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Thunder 104, Mavs 102

by Darnell Mayberry Published: December 30, 2011

Nuggets from my notebook from Thursday’s win over Dallas.

  • Absolutely amazing display by Thunder fans with 3:17 left to play. When a struggling Russell Westbrook stepped to the free throw line looking to complete a three-point play, the entire arena erupted in a chant of “Russ-ell, Russ-ell, Russ-ell.” Everyone knew Westbrook needed a boost. And the home crowd gave it to him. The standing ovation following the final buzzer of the Game 6 loss to the Lakers in the 2010 playoffs is far and away the most memorable show of appreciation by Thunder fans to date. But tonight’s surprising show of support for Westbrook immediately slid into second place.
  • Thunder coach Scott Brooks on the chant: “I’ve never seen, in my 20-something years of being in the NBA, what the crowd did. They knew he was struggling. They watched our game last night. He struggled. But when he made the layup and the free throw and they were chanting his name out, that’s special. This is a special place to play.”
  • Westbrook on the chant: “It’s amazing what these fans will do for you, man. I love this city and my teammates. I’m just thankful.”
  • Kevin Durant on the chant: “The crowd was unbelievable tonight in encouraging him, and I think that gave him an extra push. We can do so much. We’re always on top of him and encouraging him. But for the fans to do that meant a lot.”
  • Here’s what made the chant so special. It was genuine. It was organic. It was heartfelt. It was the type of showing that sets fans apart. Never before, aside from trite “M-V-P” chants for Durant, has the OKC crowd showered a player with such support. For three years, I’ve hoped the Thunder’s in-game production staff would get rid of all the prompting and prodding by the PA guy to get the crowd to “make 15 seconds of noise for defense.” Quite frankly, it’s pathetic. True fans know when and how to make noise. Tonight, Thunder fans proved why they are among the best in the league.
  • Durant’s game-winner overshadowed a helluva final three minutes for Westbrook. After an 0-for-13 performance at Memphis, Westbrook was borderline awful again tonight. Through three quarters, he had nine points on 3-for-11 shooting with four assists and six turnovers. But he came alive and provided five huge plays that saved this game for the Thunder. The first was the fast-break dunk and foul that sparked the chant. It put the Thunder up three. The second was a rebound off KD’s missed 3 that Westbrook flew in and pulled down in traffic before canning a jumper over Shawn Marion. The third was a stolen inbounds pass. The fourth was a offensive foul he drew on Dirk Nowitzki, causing Dirk to pick up a tech in protest. And the fifth was a pull-up jumper Westbrook hit over Dirk that gave the Thunder a 101-96 lead with 46 seconds left.
  • The final 3 1/2 minutes tonight could turn Westbrook’s slow start completely around. He desperately needed something like this to happen for him tonight. Through three quarters, Westbrook was clearly not himself. He wasn’t playing with passion. The fire in his belly was absent. He was deffering. And he made tons of mistakes, including passing up opportunities, as he tried too hard to play more under control. Only in the final 3 1/2 did we see the real Westbrook.
  • Durant’s game-winner was an incredible shot. That’s the best thing you can say about it, because by no means was it a high-percentage hoist. In fact, it looked the exact same as all the others we’ve seen over the past three seasons that have clanged off the rim or ended up sailing through nothing but air. Only difference this time is that it went in.
  • The Thunder does, however, deserve credit for some nice execution on the final play. Westbrook made a hard cut to through the lane to occupy his man. Kendrick Perkinsset a tremendously effective screen on Shawn Marion to take him out of the play. Thabo Sefolosha made a pinpoint entry pass. And Durant did the rest.
  • Brooks on the final play: “I drew it up that way, but everybody knows special players make decent coaches. That was a big play.”
  • Westbrook: “He lives for shots like that. He’s come such a long way. I’m happy for him.”
  • It was Durant’s third career buzzer-beating game winner and his first since a January game against the Knicks last year. His other one came at Atlanta in his rookie season.
  • Durant finished with 30 points, the fourth straight game that Durant has scored at least 30. He added 11 rebounds and six assists. His six turnovers marked the first time he hasn’t finished a game this season with more assists than turnovers.
  • Mavs coach Rick Carlisle on KD: “Right now, he’s probably the best player in the league with what he has been doing in the first four games.”
  • Durant and Westbrook both overshadowed the hand James Harden had in this win. Harden was once again excellent off the bench, scoring 15 points with four rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers. Harden bailed the Thunder out of at least two jams.
  • Those two jams came at the start of the first period and the start of the third and gave clear cut evidence of why Harden should be starting. The Thunder’s starters fell behind 17-5 in the first six minutes. When Harden checked in with 5:20 remaining , the Mavs’ lead was 17-7. At the end of the first period, the Thunder trailed 29-28, and that was only because Jason Terry hit a 3 in the final seconds. Then, the Thunder took a 56-52 halftime lead only to watch its starters surrender it and trail 68-64 by the time Harden re-entered with 5:31 left in the third. It was no coincidence that by the end of the third period, the Thunder had regained a two-point lead.
  • Give Brooks credit for this. Although he subbed Harden in at his normal times, Brooks recognized his team’s need for Harden to be on the floor tonight and stuck with him. After he checked in midway through the first period, Harden didn’t exit the game the entire first half. Harden also played the entire fourth quarter after coming in midway through the third.
  • Consider Sefolosha a starter in name only now. Harden played 35 minutes tonight. Sefolosha played 13. It’d be hard for anyone to complain about the starting lineup from this point on if Brooks keeps up what he did tonight. I’d like to see Brooks stick with whichever guy has it going more rather than sticking to his standard substitution script. The only other feasible gripe one might be able to have is 6 1/2 minutes is still too long of a trial run for Sefolosha if the offense clearly is stuck in mud.
  • Worth noting that I did overhear TNT’s David Aldridge inquire about Sefolosha’s ankle during the game. That could have had something to do with it. Sefolosha was nursing soreness just prior to the start of the regular season.
  • Turnovers. Way too many. Twenty six of them. Durant and Perk both had six. Westbrook had seven again. The Mavs scored 33 points off them tonight. If the Thunder turns it over 10 less times this might have been a blowout.
  • Brendan Haywood is awful.
  • Serge Ibaka had by far his best performance of the year thus far, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. He looked alive throughout for the first time. Although he was solid in Memphis but just didn’t get the minutes. Tonight, he was second behind Durant with 37 minutes. Ibaka had some pretty good minutes on Dirk tonight, and he looks to be figuring out how to better crowd perimeter-oriented 4s like Dirk. It might never be his strong suit, but he’s slowly improving.
  • How ’bout Perk drifting to the perimeter and guarding Dirk? It surprised the heck out of me. But Perk had some success, including the strip on Dirk at the 3-point line that led to Westbrook’s run-out and three-point play. Brooks said Perk can do that now. “He still has toughness and he still has strength, but now he has quickness,” Brooks said. “Perk always had quick hands. But he has quickness. He can move much better. He feels much better…He’s just now feeling good and playing the way that he can play.”
  • Brooks admitted that last year he wouldn’t have put Perk on a player like Dirk. This year, though, Brooks said he’s confident in Perk, Ibaka and Nick Collison’s ability to guard 4s and 5s.
  • I asked Collison after the game tonight how he feels about plus-minus since he’s the Thunder’s resident king of that stat. He said he looks at it and believes in it but acknowledged it has its flaws. “Sometimes, you’re out there and what happens has nothing to do with you,” Collison said. But when I told Collison he was a plus-16 tonight he lit up.
  • Daequan Cook needs a smaller shoe. That’s two straight games that he’s stepped on the out of bounds line while spotting up in the corner for a 3.
  • Before the game, Brooks, Durant and Westbrook all addressed the bench spat that went down last year. You can read John Rohde’s story on it here. I liked best what Brooks said. “I just know that we’re relevant,” he said. “Four years ago, we had the same disputes.”
  • As sort of a house-cleaning nugget, Brooks and Durant both said the arguments stemmed from poor defensive possessions more so than the play in which Sefolosha passed on the open shot.
  • I wrote this as my last nugget following the first preseason game against Dallas. I’ll say it more emphatically here. The Mavs are in trouble. They’re old. They’ve had turnover. They lost their three best defensive players and are no longer dominant defensively. They look to me to be cocky and a tad complacent after winning it all last year. They don’t have anywhere near their same swagger from last year. And they are up against a shortened season that offers little practice time to get everything in place. As I wrote on Dec. 18, that’s a bad, bad mix. They could be toast. Still, good win for the Thunder tonight.
  • Your Thunder just completed a four-games-in-five-night stretch and went 4-0. And the Thunder beat three teams that were projected by most to be pretty darn good clubs. Quite an impressive start to the season and a nice way to build some early confidence and character.
  • Up next: Phoenix on New Year’s Eve.

-DM-

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by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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