The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Phoenix Suns on New Year's Eve, 110-106. Closing out a 2015 that has had more than its share of ups and downs for the Thunder and their fans, OKC's emotional epicenter Russell Westbrook made sure that the team finished on a positive note by carrying the team for most of the night and delivering the clutch 4th quarter free throws needed for the win.
The Suns did not go quietly, as they shot 52.4% from the floor and got a career night out of forward T.J. Warren, and had the game tied late, but they could not overcome Westbrook's accounting for over half of the Thunder's total offensive output. Westbrook finished with 36 points on 12-19 shooting to go along with 12 assists and 5 steals. Kevin Durant finished with 23 points of his own, but struggled from the field for much of the night until slamming home a dunk after a missed 3-pointer.
The surprising contributor of the night was the much maligned Kyle Singler, who found himself playing 13 minutes, including the entire 4th quarter. Singler responded with the kind of game many had hoped for during the off-season but he had failed to deliver up to this point - smart play along side his teammates while making numerous big plays, including scoring all 7 of his points in the 4th quarter and setting up Durant's clinching slam.
The Suns were led by Warren, who finished with 29 points and 9 rebounds.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Let us for a moment forget that the San Antonio Spurs beat the Suns by 33 points last night and be thankful that OKC ended the year on a positive note. These past 12 months have been a roller coaster of a ride, and not in the euphoric good way that the best coasters bring. It's more like the roller coaster from Scoobie Doo that is broken down, appears haunted, and is secretly being manipulated by Old Man McGillicutty (if you pull off his mask it will be revealed that he's really Phil Jackson).
Where was I?
Two elements stood out:
1) The Thunder bench once again turned in a very, very solid performance. While Enes Kanter wasn't able to reproduce his recent success (6 points on 3 shots), and the newest most popular guy in Thunderland, rookie Cameron Payne, finished with a modest 7 points but with 4 assists, overall the bench delivered 31 points on 13-25 shooting. The scoring output was balanced, as every player except Nick Collison made at least 2 shots, and with Payne running the show for 14 minutes (D.J. Augustin received a DNP), they appear to be playing more relaxed and at a faster pace.
2) The Thunder interior defense was a mess, and it nearly cost them the win. After going up 9 in the 4th quarter, the Thunder appeared flummoxed by some quite basic high pick and roll action by the Suns. Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker, and center Tyson Chandler were able to repeatedly get to the rim after simple high screens, and the Thunder were never able to adjust to stop this primary action. In fact, Chandler could have given the Suns a lead with 1:34 remaining after earning and and-1 trip, but he missed the free throw. Durant followed up on the other end with a tough, contested footer, and after Knight missed a long three, Singler set up Durant for the slam that all but iced it.
The interior defense, specifically with defensive rebounding, has appeared to take a step backward and the team will need to take a look to make amends heading into the new year.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
It was fitting and poetic that Westbrook was the man who had the ball in his hands to hit the game-sealing free throws. No player has more willingly accepted a greater share of the burden over the past 18 months, and all the criticism that comes with it, than he. He has talked about learning how to be a better leader for years; what he did tonight, that is what leadership looks like.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, who was the best player on the court
Thunder Down Under: Kyle Singler...wait, what?
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, who managed only 5 rebounds in 30 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: T.J. Warren, who scored his career high of 29
Next game: @ Charlotte Hornets on Saturday, Jan. 2 @ 6PM CDT