The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-107, breaking a three game losing streak while recording their first win against a Northwest division opponent. Having already lost to the Wolves twice already in this young season, not only were the Thunder looking to avenge two close losses, but also to de-mystify this strange thing called basketball.
To end the skid that was growing progressively worse by the day, the Thunder got substantial efforts from Paul George, who finished with 36-9-4 with 3 blocks on the night, and Steven Adams, who proved that while we may not remember him by that jump shot, we will remember the night he was literally perfect, finishing with a career-high 27 points on 11-11 shooting from the floor and 5-5 from the free throw line, to go along with 4 offensive rebounds, a steal and a block. A good thing too, because once again Russell Westbrook struggled from the field, shooting only 6-21 on the night and 0-8 from 3-point range (but did hit 2 clutch FTs) to go along with 7 turnovers, several of the unforced variety.
Once again the Thunder’s story arc was a barbell-shaped curve, with the team recording a season-best 42 points in the 1st quarter off 58% shooting, but most importantly, 11 assists on 15 made baskets. It was glorious to watch, in part because of how fluid the ball movement and motion was, and also because we knew it wouldn’t last. Oh, how right we were.
But somehow, that wasn’t the end, wasn’t the doom we have come to embrace like a familiar teddy bear stuffed with moldy bread crumbs. Because amazingly, despite the Thunder’s ‘defense’ giving up 51.3% shooting and 50% from 3-point range, they ground out the two IBS-inducing middle quarters and remained competitive, only being outscored 46-43. We talk about how they lose games in the last 5 minutes of games with regularity, but really the downward dip starts in the 3rd quarter when the offense dries up and the entire complexion of the game changes. This time, they maintained a lead, but more importantly, their heads, heading into the 4th.
How did OKC hang on? By continuing to not shoot themselves in the foot, and to be sure the refs gave them a few opportunities where they might have. Yet even with the Wolves shooting 53% in the quarter and 4-7 from three to try and catch up from a double-digit deficit, the Thunder recorded 6 assists in the quarter, and this one was my favorite:
I love how it is a riff off the normal Thunder high screen, but instead causes vertical confusion which is so much more difficult to defend.
And in the end, it was a Thunder weakness this season — free throw shooting — that sealed the deal. OKC went 8-8 from the line, including 2 clutch shots by Westbrook to keep the Wolves at arm’s length, and ultimately avoided another tragicomic letdown.
- Adams’ career offensive night was capped with his 8 points in the 4th quarter, meaning that after George, he was the high 4th quarter scorer for the team and amazingly took more shots than Carmelo Anthony did. Adams 4th quarter shot attempts - book it, it’s a stat that will matter in the long run.
- Speaking of Melo, he played 29 minutes and took 7 shot attempts. Against a quicker Timberwolves team, that felt about right.
- My completely made-up three-to-free ratio — remember, anything over a 2:1 ratio spells sadness — was an exceptional near 1:1 (26 3-point attempts, 22 FT attempts).
- Speaking of that 1st quarter, it’s really fun to watch when a team’s offense doesn’t involve 3 guys just standing around. Clearly OKC was committed to not only moving the ball, but moving themselves, and with purpose. Yes, it stagnated in the 3rd quarter and then a bit in the last 5 minutes, but the concepts are in there.
- OKC won this game in part because they committed to hustle plays. They mostly kept Karl-Anthony Towns off the glass (9 boards, 3 offensive) while recording 13 ORBs of their own and crushed Minnesota on the glass overall, 42-26. Westbrook, though his shooting game is still disastrous, grabbed 4 ORBs of his own to help the cause.
- Jerami Grant - much maligned and for a reason, is actually becoming pretty adept in the PnR game. He still gets stuffed at the rim too much because he doesn’t know how to shield with his body, but he corralled 2 of Westbrook’s 4th quarter assists, getting a key dunk off a sweet pocket pass.
- Paul George moving without the ball, cutting to the rim, and OKC creating driving lanes for PG, is so much better than contested 20 footers ad nauseum.
- One painful gripe - Thunder guys, if you see Jamal Crawford in the game, it should be your primary directive to attack him on defense every time down the court. Crawford is 37 years old, and he wasn’t even a good defender when he was 25.
- Lastly, here’s something you won’t hear every day. A big reason why OKC didn’t completely collapse in the 2nd half is due to the defense Westbrook did on his oddly consistent foil, Jeff Teague. Teague has an uncanny way of using Russ’ aggressiveness against him like basketball judo, but not tonight. On this night, Westbrook committed to staying in front of sideways pizza guy and held him to only 11 points on 5 shots taken (zero in the 4th).
All may not be right in Thunderland yet, but at least I can start drinking bourbon again. Lexington, in case you were wondering.