These Pacers are built to give a lot of teams trouble.
Indiana spreads the court with shooters, has tiny, jitterbug guards in the backcourt, long, athletic wing players waiting behind them on the bench and two unheralded but unyielding big men to balance things in the post.
And against that resourceful roster, you saw the benefits of the Thunder’s vast versatility.
When the Pacers played big, alternating 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert and 6-foot-11 forward Soloman Jones, the Thunder countered with Nenad Krstic, Byron Mullens and Serge Ibaka. When Indiana went small, using Troy Murphy at center, OKC trotted out Jeff Green at the 5-spot, flanking him with Kevin Durant at power forward, Thabo Sefolosha at small forward, James Harden at shooting guard and Russell Westbrook at point.
Most teams would wilt when faced with that type of quandary. The Thunder thrives on it.
Oklahoma City led by as many as 18 points and never trailed in the second half. The Pacers lost their last lead with 5:56 remaining in the second period.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game that what worries him whenever he matches a team’s small-ball style is the rebounding game. The Thunder out-rebounded Indiana 47-43, getting 29 boards from Westbrook, Sefolosha and Durant.
“Westbrook, you usually don’t have to talk about keeping a point guard off the boards,” said Indiana coach Jim O’Brien, “but he’s a helluva offensive rebounder.”
Brooks is hellbent on a nine-man rotation. But we’re starting to see the emerging effectiveness of employing exchangeable players. The Thunder can match up with any team, big or small, old or young, fast or slow. The building blocks are in place.
“They should be very pleased with the way their plan has matured,” O’Brien said. “They’ve done a great job of putting together young pieces, keeping them together, filling in really key guys like Krstic and Sefolosha to go with them.
“It’s a very exciting basketball team and they have clearly turned it around to where they’re a factor in the playoff race. And also, in the future if they continue to grow the way they’re growing, they’re going to be one heck of a basketball team, and at some point in time maybe even a contender.”
- Confession: I didn’t know A.J. Price was in the NBA. I didn’t even know he got drafted in the second round last June with Indiana’s 52nd overall pick. If there is anyone in the league who was like me, I guarantee they know who he is now. The 6-2 rookie point guard from UConn scored 19 of his career-high 23 points in the fourth quarter and nearly stole the game from the Thunder.
- Danny Granger, with nine points, was the only other Pacers player to score in the final frame.
- The Thunder held the Pacers to 39.6 percent shooting. That is significant because five of the Thunder’s past six opponents have been held under 42 percent shooting.
- Kevin Durant tied his season-high with 4o points. He shot 12 of 18 from the field, had a team-high 12 rebounds to go with three assists, one steal and only two turnovers. Unlike Wednesday night against New Orleans, Durant came through in the clutch, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter on 4-for-5 shooting. He told me he learned a big-time lesson from Wednesday night’s disappointing effort down the stretch.
- A lot of the talk in the locker room after Durant’s fourth-quarter performance was about how his teammates were setting better screens for him to get him open tonight. Thunder coach Scott Brooks spent much of Friday’s practice drilling on setting better screens. But the biggest factor was Indiana defended Durant straight-up, using Danny Granger and Brandon Rush individually instead of sending double teams Durant’s way. I don’t think we’ll see much more of that unless it’s a team like the Celtics (Paul Pierce), Lakers (Ron Artest/Kobe Bryant) or Rockets (Shane Battier/Trevor Ariza).
- Nick Collison was huge tonight, setting more solid screens and hitting the glass. He also had a season-high three blocked shots. His career-high is four.
- Can we get a BY-RON MULL-ENS chant started inside the Ford Center. Seriously! Opposing coaches and players keep talking about how this is a college atmosphere. Well, I’m suggesting you Thunder heads really give it a college feel, especially if a player like Mullens gets some burn. A lot of teams have that guy, the player who energizes the fans, either because of his play or because, well, he never gets to play. Oddly enough, Mullens is in a position to be both.
- Of course I’m going on and on about Mullens because his 7 minutes, 20 second stint in the second quarter was surprising and successful at the same time. He had four points, three rebounds, one assist and made two 20-footers. And this wasn’t garbage-time production. Mullens checked in when it was a four-point game and closed out the half without making too many mistakes.
- Hey Earl Watson haters. Yeah, you, the ones who booed him during pre-game intros. Six points, nine assists, two rebounds, one steal and only one turnover in 23 minutes. OK, OK. There’s a very good chance he stinks the next game.
- As for Watson’s replacement, Russell Westbrook, it’s time fans get off his case. Another 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists tonight. The five turnovers you can overlook because of his impact on both ends. Soon, Westbrook will be flirting with a triple-double every night, and we’ll get to the point where he’s a rebound or an assist shy and it’ll be an afterthought — much like a 40-point game from Durant has become. Mark it down.
- I don’t know what’s going on with the Thunder at the free throw line. OKC hit just 70 percent (26 of 37) tonight and has now shot better than 75 percent at the stripe in only three of its past seven games.
- The Thunder’s turnovers are also long past being out of control. Another 19 tonight, the third time in the past five games OKC has finished with 19 or more giveaways.
- I don’t know how soon this will matter because I’m not sure when he’ll see the court, but D.J. White told me before the game that he still must wear his protective face mask for another two weeks. In case you’ve forgotten, White broke his nose in practice a few weeks back.
- I could be reading too much into this or I could not be. I don’t know. But I didn’t see Etan Thomas remove his warmups and shoot around before halftime ended. A lot of players do that. I didn’t see Westbrook hit the court before the start of the third. But the difference is Westbrook played 19 minutes in the first half. Thomas played zero. Again, let me be clear, I don’t know what it means. But I assume Thomas is either injured or taking the why-bother approach.
- The Thunder is now 12-4 against the East.
- OKC has identical 10-8 records both home and away.
- The Thunder’s record when scoring 100 points or more is 15-1 and is 7-0 when shooting 50 percent or better.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on the game: “It was a good team win tonight. I though everybody did a good job. We kind of made some mistakes in the middle of the fourth where we turned it over a few times, missed some free throws or got an offensive foul. Other than that, I thought we played pretty hard.”
- Indiana coach Jim O’Brien on Kevin Durant: “He’s a great player. I think he’s as good as an offensive player as there is in the league. It doesn’t matter, Kobe, LeBron, he’s just a great offensive player. He does it with seemingly little effort. It’s a pleasure to watch him.”
- Durant on his dominant fourth quarter: “I told myself after that New Orleans game not to ever do that again, not to be a guy that is one of the main guys on the floor and not be aggressive. I think that hurts my team. So I told myself coming into that fourth just to be aggressive and whatever happens, happens…That’s another step in me becoming a better player, just knowing when to pick and choose my spots in the fourth quarter.”
- Brooks on Byron Mullens: “I’m glad that he came in and did a good job. Byron works just as hard as all the other guys and he got an opportunity and played well. Is it going to be every game? I don’t know that.”
- O’Brien on Danny Granger: “I think he feels like he’s playing in the first week of training camp. I don’t think he’s even close to being ready.”
- Thabo Sefolosha on Durant: “He’s playing like an All-Star right now. He had 40 tonight and he made them when they counted.”
- Sefolosha on the backcourt’s rebounding: “It’s something that we have to do, especially when we go small like that. It’s got to be a team effort going in there and getting those rebounds.”
- Mullens on his home debut: “It felt great. Coach told me before the game that he was going to give me about five, six minutes. I just didn’t know my name was going to be called so early. But he called me out and I was ready to play. My time in Tulsa got me ready for this. I was down there for almost a month, and if it wasn’t for that those shots that I hit I could have been nervous, butterflies in my stomach, but I wasn’t. So the D-League got me ready.”
- Mullens on his low-post development: “It’ll come. I had that one post-up, a kick-out to KD for a 3. But it’s going to come. In the D-League, I was working on post moves as well. My jump shot’s there, and tonight it was open so I went ahead and took it. But I’m not really worried about it. Coach (Mark) Bryant is working on it every day in practice so when the time comes I’ll show it.”
BY THE NUMBERS
2: Biggest lead by Indiana.
3: Blocked shots by Nick Collison, a season-high.
18: Biggest lead by the Thunder.
20: Wins for the Thunder, three shy of last year’s total.
23: Points by Pacers rookie A.J. Price, a career-high.
40: Points by Kevin Durant, tying a season-high.
51.4: Percent shooting by OKC.
108: Points scored by the Thunder, the most since 110 against Washington on Dec. 29.
18,203: The announced crowd inside the Ford Center, a sellout.