Thunder 92, Hornets 88
Nuggets from my notebook from Wednesday’s win over the Hornets.
- Three things are all you need to know about this game. They are what defined this contest and ultimately made it more competitive than it perhaps should have been. Ball movement. Missed shots. Small ball. In short, the Thunder didn’t move the ball well at all in the first half, which led to an out of tune offense and one missed shot after another. Following that first-half fiasco, the Thunder finally played small, allowing it to defend better, pick up the pace and generate easier baskets. That, in a nutshell, was the ballgame.
- Kevin Durant wasn’t bad, either.
- Durant scored a game-high 35 points on 11-for-20 shooting. The other four starters combined to score 29 points on 10 of 30 shooting. KD carried the Thunder’s offense tonight and that’s sort of easy to overlook seeing as how awful OKC’s offense was in this one.
- The Thunder trailed 19-17 after one quarter. The 17 points became a season low for points in the opening period. At halftime, the Thunder trailed 44-36 while shooting 30.6 percent. That also became a season low for points in any half. The reason was clear. The ball movement was about as bad as it’s been all year. Chew on this. In the first game at New Orleans, the Thunder racked up 31 assists, a season-high. That led to 54.1 percent shooting and a 15-point blowout that wasn’t as competitive as the final margin indicated. In the second game at New Orleans, the Thunder registered 21 assists, shot 50.6 percent for the game and cruised to a 21-point victory. Tonight, the Thunder had five assists at halftime and couldn’t buy a bucket. That was a byproduct of hero ball. The ball movement was there at the very start of the game. But it quickly vanished. On far too many possessions, Thunder players tried to do it alone. It led to wild shots and, as a result, the worst offensive half we’ve seen this season.
- But the No. 1 key to the game was small ball. It took Scott Brooks 33 1/2 minutes to move to it despite the Hornets basically begging to get blown out by doing it themselves. New Orleans trotted out a three point guard lineup for much of the night and, for whatever reason, Brooks was hesitant to match up with it even though the Thunder couldn’t stop the Hornets with its conventional unit or, more surprisingly, score against them. And we all know how much more potent the Thunder’s offense is when it plays small. Instead, we were treated to Kendrick Perkins covering guys like Austin Rivers for large stretches. It was sheer silliness. Not only was the Thunder not benefiting from Perkins and Serge Ibaka as defenders against the Hornets small unit, but the Thunder of course couldn’t go to its big men at the other end to force New Orleans out of that lineup. It nearly cost the Thunder this game.
- Here’s where I give Brooks a pass. This was game 22 of the regular season, a Wednesday night game against the Western-Conference worst Hornets. If ever there’s a time to try things out it was tonight. With that said, if Brooks’ plan was to dictate the matchup and dominant while playing his style of ball, he’s got every right to do that. Obviously it didn’t work. But, again, if that was the goal then I get it.
- One potential danger of going small: getting bullied on the boards. But that wasn’t an issue tonight, even when the Thunder did go small.
- Brooks on why he stuck with his big lineup: “We had a lot of success doing a lot of things this year, playing big, small, with different combinations on the floor. That’s the fun part of coaching this team. We’ve got opportunities to change it up game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter. But our big lineup is really good, Perk and Serge protecting the basket and getting rebounds and helping our guards guard in pick and rolls. But there’s going to be times in an 82-game season you have to change things up, and I thought Kevin was going to give us the extra offensive energy and efficiency that we needed when he was at the 4.”
- When Brooks finally went small with 2:31 left in the third quarter, the Thunder trailed 60-50. Small ball ended up outscoring the Hornets 42-28 the rest of the way.
- More evidence of how ineffective the big lineup was: Brian Roberts, a 27-year old rookie who went undrafted in 2008, scored 16 points. Perkins and Ibaka combined for 13. Point being, again, the Thunder wasn’t stopping them and OKC couldn’t take advantage of its bigger bodies at all in the post.
- Eric Maynor on his bigs trying to defend the Hornets’ guards: “It’s hard, man. That’s with anybody if you get a 6-10 guy on you and you’re 6-2. That’s what they kept trying to do, trying to flatten our people out and trying to make plays that way.”
- Durant on the impact of the Hornets’ small lineup: “They were making shots. They were spreading us out…and hitting tough shots over us. Once you get their confidence going early in the game, then the basket starts to get wider for them.”
- The streak of 100 point games obviously ended tonight, at 12 games.
- The winning streak, however, is alive and well and now stands at nine games, a franchise best in the OKC era.
- Reggie Jackson got a chance to show what he can do a little bit tonight. Even if it was clear Brooks had to go small, I don’t think anybody thought it’d be Jackson who Brooks summoned. And that includes Jackson! “Not at all,” Jackson said when asked if he had any idea he was going to get his number called tonight. “If you noticed, I think he probably called it a few times and I was just kind of grounded and stuck on the bench. I thought I heard my name but I wasn’t really sure.”
- Brooks went from refusing to play small to kicking down the door of his own doghouse and freeing Jackson. Strange game indeed.
- Jackson checked in with the Thunder trailing 62-52 with 1:46 left in the third. But he immediately provided a spark and gave the Thunder the emotional lift it needed to close this thing out. He hit a rhythmic 3. He drove and hit a spinning layup in the lane. He competed on defense and on the boards and turned the game around with his energy. He finished with five points, two rebounds and a blocked shot in 11 minutes. “Give him credit,” Brooks said. “He stayed ready and he had an opportunity tonight. He had a big 3, but I thought his defense was really terrific tonight.”
- I fully expect Jackson to go back to being buried on the bench for the next 10 games.
- Durant on Jackson: “Reggie’s been here for a year now and he knows what it takes. He’s not pouting that he’s not playing. He’s coming in working hard every single day just waiting on his chance and coach gave him a chance tonight. That shows how much he believes in all of us. He would have did that with anybody. And Reggie was the guy that came in and he gave us a really, really big spark. I’m really proud of him; his defensive intensity, hitting shots and just playing with a lot of energy. It was a good game for us. I’m glad he got that opportunity. Hopefully he gets more down the line.”
- Durant did something really cool that might have gone unnoticed. With the third quarter clock winding down, he passed it to Jackson in the right corner for a 3. It wasn’t the best pass. You want Durant taking his man one-on-one 10 times out of 10 in that situation. But Durant read the situation beautifully. He knew Jackson just drilled a 3 and was bringing the crowd back into the game. He knew Jackson has been banished on the bench. You just got the sense that he made that pass for Jackson, for his spirits, and for the crowd. The shot was a tough one, a rainbow Jackson had to launch over a defender. It still nearly dropped. If it did, Durant would have deserved all the credit for understanding the moment.
- Jackson’s defense was indeed solid. He got lost at least once, allowing a 3-pointer. But without looking at the film, I’m not ready to say it was his fault. The Thunder gave up four straight 3s in the fourth quarter during a stretch in which its defense wasn’t particularly in sync. I did, however, like Jackson’s on-ball pressure. He was a pest in the backcourt and even on one post-up attempt by Xavier Henry. One thing that Jackson probably needs to work on, though, is second and third efforts defensively. Vasquez drove the lane against pretty good defense by Jackson, who had him stopped. But Jackson just dropped his hands and kind of gave up on the play instead of applying even more pressure. It could have led to a bad pass or a contested shot. Instead, Vasquez had a pretty clean look at a 5-footer.
- There was a ton of jawing going on tonight, and yet hardly any of it came from Russell Westbrook or Vasquez. Rather, it was KD who did the majority of the gum-bumping. After throwing down a breakaway dunk, Durant uncharacteristically looked right at the Hornets bench and began barking. Hornets assistant Randy Ayers even motioned for Durant to go on back down court. Durant turned and talked more smack after hitting his next shot.
- We’re still not done with the Hornets. The fourth and final meeting is Feb. 27 inside The Peake. It’s another Wednesday night. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your view, this one turned into a pretty entertaining affair. The Hornets, despite playing on the road in a second night of a back-to-back, battled valiantly. Durant was Durant. Brooks made the right move. And an unexpected protagonist emerged in Jackson. Not bad for a Wednesday night game against the worst team in the West.
- Up next. Sacramento on Friday.
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