The defense was awful, the offense was out of sync and the energy was unmatched.
And yet, the Thunder found a way to win, marking the latest leap this team has taken since Oct. 28.
Rarely this season has Oklahoma City won when it hasn’t played its best, or close to its best, ball. But in Saturday’s 121-118 overtime thriller at New York, The Thunder overcame the obstacles — on the road, after a three-day break, playing on the game’s grandest stage, in front of 19,723 frenzied fans eager to witness their newest star make his debut. Not to mention OKC’s own sub par performance.
The Knicks had this game won. More times than once. But the Thunder never went away, battling back from an 11-point, second-quarter deficit to tie the score at 52-all before going into the locker room down five at the half. When the Thunder built a 91-86 lead, the Knicks stormed back with a 17-6 run to go ahead by six.
It was at that point the Thunder showed its growing toughness and trust in one another. Jeff Green hit a 3-pointer, set up by James Harden. Russell Westbrook attacked the rim and converted a layup to pull the Thunder within 103-102 with 26.9 seconds remaining.
The only thing the Knicks did wrong in that 1 minute, 7 second span was miss a pair of free throws, with Tracy McGrady oddly enough serving as the culprit on a night he otherwise dazzled the Madison Square Garden crowd.
Eddie House sank two free throws to make it a three-point game, but Kevin Durant responded with a game-tying 3-pointer from the top of the key to send the game into overtime.
When the Knicks went ahead by four on a pair of Sergio Rodriguez free throws with 2:10 left to play, it didn’t look good for the Thunder. To that point, the Thunder had allowed McGrady, Rodriguez, Eddie House and David Lee to have their way on the offensive end. The Thunder had turned the ball over 18 times, had just 16 assists and had missed 28 of 39 free throws. But OKC ended the game on an 11-4 run, with three different players (Durant, Green and Nick Collison) providing the scoring punch. Durant’s 16-footer was the game winner and his two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining clinched it.
“We kind of stole this one,” said Collison. “It’s big to be able to win games like this when you don’t necessarily play your best basketball. To be able to win down the stretch like that is huge for us.”
Only the good teams win despite their difficulties, and the Thunder is developing all the traits of a good team. Oklahoma City is now 32-21 and a stunning 16-11 on the road. The team is riding an eight-game winning streak, and Saturday’s win might have been the biggest momentum-builder during this stretch. With 29 games left before a likely postseason appearance, the Thunder is now adding chunks of confidence to what already is a sky-high swagger.
The Thunder walked into MSG holding opponents to a league-low 43.5 percent shooting. The Knicks shot 48.9 percent and the Thunder still squeaked it out. It’s not a trend OKC wasn’t to start. Still, the result will work wonders for the psyche.
“It shows that we can get through adversity,” said Durant.
And that could be a scary strength for a team this young and talented.
- Russell Westbrook destroyed Chris Duhon and Sergio Rodriguez all night. His strength and quickness was embarrassingly better than both Knicks players. Neither could stop him from getting to the rim and his athleticism allowed him to crash the boards with ease. The end result was a near triple-double and a head-turning performance in front of the country’s largest media market. Don’t be surprised if the pub on Westbrook begins to pick up another notch after Saturday’s showing.
- Westbrook’s third quarter (10 points, four rebounds, three assists) helped the Thunder turn a five-point halftime deficit into a two-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
- I didn’t think Tracy McGrady had anything left in the tank. Clearly he still has some skills. My question is whether he’ll be able to do it consistently. I still think he’s past that point in his career. But tonight he was fun to watch, especially when he gave the fans the type of performance they came to see.
- Nick Collison was absolutely huge tonight. This was by far his best game of the season. He scored, rebounded, took charges (three according to coach Scott Brooks) and set extremely effective screens. Without Collison, the Thunder’s winning streak is no longer in tact.
- Kevin Durant’s shooting stroke was way off, but he made them when he needed to, scoring 14 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. As good as his game-tying 3-pointer was in regulation, you have to give credit to Collison for setting a mean pick on Danilo Gallinari. Thanks to Collison, Durant was wide open at the top of the arc.
- The Thunder is now 17-6 against the Eastern Conference. OKC has swept season series’ against Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, New York, and Washington.
- Thabo Sefolosha was poked in the eye late in the first quarter and had to sit out the entire second quarter while being attended to. He sat on the bench and iced his eye for awhile, then was taken to the locker room and emerged for the start of the third quarter sporting a pair of goggles. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him after the game, but when he passed by me his right eye was bloodshot red. I’ll have an update in Minnesota. It goes without saying the Thunder can’t afford to lose him.
- Nenad Krstic played just four minutes in the first half, clearly because of the matchup problems the Knicks present. He was forced to defend David Lee early and that’s not a good look. After a largely ineffective first half, Krstic again came out of the locker room with a bang. His six points, two rebounds and one assist in the third quarter helped the Thunder regain the momentum.
- I don’t know how Lee does it but dude puts up numbers — 30 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks is unreal.
- Here’s how funky the matchups were tonight: Serge Ibaka was forced to defend McGrady during one stretch. Ibaka started off OK, sticking with McGrady on an isolation and forcing him to pass out. But it went downhill from there, and Brooks had no choice but to insert James Harden.
- Eddie House has got to have the quickest release in the league. On the Knicks’ last possession, I leaned over to a local guy and said I would put three guys on House and two on Gallinari to defend the 3-point line. He said, “What about that guy?” pointing to McGrady as he took the ball out of bounds. I said, “I’ll take my chances. He hasn’t played in months.” That’s how dangerous I think House is. And sure enough, he almost hit a crouching, double-pump 3 to tie it.
- Don’t know what got into the Thunder at the charity stripe tonight. Going 30 of 41 is not like this team.
- I started to ask Brooks after the game if he was worried about fatigue setting in going into Minnesota. But I decided to not play party pooper and just wait to see how it plays out tomorrow. Should be interesting.
THEY SAID IT
- Kevin Durant on his clutch shots: “I knew that the coach was going to come to me. I just wanted to be calm. Earlier in the season I wasn’t making those shots. When it came to me, I just wanted to be calm and knock down the shots and go back on the other end and play defense. Coach did a great job of calling plays for me and believing in me. I was fortunate to make shots.”
- Tracy McGrady on Durant: “He reminds me of myself when I was younger. The guy is incredible. 6-10, 1-11, knocking down big shots. He is playing with a great deal of confidence. When a guy has confidence like that, and he is very skilled, I don’t give a damn what you do, it is tough to stop a guy like that. And he had it rolling.”
- McGrady on his ovation and the fans chanting his name: “I haven’t felt that good in awhile. To really be received that way, to hear those chants…It really gave chills down my spine.”
- Nick Collison on Durant: “I think he’s going to be one of the best players in the league. We’re kind of seeing it unfold. And to be a player on the team is a lot of fun. He’ll be one of those guys that you’ll be able to tell people when you’re done playing you got to play with. He’s a good kid and he works hard. I don’t see anything that’s going to stop him from being one of the best players to play in the league.”
- Scott Brooks on the game: “We are a defensive team, that’s why we are having success this year. Some games you have to win different ways. Tonight was one of them. But we can’t go into every game thinking that we’re going to go out and play an offensive free-flowing game and expect to win.”
- Brooks on his team’s resiliency: “Usually when a team comes out and hits a couple of 3s early in an overtime period, those are hard to overcome. I give our guys a lot of credit. They play with a lot of heart throughout the season, and I don’t anticipate them every stopping playing with a lot of heart. It wasn’t smart basketball at all times, but we got a lot of stops when we needed it.”
- Collison on freeing up Durant for the game-tying 3 in regulation: “Gallinari’s one of the biggest guys to guard Kev. He struggled getting around screens a little bit. He’s trying to push through the screens as opposed to getting around it…When you pop somebody like that it feels pretty good.”
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Fast break points for New York.
11: Biggest lead by New York.
13: Lead changes.
26: Points scored by Tracy McGrady in his Knicks debut.
32: Wins on the year for the Thunder.
121: Points scored by the Thunder, the second most scored this season.
19,763: Announced attendance inside Madison Square Garden, a sellout.