Thunder 104, Jazz 94
SALT LAKE CITY –When is it time to pull the vets and play the pups?
That’s the question I asked Scott Brooks following Tuesday’s 104-94 win over Utah at Energy Solutions Arena. It’s a subject that is gaining more and more steam as this season snakes along. The latest and arguably most surprising case for the youngsters came when the Thunder walked into Utah and whipped a veteran Jazz team, leading by as many as 19 points and, with the exception of the final minutes of the second and fourth quarters, played with poise, patience and pride.
With Nick Collison and Kevin Ollie out with knee ailments, the Thunder’s bench unit was comprised of two rookies and one sophomore. Veteran Etan Thomas, the only other reserve to see action, played just nine minutes. Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Kyle Weaver took over the heavy lifting, and they showed they are more than capable of handling the load.
Weaver, who was relegated to the D-League on Saturday and recalled from the Tulsa 66ers hours before tip-off only to provide emergency duty behind starting point guard Russell Westbrook, had played only 15 garbage-time minutes in the Thunder’s first 14 games. Fourteen of those minutes came in one contest. But on Tuesday night, Weaver matched his season total in minutes. And he provided more than just a steady hand. Weaver made plays, pestering Jazz point guards Deron Williams and Eric Maynor with his defense and seamlessly setting up the offense and swishing key shots. He finished with seven points on 2-for-3 shooting. He turned the ball over twice but had a career-high-tying three blocked shots to go with one assist.
Ibaka, meanwhile, continued to be a game-changer around the basket. One game after a career night — an 11-point, 13-rebound, five-block performance against the Lakers — Ibaka pulled down five rebounds and had one steal and one block in 21 minutes. He coolly filled in for Jeff Green when the Thunder’s starting power forward picked up two early fouls. He gobbled up a rebound following a Paul Millsap miss. He netted an 18-footer following a feed from Kevin Durant. He pulled down another board after Mehmet Okur’s missed jumper, giving him two points and two rebounds in just four minutes. Ibaka later spelled a foul-plagued Nenad Krstic and did much of the same. But most impressive was the 20-year-old’s confidence. When the Jazz came alive in the fourth quarter and used a 4-0 spurt to cut the Thunder’s 19-point lead to a tenuous 15 with eight minutes remaining, Ibaka smoothly sank an 18-footer. Thabo Sefolosha then nailed two free throws to push the lead back to 19.
And all James Harden did was bounce back from a woeful performance he turned in two nights earlier that could have rocked the rookie’s confidence. After a 2-for-15 shooting night (0-for-10 from 3) against the Lakers, Harden netted four of five shots and one of two 3-pointers for his 10 points during his 19 minutes. His second-quarter production showed his moxie. He poured in all of his points during a 3 minute, 14 second span that started with the Jazz leading by a point and ended with his 3-pointer that gave OKC a 39-36 lead with 6:54 remaining in the half. The Thunder trailed only twice the rest of the way, both times by just a point.
“Sam Presti, our general manager, has done a great job of finding guys who are competitive,” Brooks said after the game. “You can have talented guys, but if they’re not competitive what good are they? Our guys are competitive. They get better. They get better in practice. It’s a fun group to coach because they compete against each other in practice. Sam has done a good job of putting a good group together.”
So why not play the kids?
“One of the things that Sam and I talk about every day, we have a team that has to earn minutes,” Brooks said.
Translation: the days of PT liberally being handed out ended with Russell Westbrook last season. No longer is the Thunder in the phase of speeding players’ development by awarding extended minutes without merit. Ibaka and Harden are clear cases. Neither figure to unseat Thomas/Collison or Sefolosha so long as those veterans are more consistent and better defensively, no matter how lofty the rookies’ ceilings.
But that doesn’t mean the position battles won’t intensify as the season marches on.
“Guys are competing for minutes and it puts pressure on our guys to come with it every day in practice,” Brooks said. “And it pays off. I think the way guys work in practice pays off and it gives them opportunities to show what they do. And our starters have to be ready because we have guys that can play.”
While the pups wait their turn, the fans will be waiting with bated breath.
- Once again, the player of the game award goes to Thabo Sefolosha. His defense on Deron Williams saved the day. Thunder coach Scott Brooks switched Sefolosha on Williams to start the second half and Williams disappeared. The Jazz looked lost offensively without him.
- Russell Westbrook didn’t seem to care for the switch afterward, not in an angry, bitter, team cancer sort of way. But he spoke as if he would have liked to remain on Williams. I think that’s a good sign that the youngster has that competitive fire in him.
- A few Utah media members, like others along the road this season, gushed about the Thunder’s core after the game.
- Again, Kyle Weaver was extremely steady in a backup point guard role. He was matched up against rookie Eric Maynor to start before Deron Williams was reinserted. He played stout defense on them both and got the Thunder into offensive sets without problem. And he made shots when he needed to.
- Kevin Durant’s season-high eight assists is a testament to his continued development as a playmaker but more than anything the Thunder’s commitment to sharing the ball tonight. Durant made a few really nice drive-and-dish plays. But a lot of his assists came in the flow of the offense, simple passes to guys who were wide open. The Thunder had 25 assists as a team.
- Jeff Green had a nice all-around game. His 19 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and three 3-pointers were huge. But he played some really nice defense on Mehmet Okur and, at times, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap.
- Green had a nasty fall on an aggressive drive to the basket with two seconds remaining in the first half. He sat on the court for a minute before taking and making two free throws. Before going into the locker room he lingered on the court and talked with trainer Joe Sharpe about something regarding his left leg. He returned for warm-ups near the end of halftime with his left knee covered with a black wrap. Like he always does, he said he was fine after the game….even though he walked with a limp.
- The Jazz closed the first half on a 10-4 run, a surge that looked to be a momentum-killing swing and made it a one-point game going into the third quarter. But after trading a few early baskets to start the third quarter, the defense tightened up and the Thunder outscored the Jazz 31-16 in the period.
- Jazz fans started booing the home team midway through the third quarter after Russell Westbrook made a 3-pointer to give the Thunder a 75-64 lead.
- OK, I know Mehmet Okur can fill it up. But dude passed Jeff Hornacek for fourth all-time in franchise history with 440 3-pointers. Uh, how did that happen? Where have I been?
- Can someone tell me why Ronnie Brewer isn’t better? Five points, three rebounds, three assists? Two of six shooting? Seems to me Brewer should be Shawn Marion in the making. Athletic as all get out. Pesky defender. Ugly shooting form. I mean, it’s all there.
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