AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Last year, the Thunder took two steps back in games like this.
On the road. Bait for a team’s home opener. After a blowout home win.
It used to be the perfect storm. Friday night it was a piece of cake.
For a moment, though, it appeared as though not much had changed. The Thunder scored just 38 first-half points on 39.5 percent shooting. A talented Pistons squad that’s loaded with offensive weapons wasn’t having much trouble putting the ball in the basket in the first 24 minutes. And what we thought was a new and improved Russell Westbrook was regressing by the second, reverting to playing faster and turning over the ball at an alarming rate.
Even when the Thunder took a 10-point lead on two occasions in the fourth quarter, the outcome seemed in doubt. You might have reached ‘Here-we-go-again’ mode when the Pistons clawed within four with 4:27 remaining after surging to an 8-0 run.
But then it happened. The Thunder showed us this year would be different. Westbrook turned the tide when he hustled back instead of hanging his head after Ben Wallace blocked his layup. The Thunder’s point guard returned the rejection on Ben Gordon and helped the Thunder salvage it’s four-point lead. He made two free throws to push the lead to six. After Gordon netted one of two free throws, Westbrook found Nenad Krstic under the rim to bump the lead to seven.
And when Gordon split two more free throws, fundamental ball movement found Thabo Sefolosha in the corner for a 3-pointer that gave the Thunder a 84-75 lead with 2:03 remaining. The crowd filed up the Palace’s steps. The Pistons never got closer than five.
“This was one of our better wins since I’ve been here in terms of holding a team off and being able to get stops when we needed to in the fourth quarter,” said Nick Collison. “We never gave up that bad spurt where a team made a run on us. That’s something we struggled with in the past…It’s good to see in a tough game on the road that guys are still trying to do the right thing. A less experienced team like we were last year, those are the times guys kind of break away from the game plan and don’t make good decisions. But tonight, everybody played well.”
And the Thunder is 2-0.
- Collison said he felt like his ankle was better tonight after his eight-point, eight-rebound performance in just 16 minutes.
- Kevin Durant struggled with his shot for the second straight game before finishing with 25 points and was visibly frustrated on the court following a few misses. He was 4-for-10 in the first half and 5-for-14 after three quarters. But it’s his 12 rebounds an one turnover that again displayed his development. Make that 23 rebounds, five assists and one turnover for Durant after two games. I think he is indeed starting to get it.
- Jeff Green finished with 16 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals in 35 minutes. And you hardly noticed any of it.
- Russell Westbrook’s maturity can be summed up in just one of his statements following the game. He told me he felt he needed to get Nenad Krstic going because he got off to a slow start in the first half. Do that, Westbrook said, and the Pistons wouldn’t be able to defend all the Thunder’s weapons. I didn’t realize it until looking at the box score, but Krstic didn’t attempt a shot in the first half and had just two points. Krstic went 6-for-9 from the field in the second half and finished with 14 points. Westbrook routinely set up Krstic on the pick-and-pop over the final 24 minutes, and Krstic made the Pistons pay as Ben Wallace and Kwame Brown couldn’t defend him 20 feet away from the basket.
- Thabo Sefolosha didn’t have a steal or a blocked shot on the stat sheet. Surprising. I don’t think that will happen very often.
- I don’t remember many games last season when Russell Westbrook had a terrible first half and bounced back so strongly in the second. He had several occasions when he came back strong the next game, but Friday’s showing was definitely a step in the right direction. For all the improvement he’s made with his decision-making, shot selection, turnovers and passing, second half adjustments will undoubtedly be just as significant.
- James Harden was a man tonight. Not a rookie. A man. He struggled with his shot, but his eight assists and the way he got them were unbelievable for a rookie shooting guard. He once passed up a free-throw extended jumper to hit a wide open Kevin Ollie for a baseline look. Twice he penetrated and dished to Etan Thomas for uncontested layups. On another possession he got it to Thomas off a pick-and-roll play by delivering the pass at the perfect time. But the most impressive of his eight assists came when he waived off Jeff Green, who was coming toward him in the right corner, before taking his man off the dribble. Harden drew three defenders and whipped a bounce pass to Green for an easy layup. This guy is going to be good when he gets his shot down consistently and learns how to defend perimeter players.
- Kevin Ollie got 14 minutes as the backup point guard and again didn’t do anything to hurt the team. His stat line — two points on 1-for-2 shooting with one rebound and one assists — isn’t overly impressive. But what’s not on it is the charge the 36-year-old took on Pistons big man Jason Maxiell. The next time you’re wondering why he’s the backup for now, rewind that play. It happened with 10:35 remaining in the second quarter.
- Serge Ibaka made his NBA debut. Not because Thunder coach Scott Brooks wanted him to but because Brooks needed him to. Brooks wisely inserted Ibaka when Jeff Green picked up his second foul with 2:53remaining in the first half. Nick Collison was saddled with two fouls as well. Rather than risk them picking up their third foul inside the final three minutes, he went with the rookie. Ibaka played just those 2 minutes, 53 seconds and pulled down one rebound. He got beat backdoor by Charlie Villanueva and got bailed out when Villanueva couldn’t finish a reverse layup attempt.
- This is why the organization traded for Etan Thomas. He was a presence in the middle and finished with three blocks with a handful of other shots that he changed.
- The Pistons didn’t have an assist in the fourth quarter and the Detroit media made a big deal about it.
- Richard Hamilton didn’t play, and afterward Brooks made sure to mention that it would unquestionably have changed the face of the game.
THEY SAID IT
- Nick Collison on being 2-0: “It feels great. One of the best things about playing in the league is being able to play on the road. I don’t know if I’ve ever one here, maybe once in six years so it feels good.”
- Collison on his ankle: “I feel like my ankle was better tonight. I had more energy, more pop. I’m seeing more limited minutes so I’m trying to make my minutes count and try to do things I do well, rebound, defend and when the shot’s there take it.”
- Scott Brooks on James Harden’s playmaking: “They were harassing our point guards for a second, Kevin Ollie. So I wanted to take some pressure off of him. And James is a playmaker. That’s why we drafted him. We drafted him to be a playmaker and he did a good job of doing that tonight.”
- Brooks on Russell Westbrook: “I wanted Russell to stay focused. I thought he had three or four minutes of not the basketball we need out of him. And he understood that. And I told him you have to continue to play forward. You can’t dwell on the two or three minutes that you played not the basketball we want.”
- Brooks on Etan Thomas and Collison: “I thought Etan and Nick did a good job. They’re going to be our tough, low-post defenders. And when we need them with a tough, aggressive and physical team like the Pistons are, I thought they did a good job of really battling them and challenging them and not giving them easy offensive rebounds.”
- Kevin Durant on the team’s ball movement: “We love playing with each other. We love passing the ball and we always space the floor very well. We still have to work on it, but I think tonight we spaced the floor out and we got some wide open shots…That was the key. We got stops and we shared the basketball.”
- Russell Westbrook on bouncing back: “It was a tough first half. It happens. My teammates were there to pick up and I continue to just try to make the pass and get shots and go from there. I felt I had to get Nenad going. He started off a little slow. Once he got into the game it was hard for them to stop all of us.”
- Westbrook on the team’s resiliency: “I think we’re a lot tougher. Everybody’s playing tougher when it comes down to it, getting stops and getting rebounds that we need to. That’s helping us.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Stitches Ben Gordon needed at halftime after hitting his head on the court at the end of the first half.
12: Turnovers by the Thunder and assists by the Pistons.
13: Free throws by Rodney Stuckey, one night after the Thunder allowed 14 to Sacramento guard Kevin Martin.
23: Assists by the Thunder.
37.1: Field-goal percentage by the Pistons.
22,076: Attendance at The Palace of Auburn Hills, a sellout.