The Thunder arrived into Minnesota at 4 AM this morning, and are still without starting shooting guard Andre Roberson. Despite this, OKC managed to come away with a victory against Minnesota tonight, 126-123. Two big boosts came to Minnesota in the form of Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng. Both had season highs. Lavine's was 35, while Dieng's was 21.
LaVine did it under some unusual circumstances, as he had the opportunity to play D.J. Augustin in the second half. Augustin was in the game because regular Thunder backup PG Cameron Payne suffered a concussion during the first half. Nevertheless, LaVine did more than exploit Augustin. In fact, LaVine scored on three straight possessions during the last two minutes of the game, bringing his team within four. It was insane to watch, as LaVine hit shot after shot off the dribble around a screen. Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton came to mind, as did Langston Galloway. It just seems to be the Thunder's curse to not be able to shut down a deadly shooter in clutch situations.
Gorgui Dieng, on the other hand, got his points entirely through hustle. Sometimes, the Thunder defense would forget about Dieng and he'd run to an open spot. Other times, Dieng would shove his way to points at the rim. Other times still Dieng would use his jab step to create space and hit a couple of difficult mid-range shots. Really, it wasn't stuff you'd expect out of a guy who averages 9 points per game. Ibaka was visibly frustrated with his defense of Dieng at times, and even got a technical during the second quarter for complaining. Meanwhile, Dieng had an impact on the defensive end as well. A couple of T-wolves breaks in the second half started with Dieng stops at the rim.
On the Thunder's end, it was the usual wonderful offensive effort from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Not counting the automatic free throws, Durant and Westbrook scored or assisted the Thunder's last 11 points of the game. It was the usual shenanigans. Westbrook hit an off the catch three after receiving a mean screen from Ibaka. Westbrook also found Adams at the rim as Dieng moved to double-team KD. The other three final scores were from Durant, who had an advantage on Andrew Wiggins all night. Just a couple of easy mid-range turnaround shots along with a pull-up three. Durant finished with 27 points, while Westbrook had 24. Both KD and Russ shot 50% or higher.
But before I move on, I want to take a moment to appreciate KD and Westbrook's other stats as well. 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 turnover from KD. Really liked KD's effort on the boards, particularly when the team went small with Collison. 8 rebounds, 15 assists, and 4 turnovers from Russ. Was great to see Westbrook get lots of work in with Kanter. Obviously, neither Westbrook nor KD can be blamed for how close this game was. They played complete games.
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How did the Thunder win this game?
The Thunder's biggest lead was 9, which occurred with 3:32 to go in the fourth quarter. Before that, the score had been ridiculously close for the entire game. Surprisingly enough, the boost for that 9 point lead came from the Thunder's bench. Morrow hit a three, and Kanter hit a jumper. But it was Westbrook and KD that further fueled the run, with a Westbrook catch and shoot three and a KD jumper. Basically, the Thunder were able to establish a late lead by using effective bench-starter combos at the end of the game.
Sadly, the Wolves mounted one last comeback to make things interesting. From the span of 3:32-1:46, Minnesota went on a seven point run. That cut the Thunder's lead to two. The run was a combination of Karl-Anthony Towns going to the rim on Kanter and LaVine getting hot.
But then, the Thunder rode Kevin Durant to a victory. KD rose over Wiggins for a three. Then KD ran past Wiggins for an effortless curl jumper at the free throw line. That put OKC up 5 with 1:25 to go.
The rest of the game was silly. Wiggins throws the ball away on a drive to the rim. Adams scores as the Wolves double-team KD. Then LaVine immediately responds by taking Waiters to the rim for an And 1. This left OKC up by 4 with 1:02 to go.
KD gets fouled on a drive to the rim late in the shot clock. It resets to 24. KD dribbles out the possessions, settling for a missed mid-range on Wiggins. The Wolves get the ball with 29 seconds left, down 4. Rubio dishes the ball to LaVine, who sets up about 5 feet behind the three point line. LaVine has hit three straight at this point, so everyone holds their breath. But the ball fell way, way short of the rim. KD rebounded, and it was all academic at that point.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that there was no real point where the Thunder took over. Durant certainly had the upper hand on his matchup, and it felt like OKC had a very good chance of winning. But the Wolves gave up some really silly points in critical situations, showing their youth and inexperience. I'm not sure how well OKC would have done against a more seasoned team in this same situation.
Good Kanter and Evil Kanter
Enes Kanter had a nice bounceback game tonight after a subpar performance in New York. 23 points in total, which ties for Kanter's third highest scoring performance of the season. Really awesome pick and roll work with Westbrook tonight. Westbrook connected with Kanter four times in the second quarter, and I'm sure got Kanter at least one more trip to the line. Some terrific work on the boards from Kanter as well. Six of his points came on offensive rebounds.
Of course, Kanter had a dark side to him tonight, as he does almost every night. When Westbrook wasn't in the game, Kanter settled for jumpers. Kanter missed four of them, and made one. I understand using Kanter's jumper as an emergency or surprise option, but I just don't think it should be as frequent as it was. Kanter just didn't seem to play the same type of game when Russ wasn't in, and that bothered me a bit.
Also, Kanter's defense wasn't perfect. I saw Kanter's slowness get exploited by a Zach LaVine mid-range jumper around a screen. I also saw Kanter get foiled by Towns a couple of times at the rim in the second. Worst of all, in the fourth, Kanter gave up two Towns baskets at the rim in a pick and roll defense situation. Still, Kanter was able to keep Pekovic to a 0-5 shooting night. So maybe I'm not giving him enough credit.
Adams, strange but effective
Steven Adams only got 20 minutes of run, and the score certainly reflects his lack of playing time. Why was Adams limited? Foul trouble in the first half. And it was really wacky too. In the span of less than 90 seconds of the first quarter, Steven Adams was called for three separate fouls. The fouls came about because of a case of creative Timberwolf flopping. you see, the first foul was legitimate, as Adams shoved Wiggins on a rebound. But the ensuing offensive foul was a complete flop by Rubio around a screen. Then, Muhammad completely flopped when Adams touched him on a rebound. The ref bought both calls, and Adams ended up spending the rest of the first half on the bench.
In the second half, Adams was more of a force. Towns was only able to score on Adams once in the opening 7 minute stretch of the third, and that was just a mid-range shot. Otherwise, Towns wasn't able to get another attempt. Also, once Adams was subbed in at the 2:55 mark of the fourth, Towns didn't score another basket.
- Major struggles for Serge Ibaka. No shots taken close to the basket, and 2 of 7 on jumpers. Some of it was Ibaka just plain missing (as usual), but a couple of Ibaka's shots were bad decisions. And it's very rare to see Ibaka take a contested shot, so this game has me a bit worried. Ibaka's defense also suffered a bit tonight as well. The Wolves were able to score a bit at the rim, and Dieng had that unusually good offensive performance. Also, Ibaka played with the team during the final 9:25 of the fourth quarter. His stats from that time? 1 turnover, two missed jumpers, and two allowed baskets to Gorgui Dieng.
- Cameron Payne only got about 5 minutes of run during the first and second quarter before leaving with that concussion. If it's officially diagnosed as such, Payne must pass the NBA concussion protocol for recovery. In other words, Payne could miss multiple games.
- Dion Waiters was actually reasonably effective tonight, scoring 16 points with 1 assist and no turnovers. Tonight seemed to be an exercise in "what would happen if Waiters got all of the opportunities that Roberson gets when the other team leaves him wide open"? The answer tonight was that Waiters would hit a good number of threes, but not be able to draw fouls at the rim. For the record, Waiters' decision making was wonderful tonight. All of Waiters shots were in the paint or from three. Waiters worked off of teammates almost entirely. Heck, on defense, Waiters even gave his best effort to keep Shabazz Muhammad away from the rim. (Waiters often failed at defending Muhammad, but the effort and concentration were there.) The only thing that really irks me is that Dion shot 1 of 5 in the paint, yet 4 of 7 beyond the arc. I mean, comeon. No shortage of "And One!" shouts tonight though.
- Nick Collison, what a tough old guy. Even after not playing against the Knicks last night, Collison gave it his best effort tonight and was a huge unseen asset. During Collison's first stint, he blocked Shabazz Muhammad at the rim twice, got an offensive rebound, and got to the line once. For the final four minutes of the half, Collison had to play center against Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns never scored on Collison during that span. Collison even scored on an offensive rebound, and rotated to block a Wiggins layup. Then, Collison comes in during the third quarter and makes a fool of himself. Two straight big blunders, as Collison traveled with the ball and caused a defensive three second violation. But Collison bounced right back with two gritty buckets at the rim, both on broken plays.
- The most vivid memory of Kyle Singler I have is the airballed three he took. It wasn't actually that bad of an airball, because the ball landed right in Kanter's hands. Kanter then layed it up, heh. Anyway, Singler had a basket when he ran from end to end and somehow got position at the rim. No other shots, hardly handled the ball.
- D.J. Augustin played in his first real game since December 27th. Overall, Augustin's return could have gone a lot better. Augustin allowed LaVine to make two off the dribble threes, despite preventing LaVine from getting to the rim on another possession. Augustin's offense was meh. A drawn foul, as well as a layup over Pekovic in transition. But also Augustin straight up threw away a pass to no one. Here's hoping Augustin can pick it up over these next couple of games.
- Anthony Morrow got a chance to play tonight. Morrow's defense was below par, but I've come to expect that just because he's undersized and struggles to affect shots around screens. Offensively, Morrow was awesome. I particularly liked Morrow's first basket, which he scored on the last play of the first quarter while cold off the bench. Couple of hard dribbles into Shabazz, stops on a dime, nails the mid-range shot. Also another nice mid-range pull up. From three point land, Morrow had a catch and shoot via Russ, as well as a pull-up on Bjelica.
- Gotta mention Wiggins, who really worked well for the Wolves on offense today. Wiggins mostly got via assists from other players, as he ran to the rim. But Wiggins clearly had an ability to shoot off the dribble, and exploited a mismatch at least once. "Active" is the one word I'd use to describe Wiggins, and he certainly used that to his advantage against the less energetic KD at times. (KD won the matchup unquestionably though.)
- Ricky Rubio had 10 assists. You can call him the quarterback, as at least 4 of his assists were lobs way down the court from where he was to an open T-Wolf. Really amazing stuff, Rubio definitely helped the Wolves score tons of transition points. Also some magnificent pick and roll passing to Towns, though Rubio's lack of offense keeps him from being deadly in that area.
- Westbrook: 3 of 4 from three. Wowow! Always nice when this happens. As always, the attempts were open. Rare that Russ will take a bad three IMO.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, can't be stopped
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, the engine of the team
Thunder Blunder: D.J. Augustin, for allowing LaVine to heat up
Thunder Plunderer: Zach LaVine, latest on the long list of Thunder killers
Next Game: Versus the Houston Rockets, Friday, January 29th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.
What did you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!