Kings 101, Thunder 98
A viewer asked the Fox Sports Oklahoma crew the most compelling question of the night via text message.
“Why does the Thunder play to the level of its competition at times?”
I’m wondering the same thing following Tuesday night’s 101-98 loss at Sacramento. I’ve posed a variation of the question to Kevin Durant and Co. on more than one occasion this season, inquiring whether the team gets more juiced when playing against the league’s best teams.
I was met with company line after company line, from everyone except wily veteran Kevin Ollie, who before playing the Los Angeles Lakers said, “I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t get any extra motivation.”
Said Durant, “I get up for every game no matter who we’re playing. I get up for the Lakers the same way I do for Portland or Sacramento.”
The problem with taking that stance publicly comes when you run into nights like Tuesday that clearly prove otherwise. Not singling out Durant. He actually played well and gave good effort on both ends. But what’s been identified is the issue of inconsistency throughout the entire team. Granted, on Monday I wrote that the Thunder is now beating teams its supposed to beat. But in that same space I also pointed out that OKC is far from out of the woods and has work left to be done.
The latest defeat was a prime example of the labor that lies ahead but is to be expected from a team filled with 25-year-old-and-younger talent.
But explanations for effort are harder to articulate when, two nights after manhandling the defending Eastern Conference champions, you get outplayed from start to finish by a Kings team missing its best player, guard Kevin Martin. Had the Thunder got up for the Kings like it did for Orlando on Sunday or the Lakers last week this game would have easily been a blowout. Instead, the Thunder is 3-4. Instead, the Thunder never led by more than four. Instead, the Thunder shot 39.7 percent against a Kings team without any interior resistance and reverted to haphazard defense.
“We just have to play better,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
The worst of it was that the Kings outrebounded the Thunder 51-36, including 15-8 on the offensive end and scored 20 points in transition. Jason Thompson had 21 points and 14 rebounds. Numbers like those make it easy to challenge the Thunder’s claim that it treats every opponent the same. Easy because the rebounding numbers against a much better Magic team two nights earlier read 45-30 in favor of the Thunder. Easy because a much more talented post player, Dwight Howard, was held to 20 points and seven boards when the Thunder’s players had it set in their minds that he wouldn’t be the one who beat them.
“We didn’t rebound the ball well. That’s the bottom line,” Brooks said. “We gave them 15 offensive rebounds. Jason Thompson was really a force down there. He had a lot of easy buckets around the basket. He was physical and it was just too many second-chance points.”
The good news is that the Thunder still only lost by three and Durant short-armed a 3-pointer in the final seconds that could have sent it to overtime despite the team’s effort on both ends ranking as arguably the second worst showing of the season behind the Houston debacle. A lot of shots that ordinarily go in rimmed out tonight. Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha went a combined 7-for-27.
Some of the shooting woes could be attributed to a lack of ball movement. And some of the lack of ball movement probably could be attributed to shooting woes. The Thunder tallied just 15 assists one game after recording a season-high 27. The 16 turnovers marked the second time this season the Thunder finished with more giveaways than assists.
But again, despite it all, the Thunder had a last-second shot for a chance to play five extra minutes. Eliminate some inconsistency and we’re talking about the Thunder’s continued improvement right now.
“We didn’t play as good as we wanted to but we still hung in there on the road,” said Harden. “But there are some good teams that are going to stick in there until the fourth quarter and you hopefully pull it out. It was one of those games where we tried to (win it) in the fourth quarter. It just didn’t go our way.”
- Kevin Durant had a bad shooting night and finished with 37 points because he did what he should do every night when his shot’s not falling — attack the rim and get a layup or a trip to the foul line. He was 18-for-18 from the foul line to offset a 9-for-23 night from the field.
- Thought Jeff Green was extremely aggressive with his offense tonight after going 3-for-15 against Houston and looking hesitant against Orlando. He had trouble containing human pogo stick Jason Thompson on the glass, though, and long and athletic power forward matchups like Thompson are the ones that will be the toughest tests for Green.
- James Harden didn’t shoot it well (3-for-7) but I was impressed with his hustle and poise tonight. He rebounded well, made the right play more often than not on offense and defense and came up with a big hustle play in the first half when he saved the ball from going out of bounds.
- Russell Westbrook had six assists and one turnover. And he should have had more assists.
- Is it too early for Tyreke Evans to run away with Rookie of the Year? 20, 8 and 8 ain’t bad.
- Andres Nocioni’s four-point play (foul on Durant) was perhaps the play of the game with 7:30 left in the fourth. For a Kings team trying to learn how to close out an opponent, that shot was a huge confidence builder that came when OKC was slowly chipping away at a nine-point deficit.
- The Thunder is no longer undefeated when Nenad Krstic scores 10 points or more. Did you expect the streak to last forever? I bet you didn’t even know about the streak.
- Beno Udrih, for as much criticism as he takes (a lot of it perhaps his own doing), makes plays. He can shoot, penetrate and find the open man. His speed, savvy and all-around skills on the offensive end make him a tough cover.
- Thabo Sefolosha wasn’t quite the “Sniper” tonight. 1-for-7. 0-for-3 from the arc.
- Great halfcourt shot by Harden at the end of the first half.
- Etan Thomas was not the bulldog we’ve grown accustomed to him being. The Kings’ athletic bigs were a bad match up for him, and he finished with just two points and two boards in 15 minutes. I did see him being physical, causing Thompson to complain about the pushing at one point.
- Another good sign for OKC is that Sacramento, which has a few players that can fill it up from beyond the arc, shot just 2-for-14 from 3-point range. That’s two straight games the Thunder has defended the 3-point line extremely well. It’ll be key against the Clippers on Wednesday and even more important at San Antonio on Saturday.
- Hey, hey! Serge Ibaka was a plus-7 in his 2 minutes, 8 seconds of playing time.
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