We’ve seen it before. In all sports and at all levels.
Teams rally around unfortunate circumstances.
That’s what the Thunder did over the weekend when it was without Kevin Durant and Jeff Green against Boston and Minnesota. Oklahoma City went on the road and clinched two feel-good wins to bump its winning streak to four games and move its record to 9-4.
But Green and Durant are back for tonight’s game against Minnesota. Now, the challenge for the Thunder is maintaining the same level of inspired play that it took on the road.
“We got to keep it if we want to win,” said reserve guard Eric Maynor. “And that’s what we’re going to try to continue to do with those guys coming back.”
But that’s easier said than done. Although their defensive tenacity from the past two contests shouldn’t change, players like Maynor, Serge Ibaka and James Harden might find it harder to get into a flow offensively with fewer sets being run through them. And the safety net Durant provides can suddenly turn scrappy players sloppy overnight.
“He’s the best scorer in basketball the last two years so there’s always a tendency to rely on what he does,” said Brooks of Durant. “And he does it very well and at a high level. But what makes us good is when we have good balance, and we have to have that going forward.”
The Thunder allowed just 82.5 points per game to Boston and Milwaukee while Durant was out. In the seven games Green has missed, the Thunder went 6-1. The sense of urgency by Thunder players was as palpable as it’s been all year.
“Nothing should change,” said Maynor. “I think those two games that we won on that road trip was (because of) a lot of effort. Playing harder than the other team. If we continue to do that, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
IBAKA’S HEAVY MINUTES WILL CONTINUE
Despite returning to his reserve role with the return of Green in the starting lineup, Serge Ibaka will continue to play a major role, Brooks said. Ibaka has averaged 32 minutes in seven games as a starter against 26 as a reserve.
When asked what he’s learned about Ibaka during his time as a starter, Brooks said nothing.
“I don’t think we learned anything,” Brooks said. “We’ve already known that Serge is a good player and he’s getting better. (Regardless) of who starts or not, Serge is going to be in there. He’s earned his minutes from last year to this year. But right now, our starter is Jeff. He starts. That’s the way we’re going to go going forward. We’re good with both of them. You got to pick one. Or you could always start Serge at a different spot, or you could always start Jeff at a different spot. But I choose to start Jeff, Nenad, Kevin, Thabo and Russell.”
WHAT’S BEEN THE DIFFERENCE DEFENSIVELY?
At a breakfast meeting in Salt Lake City on the morning the Thunder was preparing for the Utah Jazz, Brooks implored his players to focus on defense. At that point, the Thunder was 5-4 and had allowed 105.7 points per game.
“And then Utah scored 108,” Brooks joked.
Since that game against the Jazz on Nov. 15, though, the Thunder has allowed an average of just 93 points in its past four games.
“We were like 27th or 28th in the league defensively. And he told us, ‘We can’t win like this,’” Maynor remembered. “I think we changed it from there. Everybody is just locking down defensively and really locking it. And that’s what we got to continue to do if we want to win.”
In the past two games, the Thunder has slowed the pace, which has helped its defensive numbers. But improved fundamentals like ball containment and closing out have also been evident.
“The defense has improved, and the last three or four games the numbers are much better,” Brooks said. “We didn’t have the start that we would have liked on the defensive end. But we’re finding ways to win…We really focused on being a better team. I think guys re-focused and recommitted to playing defense and doing it for 24 seconds at a time.”
PUSH THE PACE BUT STEER CLEAR OF A SHOOTOUT
With Durant and Green back, Brooks will again allow his team to get out and run starting with tonight’s game against the Wolves. Against Boston, and Milwaukee to a lesser extent, the Thunder tried to control the game by controlling the pace.
“I don’t think we necessarily have to take the air out of the ball and get a shot late in the shot clock every time down court,” Brooks said. “We have to still defend with toughness and a scrappy mentality. And we need to score off our transition.”
Minnesota, however, leads the league in offensive pace, and Brooks will remind his players to avoid getting caught in a shootout with the Wolves.
“This team can score, there’s no doubt,” Brooks said of Minnesota. “We have to do a great job of guarding them. Their defense, they give up a high number (a league-worst 109.9-point average). But they play faster, so that number’s going to be a little higher. We can’t play a run-and-gun game. Can we win that way occasionally? I think we can. But that’s not what we do. When we play, we have to play defense first and then score.”
MAYNOR DEVELOPING AS A SHOOTER
After making just 22 of 71 3-pointers (31 percent) as a rookie, Maynor has shown off an improved perimeter stroke through this season’s first 13 games. Maynor has made eight of 18 3-pointers (44.4 percent) and said he is now confident he can knock down long range shots with consistency.
“It was a big focus in the offseason. I worked on it a lot,” Maynor said. “You put in the work and just try to make it show when the season starts. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
Unlike last season, Maynor isn’t hesitating or passing on open 3s when the ball is swung his way.
“Nah, not at all,” he said. “(Coach) always tells us if you’re open shoot the shot. If that’s one of your shots that you work on, and he knows you work on it, take the shot. I feel comfortable shooting it.”
COLLISON’S CHARGES RUBBING OFF
After an eight-game absence to start the season, Nick Collison wasted no time in re-establishing himself as one of the best charge takers in the league. In just five games, Collison already has racked up six charges.
“When our team defense is better, those plays are easier to make,” Collison said. “I think maybe that’s what we’re seeing. We’re making guys put the ball on the floor under duress and they’re not able to see that help man coming as opposed to just wide-open, straight drives to the basket, which we were giving up a lot earlier.”
Against the Bucks on Saturday, Collison drew three charges. And his effort looked like it trickled down to his teammates, as James Harden and Nenad Krstic also drew a charge apiece.
“It’s good to see,” Collison said. “I don’t know if it’s guys taking my lead or what. But it’s good for our defense. It makes guys pull up and not attack the basket.”
KEEPING KEVIN LOVE OFF THE GLASS
One of the Thunder’s biggest points of emphasis tonight will be limiting Wolves forward Kevin Love on the boards. Love recently had a 30-point, 30-rebound game, and he currently leads the league in rebounding at 13.8 per game, pacing all players in both offensive and defensive rebounds.
Love averaged 10.3 rebounds in three games against the Thunder last season.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Green, who will start opposite Love. “He’s a guy that’s tremendous on the boards. Someone we got to make sure we keep an eye on. We just got to try to box him out. Face guard him and do whatever we can to get him off the boards.
“He’s a big body. He uses his body very well. He gets his opponent out of rebounding position and puts himself in great position. We just got to make sure we’re there early to be physical with him and put contact on him before he puts contact on us.”
“Kevin and Jeff, we’re a much better team with them. I know we won the last two games without them. But I’m a better coach with them and we’re a better team. And everybody knows that they’re better players with them.” — Scott Brooks on Kevin Durant and Jeff Green.