The Oklahoma City Thunder's starting lineup hit the hardwood at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte determined to get off to a hot start and take the sting out of the Charlotte Hornets, taking an early 13-2 lead. Had it not been for some silly turnovers, things could have been much worse for a Hornets team trying to reclaim a spot among the Eastern Conference's top eight while battling through the loss of starters Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (for the season due to shoulder surgery) and Al Jefferson (for six weeks due to knee surgery). Adding insult to injury, Nicolas Batum did not dress while nursing a toe sprain.
Kevin Durant shook off the rust on his shooting stroke and off a 34 point first quarter, the Thunder took a 12 point lead into the second frame. Ironically, that was the also the difference at halftime as the Hornets attacked the paint relentlessly throughout the second quarter and matched the Thunder's 32 point output.
The Hornets came out for the second half with their most impressive offensive burst of the night, hitting their first four shots to cut the lead to two but were unable to wrestle it away in one of, if not the, strangest quarter in Thunder history.
The Thunder came out of the locker room stone cold, missing their first eight shots before a Serge Ibaka putback dunk with 8:39 left. Then for the next two minutes or so, the Hornets completely forgot the cardinal rule of defense: never foul a jump shooter, especially when that jump shooter is Kevin Durant, and certainly not on 3 consecutive attempts. First up for the Defensive Brain Cramp award was P.J. Hairston.
Hairston lost his defensive marbles after Ibaka's putback, fouling the reigning MVP on two of the Thunder's next three possessions, a three-point shot followed by a two-pointer. Durant drained all five attempts. After Durant made the fourth free throw, Hornets head coach Steve Clifford replaced Hairston with ex-Thunder shooting guard Jeremy Lamb in hopes of raising his team's collective defensive IQ, but the effort went for naught. After Steven Adams threw down yet another massive 3.2 magnitude m'animal slam, Lamb fouled KD on his next three-point shot on the ensuing possession. KD was again perfect from the stripe, and the Thunder's once tenuous two-point lead was back to 12...
....and then it got weird.
With just over five minutes left in the third, Russell Westbrook brought the ball to the offensive end and passed the ball to Durant up high, while Ibaka set a screen to set up the pick and roll. When the double team comes to Durant, he gets tangled up with Lamb while passing the ball to Ibaka and complains to the referee about the no call. Meanwhile, Russell attempts a three-point shot after Serge passes him the ball and screens his opponent. A fan sitting courtside yells something that offends Durant who reacts and turns immediately barking something back. The fan's attire was stereotypical: blue jeans, rumpled denim shirt with a matching sweat-stained fishing cap. He will now be referred to as "Bubba" for short.
Dion Waiters corrals the Westbrook miss on the far side and works his way along the arc toward Bubba. Unfortunately the score bug covers the screen at this point, but something happened before Waiters kicked the ball out to Durant, because Waiters looked at the referee and pointed back and told the guy did something disruptive.
Durant kicked the ball back to Waiters on the wing and Jeremy Lin is called for a touchy foul when Waiters cuts toward the baseline and open floor.
After blowing the play dead, the ref approaches Dion for a quick confirmation of what Dion had just told him who was on his way to Durant to tell him what happened and the camera catches a clear view of Dion pointing back over his shoulder in Bubba's direction during the telling.
Waiters goes to the line for his free throw attempts but Bubba is still running his yap and throws out another verbal gem that gets Durant to react. This time the referee is standing nearby, back turned, but listening and intercedes as the exchange begins to escalate and KD tries to walk away.
Then the camera breaks for that all-important look at Jeremy Lin taking a seat with his fourth foul before returning to the odd scene unfolding in front of.... well... anyone in attendance, or watching on FoxSports or NBA League Pass.
When it does, the action is completely stopped. NBA referee Eric Dalen is walking Durant away from Bubba and a second referee, Scott Wall, crosses the court to see if Dalen needs assistance. Dalen signals the scorer's table to summon a court official and sends Wall to escort them to Bubba.
When the court official arrived, my guess is that the discussion began with Bubba in all his self righteous indignation cooling down and buttoning his lip pretty quickly when the official read this:
From NBA.com - NBA Fan Code of Conduct
• Guests will enjoy the basketball experience free from disruptive behavior, including foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.
Guests who choose not to adhere to these provisions will be subject to ejection without refund and revocation of season tickets and may also be in violation of city ordinances resulting in possible arrest and prosecution.
Near the end of Bubba's lesson on the proper way an adult should conduct themselves and the possible consequences for non-compliance, Kemba Walker walked over to try to get things wrapped up. His team was already on the ropes and hanging on by a fingernail and the last thing they needed was some knot-head disrupting the game at that point.
Kemba tried to appease Bubba with a fist bump, he tried to get the official to walk away. He turned to the floor and threw out his hands in frustration, but when Bubba just had to get in those last words, Kemba shook his head in disgust and walked away.
Thunder announcer Brian Davis was exactly right when he pointed out that if you are going to buy those seats you need to have as much sense as you have money.
The game was halted for over two minutes but it felt longer. All Bubba did was let the Thunder catch their breath and embarrass his own team. After a little mini-run got the Hornets within five, the Thunder closed out the game outscoring the Hornets by 14 along the way and winning by 19.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Kemba Walker is the real deal. Top scorer of the ballgame and can hurt you in a variety of ways. Struggled from beyond the arc but the Thunder were making a concerted effort to keep that under control all night so Walker went into attack mode and finished the night taking as many free throws as the rest of the Hornet starters combined.
Cameron Payne continues to impress off the bench and opponents should not be giving the rookie too much space. He doesn't shoot often, but he generally draws blood when he does. Three assists, no turnovers in his longest outing of the season and added seven points because he felt like it! Still a defensive work in process, but every time I see Payne play I remember what he said on draft night:
"There is no ceiling for Cameron Payne."
KD was as hot as an Oklahoma sidewalk in July, going 10 -of-11 on free throws and 3-for-3 from long distance. Westbrook struggled with his shot but got his teammates to help out by dishing out seven assists. Steven Adams shot 4-for-4, including three monstrous slams that scared my dog! Anthony Morrow was back in his hometown showing off his "Fastest Gun in the West" shot, and scorched the Hornets with four ICBM's and 12 points.
Durant, Ibaka, Adams and Enes Kanter kept the New Years' block party going the whole way and combined for 14 of the Thunder's 15 "no-no's" before calling it a night.
The KD and Westbrook minutes watch had a pretty good night, neither Thunder star exceeded their season average for the first time in four games.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
A big reason the Thunder won was the Hornets are short of healthy bodies. Three starters out is devastating to begin with and then you add a flight through customs to play the second game of a back to back on top of stopping Westbrook and Durant? Why, that is a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest if I ever saw one.
Donovan was able to exploit the advantage he knew he had going in and get his rookie PG extra playing time and let Kyle Singler continue to try and get himself out of the worst shooting slump I have ever seen. Singler took four total shots tonight, two of which were free throws and only one of which went in. Oh my goon-ness.
The only real drama I saw going into this one was the Dion Waiters vs Jeremy Lamb match-up. They will meet again, but the score is Dion one, Lamb zip. Dion put another solid game together. Forty percent shooting, five assists to only one turnover. Of course it wouldn't feel right if Waiters didn't go a little crazy at some point, but he kept it together until the Hornets were whipped. When they went head to head, Lamb couldn't keep up and Dion was free to pretty much do whatever he wanted and has the assists tonight to prove it.
R.K.'s Honors Roll
Thunder Wonder: KD, who else?
Thunder Down Under: I'm going with the Funaki and not just because he comes from the land down under. He was a BEAST!
Thunder Blunder: Sorry Robes, I hardly knew you were there tonight.
Thunder Plunderer: Kemba Walker, no doubt about it.
Next game: vs. Sacramento Kings, Saturday, Jan. 4 @ 7:00 PM CDT