The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Utah Jazz at home, 122-113. In a rematch between OKC and the team that unceremoniously punched them out of the playoffs last year, the Thunder first rode a stout defense, which then set up Paul George to go wild in the 3rd quarter. Amid a 17 point 3rd quarter burst by PG, the Thunder pushed their 11 point halftime lead to 24 and with it, George earned the rest of the game off as OKC crash landed to a 9 point victory.
George’s stat line of 31 to go along with 3 assists, 3 rebounds and 4 steals on only 10 shots — combined with last Wednesday’s eruption — does cause one to think back a bit when another spindly small forward would put up hyper-efficient scoring displays similar to this one (Jeff Green, natch). Such was the ease which George led the charge in another 3rd quarter that buried an opponent.
And a good thing too, because aside from OKC’s first half defense and a solid effort from Steven Adams early on to get Rudy Gobert in foul trouble (Adams finished with 22 in part because Aquaman made his free throws), there was quite a bit of mucky-muck in this one.
Russell Westbrook continues to struggle with his shooting mechanics, and now it’s to the point where I can’t tell where the physical ends and the mental begins. We know Russ’ legs aren’t right, and it’s throwing everything off in his jump-shooting mechanics which, to be charitable, have always aspired to reach a level of ‘competent’ without much further upside. But now, his finishing at the rim is out of whack and his free throw motion changes from shot to shot. Keep in mind, this is the same cat who once did this in a playoff game.
Westbrook clearly frustrated with his play tonight as he checks out.— Up The Thunder (@UpTheThunder) December 11, 2018
As usual Thunder fans are there in support. pic.twitter.com/YeZj2NaXM6
And yet Russ still recorded his 6th triple-double of the season with 10-10-11.
The older I get, the more I appreciate great defense, and we saw some really good examples of it from both teams early on. Singular players can inspire great offense (see: Stephen Curry), but great defense requires all five guys working together for extended periods of time, and that takes commitment and effort. And sometimes, it’s the little things on defense that matter — like OKC pressuring the Jazz guards full court, which sometimes accomplished nothing more than taking an extra 6-8 seconds off the shot clock. Which seems like nothing until you remember that the Jazz rely on ball movement, which takes time to execute, so suddenly a few seconds less each possession can make a big difference across 48 minutes. These are the kinds of defensive micro-tweaks that matter over the long haul.
Utah clearly knew what plays OKC wanted to rely on off of Westbrook’s high pick and roll, while the Thunder did a phenomenal job staying with the Jazz’s ball movement, closing out on shooters aggressively without fouling. And also, their defense against the Jazz perimeter players highlighted what is going to be Utah’s weakness — aside from Donovan Mitchell, they don’t have great shot creators. Because OKC was able to bottle up Mitchell, they held the starting backcourt to only 11-28 combined shooting.
Do I feel good about this win? Westbrook’s struggles aside, it was a positive to see OKC regain their defensive focus and what it can do to a potential playoff team team that knows how to move the ball to find open shooters. It’s one big piece of the puzzle, but not the only one. But I think it says something that OKC was up 29 in the 4th over this division rival despite Westbrook’s shooting stroke completely MIA.
- Hamidou Diallo, glad to have your weird energy back. I swear, it’s like he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen when he elevates with the ball. Which is not the same as, say, Michael Jordan, who wouldn’t always know exactly what he wanted to do when he hit his apex. Hami is like the Longshot of the Thunder. Nine points on 4-5 shooting in 10 minutes.
- Nerlens Noel, I see you. We won’t remember this by tomorrow, but Noel had several semi-clutch buckets in the 4th that helped prevent what could have become a verrry uncomfortable ending.
- OKC’s win over Utah creates some necessary distance between the division rivals, but the Jazz are still only 5.5 games from last place to first place in the Northwest. The Thunder needed this home win, as they have two more division games coming up this week (Nuggets, Clippers).
- The Thunder played the last 8 minutes of the game with some, shall we say, pre-season-like defensive zeal.
- Let’s, uh, end the Alex Abrines, point guard! experiment, shall we? At least put Deonte Burton in there so he can run over some people.
- Jerami Grant, DEFENDER (trademark - Last Chance). Well, maybe, but he did his job on the offensive end, finishing with 13 on 6-11 shooting, including this feed from PG.