It wasn't an ideal night, but the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to get the job done against the Minnesota Timberwolves, 101-96. Despite grabbing leads as high as 14 in the first half and 18 in the third quarter, the Thunder were unable to keep the Timberwolves from challenging them in the clutch. Thus, OKC had to lean on Kevin Durant as the fourth quarter drew to a close. Durant definitely struggled with his shot at times throughout the game, and even sputtered a bit in the mid-fourth quarter. But it didn't take Durant long to get going.
It started with KD scoring on a switch against Gorgui Dieng, utilizing that sweet crossover. Then, Steven Adams stepped in to screen for KD twice. Durant effortlessly popped around the screen for a mid-range shot both times. KD didn't even need Adams for his final scores, as he did the patented turnaround jumper over Andrew Wiggins. The end result was a Durant score on four of the Thunder's final six possessions. Also, KD hit four straight free throws to close the game, when Minnesota went to the intentional foul.
Russell Westbrook was a huge part of the Thunder's early lead. The Timberwolves doubled Russell Westbrook on virtually every possession. This allowed Westbrook to do his usual thing of passing the ball to an open center in the post. At one point, Westbrook was shooting 3 of 3 with 8 assists and only one turnover. Most of Westbrook's first half points came in the run of play, rather than off of set pieces. Obviously Westbrook eventually had to become more aggressive offensively, and the results were definitely mixed. In the second half, Westbrook shot 3 of 7 with two assists and four turnovers. I really can't blame Westbrook for a lot of what happened. Sometimes, Westbrook had to go up against strong paint defense with no passing options. Other times, a player might mishandle Westbrook's pass. But ultimately, I think Westbrook was very wise to defer to KD at the end of the game. The Timberwolves were clearly zeroing in on Russ. Meanwhile, KD wasn't drawing double teams and had a matchup with the defensively inept Muhammad. Going to KD only made sense.
How were the Timberwolves able to climb back into this one?
The Thunder's three point defense can definitely use some work. It wasn't so much the Timberwolves' final numbers from three, which are more or less on par with their averages. Rather, it was the timeliness of the threes that made them so frustrating. In the final six minutes of the game, the Timberwolves went 3 of 4 from three. The first three, from Zach LaVine at 5:52, came because Westbrook didn't respect LaVine's range. The second three, from Bjelica at 4:07, came because Ibaka didn't respect Bjelica's range. But the final three, at 0:41, was the craziest. LaVine hit it while Ibaka was switched onto him, but LaVine must have been at least four feet behind the line.
What's wrong with the Thunder's bench?
Defense. Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad pretty much doubled their average output on the season. On a night were the Thunder so successfully kept the stars (Wiggins, Towns) at bay, it was really aggravating to see role players carry the load. Muhammad seemed to take advantage of the Thunder's small size, while LaVine seemed to take advantage of the Thunder wanting to protect the rim.
But offense plays a role as well. The Thunder's bench opened the first 5.5 minutes of the fourth quarter with only 6 points. Putting it another way, the Thunder scored on three possessions but failed on eight. Payne blew three open looks, Waiters missed a couple of bailout plays, and Morrow missed an open three. The other two were bad passes from Payne and Waiters. I re-watched the entire debacle, and it feels like the second unit was really lacking a leader. Nobody was talking or directing traffic. There was maybe one set play the entire time, with the rest just being dumb ISOs or random screens. Kanter was visibly frustrated on more than one occasion.
Honestly, it's going to be up to Payne to make his shots and build some confidence going forward. The open looks for Waiters aren't going to come unless the defense respects him. Also, there needs to be a play that gets Kanter the ball at all times.
- Kind of a frustrating game from Serge Ibaka. I've come to expect Ibaka to score around 15 a night. So when Serge goes 3 of 8 from the field with only 8 rebounds and 2 blocks, I'm kind of disappointed. Ibaka definitely kept Dieng out of the game, and had a critical block on Dieng down the stretch in the fourth. But Ibaka also didn't attempt a single shot in the second half! We've seen Ibaka disappear on offense down the stretch of games before. But this was particularly disappointing, given that Ibaka had about 6 minutes with the bench in the fourth where he could have been a serious weapon.
- Steven Adams absolutely obliterated Karl-Anthony Towns. Sure, there were times where Towns handles got him into the paint. But consider that Towns shot 0-7 outside the paint. Towns also struggled against Adams defensively, as Adams was able to score 8 points against Towns during the first quarter. One of the baskets was a particularly impressive long hook shot. Adams offensive game continues to develop, but like in Ibaka's case, it's disappointing that Adams faded down the stretch. Not a single shot attempt after the first quarter.
- Enes Kanter definitely did his duty. I didn't notice too much terrible defense, though I know it existed. Offensively, Kanter was pounding the paint on the pick and roll. I also liked how Kanter was able to use his body to back down Gorgui Dieng on a couple of separate possessions. There are those that will criticize Donovan for playing Kanter in the fourth. But Kanter scored all three times he got the ball during that period.
- Nick Collison made a couple of cameo appearances between quarters. I liked Collison's headiness in drawing a layup, but he proceeded to miss both ensuing free throws. Also, Collison was so little of an offensive threat that his man (Dieng) was able to get two separate blocks at the rim.
- Andre Roberson missed three layup attempts during the third quarter, all of them highly contested. One of them may have even had Roberson elbowed in the throat with no call. (Credit: Last Chance) Roberson also short-armed a wide open corner three. Nevertheless, Roberson also managed two scores off of great ball movement at the rim. An overall solid game from Dre, as he was crucial to keeping Wiggins to 2 of 8 shooting in the first half.
- Andrew Wiggins was 6 of 11 in the second half, and Andre Roberson only played 6 minutes. It was a really odd situation. All three of Wiggins makes while Roberson was on the floor came after a Roberson attempted basket. In other words, Wiggins scored three times because Roberson couldn't get back in transition after his own shot. Then Roberson is subbed out for good, and Wiggins sees some periodic success. One mid-range jumper in the third, and a couple of crucial baskets directly against KD in the late fourth.
- Cameron Payne had his first bad game, and it was hard to swallow. Payne was clearly more scoring minded than he was passing minded, and took every open shot that he was given. But the Wolves seemed to bet on Payne's inexperience, and it payed off. Still, Payne had a strong first half. A couple of made threes both catch and shoot, in the run of play, off of Waiters drives. Payne also had a particularly impressive assist to Kanter, a no looker between the trees.
- Dion Waiters is really, really trying to get to the rim. But Waiters didn't get to the line once, and shot 1 of 4 in the paint. It feels like Waiters wants his body first before anything else, and doesn't think about how to put the ball in the rim. But I don't want to criticize, because I feel like his heart is in the right place. Moreover, Waiters really couldn't find his place within the offense in the fourth quarter. It felt like Waiters was given the ball and expected to bail out the Thunder late in the shot clock a couple of times. Despite finishing the game, Waiters didn't take a shot in the final 8:59. Waiters kept Shabazz Muhammad in check on the other end though, and Muhammad had a monster first half. Also, can't underestimate the impact of those three steals. One of the steals was a ridiculously sick mid-dribble poke.
- Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince were kind of bad. Neither of them played much of a role offensively, and the Thunder made some runs while they were in the game.
- Ricky Rubio is such a hesitant shooter. I'm honestly not surprised Westbrook forgot to guard LaVine on that three, after how Rubio was playing all game.
- Kevin Martin missed a couple open threes and a couple questionable mid-range shots, just as I remember him. Still was able to contribute on a couple of plays, at Waiters expense.
- As a team, the Timberwolves were pretty wild with the ball, and tried too hard to push the pace at times. I feel like that's what lost them this game ultimately.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, still reliable
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, who's ego isn't as big as you think it might be
Thunder Blunder: Cameron Payne, :-(
Thunder Plunderer: Zach LaVine, those clutch threes!
Next Game: Versus the Dallas Mavericks, Wednesday, January 13th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.
What did you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!