The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Phoenix Suns at home, 124-103. The win breaks the Thunder's three game losing streak, and at least temporarily, should quell some of the growing frustrations in OKC over the Thunder's uneven start to the season.
The Thunder controlled much of the game but, unable to put away Phoenix early, only clung to a six point lead at halftime, despite having advantages at virtually every position on the floor. However, the Thunder composed themselves during halftime and, biding their time in the 3rd quarter, a resurgent bench helped the Thunder push the lead from 7 to 12 heading into the 4th quarter.
With the 4th quarter echos of past losses whispering, the Thunder did the opposite this game, finally showing what they can do when everyone simply plays to their abilities. The Thunder hit their first 11 shots in the ultimate quarter, and it wasn't simply Durant doing the heavy lifting as we have seen in the past. Instead, it was Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, and Mitch McGary who allowed the Thunder to not miss a shot until only 3:45 was left in the game. By that point, the lead had gone from 12 to 21 and the Suns were buried.
Kevin Durant led the way in scoring, finishing with 32-11-4-3 in one of his strongest performances of the season. Russell Westbrook paced the win, finishing with 21 points and 13 assists against 3 turnovers. In supporting role, Dion Waiters had his best game of the season, finishing with 19 points, and Enes Kanter finished with 21 points and 9 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Phoenix was led by Eric Bledsoe, who finished with 28 points and 11 assists.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
If the last Thunder game against the Bulls is what I called a 'system loss,' this is one that I'd call a 'system win.' With the exception of one player, every man on the Thunder squad did exactly what they're capable of doing without breaking too much of a sweat. Westbrook did what he always does to Phoenix - he ran up and down the court with Bledsoe, each man taking turns pretending to defend the other, while getting to the rack and setting up his teammates. It is the exact kind of performance we saw from him last season where, even though he was missing the league MVP for much of the year, he never gave up in working to set up his teammates, especially Kanter on the pick and roll game.
Kanter deserves mention because this is the kind of game they're paying him for - to grab rebounds, get offensive put-backs, and finish PnR plays. Finishing nights with anywhere between 15-21 points with 7-10 rebounds is well within Kanter's abilities, and it is good to see the Thunder finally figuring out how to position him correctly.
Meanwhile, Durant played the most comfortable game that he has looked all year in sniping the Suns to death from all over the court. This game was drastically different from the last few, where Durant was still trying to figure out where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. This was the first game where Durant looked comfortable in what he was doing on both ends of the court. And it was his 3-point dagger, followed by a fast-break layup (fed by a scrapping Westbrook) that pushed the lead to 20. Goodnight.
Well, not quite. Because the one guy who was the exception is the guy everyone has maligned since the day he arrived - Dion Waiters. His sample size is growing, and in the 1st half in particular, it seems like Dion is finally figuring out where he fits into the system. For a brief moment anyway, he reminded me a bit of James Harden in 2011. Now, before you fly off the handle, you have to think waaaay back to 2011 when everyone...everyone....(well, except us at WTLC) thought Harden was a lottery draft bust. But Presti didn't, and he believed that the way to encourage him to greatness was by removing an obstacle (Jeff Green) and entrust the 2nd unit to James. The gambit worked and the Thunder bench took off, as did the rest of the squad.
We are still a long ways away from that point, but even though Dion is still Dion, there has been a marked increase in his overall discipline on the court. He has a purpose to what he's doing. He doesn't waste possessions. He scored 19 points off of 9 shots tonight, including 2-3 from 3-point range and 5-6 from the FT stripe. More importantly, he led his 2nd unit, keeping OKC away from the Suns as they mounted their comeback early in the game. He attacked the rim, he set up other players, and he hit a big 3-pointer during the 4th quarter run.
We're still a long ways from Harden-level consistency, but this kind of Waiters, that wants to run the 2nd unit and then work along side the starters, that can work.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
It's easy to argue that any team that starts a quarter 11-11, especially the 4th quarter, is a team that is on its way to victory. What is important to observe tonight is that they did what they did within the confines of who they are. It wasn't Westbrook going into buffed-up berserker mode or Durant transforming into the Slim Reaper. It was the kind of run that good teams mount that bury lesser teams, where everything starts to come easy.
To my eyes, no play better epitomized that flow than Durant's one-legged Dirk Nowitzki step-back jumper with about 3 minutes to play. He jab stepped, hopped back on one leg, and drilled the 15 footer like it was the easiest thing in the world, with KD barely able to hold back a huge grin as he retreated to the opposite end. It was a rare moment in Durant's early season where he looked like himself; that is, a guy casually making practice shots in a gym while the rest of players on the court wonder how he does it so simply.
Thunder Wonder: Durant, for having his most comfortable offensive game of the season
Thunder Down Under: Kanter, who helped fuel the 4th quarter surge
Thunder Blunder: Kyle Singler, because I don't even know anymore
Thunder Plunderer: Eric Bledsoe, because that's par for the course
Next game: @ Washington Wizards at 6PM CDT on 11/10/15