'll be next, that opens doors.
One of the few negative spots of tonight's performance has to be the turnovers. The Thunder committed 7 turnovers in the third quarter, and had two of their shots blocked. Despite that, the Thunder managed to shoot a respectable 9-17 from the field during the third. It was apparent that the Jazz were packing the paint and doing all they could to pressure the Thunder's ballhandler. But if the Thunder were able to elude the Jazz pressure, an open shot was easy to come by.
Most of OKC's third quarter turnovers came when the Thunder bigs were trying to make or receive risky passes in the center of the floor. A lot of Billy Donovan's new offensive sets call for a big man to handle the ball in the middle of the paint. It's hard to ask players like Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka to make decisions with the ball in traffic.
Speaking about OKC's turnovers in general, it's hard to identify anything in specific. Some of it was going too hard in transition. Other turnovers were due to miscommunication. Other other turnovers were due to absentmindedness with a traveling call here or a three second violation there. At the end of the day, I'd chalk it up to the Thunder going up against a tight defensive team while learning an entirely new playbook.
- Russell Westbrook spent most of the game guarded by Trey Burke or Raul Neto. Both of those players are only 6'1", giving Russ a serious opportunity to get in the paint. As you can see from the shot charts above, Westbrook concentrated his game closer to the basket tonight. Most of what Westbrook did was hard drives to the rim, both in transition and in the halfcourt. Screens weren't even necessary most of the time. However, we did see a bit of the post-up game from Russ as well. Russ even hit one of his formerly trademark "cotton shot" pullup jumpers in transition. Just an all around really favorable matchup.
- Enes Kanter was out tonight, scheduled to rest. Coach Donovan insisted that it had nothing to do with the fact that Kanter played with the Jazz last year.
- I really have to applaud the defensive effort of Serge Ibaka tonight. Ibaka registered 5 blocks and did a tremendous job on switches. There's no stat to account for this, but time and time again I saw the Jazz try to exploit Ibaka on a mismatch or in the pick and roll. Most of the time, Ibaka did a tremendous job of crowding the shooter and forcing a miss. Ibaka was also key in shutting down Favors back to the basket post game early.
- All five Steven Adams offensive rebounds resulted in scores. That's basically 9 free points that Adams scrounged from the jaws of defeat. Without those boards, OKC might not win tonight. It's clear that Donovan is going to rely on offensive boards from Adams and Kanter as a major strategy moving forward.
- Also, Adams hook shot is looking better than Ibaka's. His pick and roll defense isn't as good, but it's certainly better than Kanter's.
- Roberson did a good job of frustrating burks early, but he had a generally bad game. Andre was blocked twice on dunk attempts by Rodney Hood. The same Rodney Hood that was lambasted for poor defense heading into the draft last year. Also, Roberson airballed two separate shots: a wide open three and a mid-range jumper. There's no two ways about it: We're gonna need a little more than 0fers out of Andre.
- Dion Waiters was all over the place. 3 Turnovers, no assists, yet 14 points. The offensive ability was definitely there, as Waiters individually beat his defender for most of his points. But Waiters used his teammates a bit too, hitting a corner three and using an Adams screen to score. The turnovers were all a result of miscommunication, when Waiters thought someone was in a place they weren't. Given that Kanter and McGary weren't around to help take pressure off Dion, I thought he did a fantastic job. Especially considering Waiters rattled off 7 points during a particularly difficult stretch of the early fourth.
- Anthony Morrow had a so-so game. Morrow hit 40% on threes, and range is critical against a team like the Jazz. But Morrow also had a no show in the fourth. Aside from a traveling violation in the corner, that is. Defensively, Morrow allowed Rodney Hood to get some critical points late.
- Bold prediction: Nick Collison will have more assists than points this season. Mr. Thunder is great at moving the ball from side to side, and I see him getting spot minutes for that specific reason throughout the year. Not to mention his familiarity with the Big 3.
- Cameron Payne had the worst plus minus of any player on the team. The stats indicate an acceptable game from Payne, but having actually watched it, I have to disagree. Payne just wasn't running the offense very well. For one, Payne is too wild with his dribbles. I saw him run around in a complete circle during one play, rendering an Adams screen useless. Also, Payne doesn't do a good enough job of taking advantage of space inside the arc. Payne can hit floaters in the lane and shots from outside, but he doesn't like to take stuff from mid-range. The Jazz definitely exploited that a bit tonight. I might just be nitpicking, but the options at backup PG aren't really exciting me at this point. It's either hoping for an offensive burst from Payne, or accepting game management from D.J. Augustin. With turnovers being such a problem tonight, it might make more sense to get the surehandedness of D.J. But it's really all up in the air.
- By the way, Augustin was an official "DNP- Rest" tonight. So the backup PG job could very well be his.
- Once again, Steve Novak stepped in during clutch time and came up big. Novak played exclusively during the fourth quarter, and hit a critical pick and pop three with Westbrook. A few plays later, Novak kept a defender out on the three point line and smartly dished to KD for three. Novak did give up at least one three on the other end, but he still proved his worth as an instant offensive spark.
- Coach Donovan called a timeout with 1:05 to go to remove the starters. Phew.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, impossible to stop in the fourth quarter
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, as if a triple-double with 8-14 shooting deserves second best
Thunder Blunder: Andre Roberson, bagel points
Thunder Plunderer: Rodney Hood, livin' in the lane
Next Game: Versus the San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday, October 28th, 7 PM Central Daylight Time.
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