They claimed Tuesday’s difference had nothing to do with the opponent.
They claimed that Patrick Beverley’s annoying presence and play didn’t fire them up and spark a much-needed defensive turnaround.
The Thunder, to a man, claimed that the inspired performance we saw inside Chesapeake Energy Arena had everything to do with them and nothing to do with the Houston Rockets, a rising Western Conference contender and the hottest team in basketball over the past month and a half.
“We was already ready to go,” insisted Russell Westbrook following the Thunder’s impressive 106-98 win. “I mean, we lost two in a row.”
How about we just say facing the feisty Rockets didn’t hurt?
After a string of disappointing defensive efforts over the past three weeks, including two straight weekend road losses at Phoenix and against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder reverted to a more familiar clamp-down style and put an end to Houston’s five-game winning streak. The transformation took place the moment Beverley reignited the bad blood between these two teams midway through the opening period.
In a similar fashion to the questionable play from Game 2 of last year’s postseason series, the Rockets’ point guard banged his body against Westbrook as he was motioning for a timeout near the Thunder’s bench. In their first meeting since that April night, it took just six minutes for the two to have to be separated. But the incident immediately inspired the Thunder even more.
Kevin Durant responded by scoring eight straight Thunder points to help OKC turn a four-point deficit into a two-point lead. He contributed 10 of his game-high 42 points in those final six minutes of the period to give the Thunder a 26-24 lead entering the second quarter, and OKC turned up the defensive intensity to keep the run-and-gun Rockets in check the rest of the first half.
The Thunder walked into halftime with a 56-41 lead after holding Houston to 35.1 percent shooting. At one point late in the second quarter, the Rockets had nearly as many turnovers (eight) as made field goals (nine).
Unlike many of the previous eight games out of the All-Star break, the Thunder displayed focus and commitment to defense, getting back in transition, closing out on shooters, helping teammates when beat, closing out possessions with rebounds and showing communication and second and third efforts that haven’t been seen consistently since early February.
Perhaps most impressive was the Thunder’s team defense on Dwight Howard, who was held to nine points on 4-for-12 shooting with 10 rebounds. With customary starter Kendrick Perkins still sidelined, rookie center Steven Adams started on Howard and was solid making his catches tough and contesting his shots. Hasheem Thabeet, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka then tag-teamed to help limit the Rockets’ All-Star center.
“It’s one game, but I thought we did a great job locking up to start the game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “The physicality that makes us a good basketball team was good tonight. The toughness that we brought to the floor for 48 minutes is what makes us a good team. And we just have to build from here.”
A rematch against the Lakers looms Thursday. It’ll be a chance for the Thunder to atone for Sunday’s embarrassing showing inside Staples Center, but more importantly to prove that this Tuesday was not a one-night fluke.
The Rockets, now 15-3 since Jan. 28, entered the game averaging 112.5 points since the break, with three of their past five wins coming against Miami, Indiana and Portland. With the Thunder yielding 110.2 points per game, 10.6 3-pointers and 47.4 percent shooting since the break, Tuesday’s game easily could have turned ugly.
Instead, the Thunder showed a renewed pride in stopping its opponent.
And judging by the attitudes in the Thunder’s dressing room after the game, Tuesday may have been the first step toward OKC figuring out how to get out of this uncharacteristic funk.
“We stayed in front of our man for the most part,” said Durant. “We helped each other out a lot, better than we’ve been doing before, and we made them shoot tough shots…We covered every aspect of our defense.”