Thunder 117, Rockets 105
Nuggets from my notebook from Wednesday’s win over Houston.
- On the day I wrote about the Thunder’s inability to control opposing teams on the offensive glass, the Thunder started the game out-rebounding Houston 9-0. It led to a quick 7-0 Thunder advantage in second-chance points. The Thunder stuck with that theme from start to finish, eventually winning the rebound game 41-28. Unlike the last meeting at Houston, OKC never let the Rockets set the tone by controlling the boards. Huge factor in tonight’s win.
- Kevin Durant is back. Say goodbye to his slow start and his inexplicable shooting struggles. Durant had a game-high 32 tonight, and he got there on 12-of-18 shooting. That’s now seven straight games that Durant has scored 25 points or more. Shall we start the official count? I think so. Can he top last year’s mark of 29 straight games?
- This was a great team victory. So many players played well. Jeff Green’s shooting, passing and hustle were great. Russell Westbrook played within himself throughout most of the game and showed maturity in being able to let the offense run itself rather than forcing himself to be the only facilitator. It seemed like everything in Thabo Sefolosha’s final line of 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots were difference-makers. And Eric Maynor, D.J. White and Nick Collison all made timely plays in limited minutes.
- The player of the game, though, has to be James Harden. Harden started his night with a 3-pointer, then he followed that with another strong driving dunk. Right then, you knew his confidence has fully recovered from whatever happened to it at the start of this season. Eight of Harden’s 16 points off the bench came in the first half and either ended a Rockets’ run or brought the Thunder back to a tie. You can officially add Harden to the list of players who are heating up. In eight December games, Harden is now averaging 13.8 points, three rebounds and 2.6 assists.
- There wasn’t much in this one to shake your head at. The Thunder did a terrible job of playing defense without fouling in the first quarter. And OKC had 10 first-half turnovers that led to 13 Rockets points and helped Houston stay in it. Other than that, it was an extremely well-played game from a team standpoint.
- I’m not sure if the cameras catch this, but one thing you absolutely must pay attention to the final time these two teams meet on Jan. 12 is Shane Battier’s defense against Durant. Battier takes “put a hand in his face” to a completely new level. Go back and watch the first quarter of this one and you’ll undoubtedly come away with a greater appreciation for Battier’s defense and Durant’s offense. KD made four of six shots in the opening period. By my count, Battier’s hand was about an inch from Durant’s nose on three of those makes. I asked KD about it after the game and he said Battier is the only defender he’s faced that does that to him. Durant said it was an adjustment at first but he’s now played against him so much that he’s accustomed to it. Then Durant added this. “He’s made me better.”
- Durant was whistled for his fourth foul with 6:45 left in the third when Kevin Martin caught him with his own version of the rip move. It was a critical moment for Durant to have to sit. But the irony of the sequence was that Durant lightheartedly demonstrated some displeasure with the call. It looked like the exact same look of disbelief so many defenders have had when Durant gets them with it.
- Late in the first half, Sefolosha gave it up on a three-on-one break! Durant finished with a layup…Then Thabo was whistled for a charge on an ensuing break because he wouldn’t give it up. Baby steps, I suppose.
- Sefolosha’s chase-down block on Martin with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter is as good of a defensive play as you’ll see. The Thunder is getting quite good at that, with Westbrook and Green also able to routinely make those run-down rejections.
- Nenad Krstic (back) still isn’t fully healthy and didn’t play in this one. Cole Aldrich is healthy now but was again on the inactive list.
- With Collison picking up his second foul with 1:29 left in the first, Byron Mullens got some early burn. It’s good to see how much more Byron is battling down low versus what he did last season. But tonight, he struggled to corral rebounds. He’s going to have to snare those things to stay on the court.
- The Thunder’s 3-point shooting tonight was excellent — 7-for-11 from downtown. Said Battier: “You live with those shots because that’s not their strength. So that is what you give up. They have some really good attack guys, but you can’t give everything away so you give them 3-point shots. And they made us pay.” Keep an eye on whether that develops into a theme moving forward.
- Luis Scola destroyed Serge Ibaka tonight. Assistant coach Mark Bryant should sit down with Ibaka after Thursday’s practice and pop in the tape from this one. Ibaka never could stay down on Scola’s shot fakes. It exposed everything that’s wrong with Ibaka’s position defense. Scola’s footwork is among the best in the business for big men. But it was shocking how much Ibaka struggled. Ibaka is great as a help defender. But he’s got a long way to go in man defense.
- To Ibaka’s credit, Collison, the Thunder’s best low-post man defender, didn’t fare that much better against Scola. I vividly remember one possession in the second half when Scola just backed down Collison from the left block until he reached his comfort zone and could flick in an easy deuce. Collison gave everything he had trying to push back and it was like Scola was playing against his son.
- I will say this about Ibaka. His mid-range J is becoming automatic. Is it possible he’s already got the best mid-range game on the team? White is obviously up there, but we’ve yet to see his consistently in games.
- One last thing about Ibaka. Lately, I’ve likened his free-throw routine to Karl Malone’s — minus the mumbling. If you need a refresher, the Mailman was notorious for taking longer than the allotted 10 seconds at the stripe without ever getting called for it. Tonight, with 3:03 remaining in the first half, I used the stopwatch function on my watch to count just how similar Ibaka is. The results: Ibaka took 10.91 seconds.
- After Robert Yanders buried a $20,000 halfcourt shot Sunday, lots of folks stood up in between the third and fourth quarters when another fellow took his turn tonight. Boy, did he disappoint. Following his airball, fans fell back into their seats in disappointment. As if we really were going to see that happen two straight times after seeing it once in 94 games.
- Why don’t I ever hear Jordan Hill’s name on Thunder fans’ wish list?
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