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Darnell Mayberry's Thunder notebook nuggets from win against Denver

by Darnell Mayberry Published: November 19, 2013

Chalk up another comeback win for OKC…

  • There’s something to be said for teams that win games that they have no business being in. That’s what the Thunder has done through its first 10, the latest example coming Monday night against Denver.
  • The Thunder trailed for 45 minutes, 43 seconds in this one. The deficit was as large as 14 and stood at 12 early in the final period. But once again, the Thunder found a way.
  • “We’re very prideful, and we’re going to keep fighting until the last possession,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That’s always been a trademark.”
  • Brooks continued. “But we can’t turn it on in the second half,” he said. “It’s disappointing. We have to correct that.”
  • Five of OKC’s seven wins could be classified as games the team has survived. Games that probably should have gone the other way but somehow, someway, the Thunder pulled it out.
  • There was the blown 15-point, third quarter lead in the opener at Utah, the unexpected dogfight against a pesky Phoenix club in the home opener, a largely forgettable night by the starters at Detroit, the disgusting defense against Washington and, finally, tonight’s dreadful performance against Denver.
  • Much of the problem is the Thunder has performed well on both ends only once in its first 10 games. Not surprisingly, that effort resulted in a 14-point win over Dallas. The other nine have either been great offense and yucky defense, or terrific defense and offensive offense.
  • Again, it’s a good thing that the Thunder is winning these games now without playing its best ball. As I’ve said before, that’s what good teams do.
  • Russell Westbrook said winning under the current circumstances shows the team’s toughness. “I think we’re a tough group of guys, and we take on the challenge, especially when the game gets tight and gets close” he said. “We want to win games.”
  • Westbrook was asked if the Thunder has a switch it can flip to get going. “I don’t know, man. I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “But I know we don’t want to lose at the same time, especially at home and in front of our fans. Maybe at home we may have some type of button we press but I don’t know.”
  • Nick Collison on the supposed switch: “It shouldn’t be. I think we’ve learned that that doesn’t really work for us long term. I’d like to see us play better, and I think we will.”
  • Let me say this about the Thunder owning and perhaps using a so-called switch. They’d have to have some nerve. This team is a long way from being that good. It may work at times in the regular season, against the scrappy Suns, or the woeful Wizards. But there’s so much about this team, so many areas, that can be improved that it would be a shame for anyone in the locker room to dare think they have reached the point where they can flip a switch. With that said, there are 72 games remaining and plenty of time to iron out kinks.
  • Kevin Durant did make a good point about the switch. “We don’t have no choice,” he said. “You’re down (12) points in the fourth. You don’t have no choice (but) to give in or flip a switch and try to fight this thing out, and that’s what we did.”
  • If there is a switch, it was clear that it was in the “off” position to start the game. The Nuggets scored 39 points in the opening period, an opponent high this season for any quarter. Keep in mind Milwaukee two nights earlier scored just 40 in the first half.
  • Denver exploited just about everything in the Thunder’s defense in that first period. Transition defense. Paint protection. Perimeter defense. Pick-and-roll defense. Rebounding. You name it.
  • And the Nuggets have never met a shot they didn’t like. Five of their first 13 shots were 3-point tries.
  • The best thing about the first quarter by far was Serge Ibaka’s footwork on a post move. He caught a pass near the free throw line, pivoted and faked left, spun right, hit J.J. Hickson with an up and under, took one dribble and flushed one on Kenneth Faried.
  • Brooks subbed Durant out with 4:12 remaining in the first quarter. He inserted Reggie Jackson for him, forming a Westbrook-Jackson backcourt for nearly the remainder of the period. Since it was such an early exit, the earliest of the season for KD, I thought Brooks would bring KD back with a minute or two left in the quarter and start him for the second period. But he didn’t. It’s clear Brooks is still tinkering and trying new things. I’ll write more about his evolution in this department for Tuesday/Wednesday.
  • Westbrook got off to a terrible start, missing six of his first seven shots. Because of his early struggles, he took responsibility for the team’s slow start. “We can’t continue to do that and put pressure on ourselves,” he said. “We got to start the game better. Most of that is my fault. So we got to start the game a lot better.”
  • While he was struggling with his shot, though, Westbrook continued to make an impact in other areas. When he was 1-for-7, he had three assists and two rebounds. One play late in the first half really illustrated his dent on this game. It came with 1:01 remaining in the second quarter. Westbrook flew in for an incredible offensive rebound and tipped in an Ibaka miss. It brought the Thunder within eight. Westbrook was 2-for-10 prior to that energy play.
  • Seconds later, Westbrook sunk a 3-pointer from straight away with 4.1 seconds remaining in the half, capping a 7-0 run to end the quarter and pull the Thunder within three at the half.
  • The momentum the Thunder built just before half quickly vanished in the third quarter. Denver outscored OKC 29-23 in the third period.
  • In the Thunder’s three losses, OKC has been outscored 92-61 in the third quarter.
  • I still can’t understand why Nate Robinson wasn’t used as a second spark plug alongside James Harden when he was in town.
  • If the Nuggets could make free throws, they could have blown out the Thunder on its home court. Instead, they made just 25 of 43 foul shots. They missed nine in the second half, including six in the pivotal fourth quarter.
  • Ibaka and Faried both had quiet nights. Combined, they had 11 points and 13 rebounds. Didn’t see that coming.
  • While they were battling, Westbrook and Hickson were collecting all the rebounds. They combined for 31 boards, Westbrook hauling in a team-high 12.
  • I didn’t like how the Thunder reverted to isolations for Ibaka in the post tonight. He had at least three attempts that originated in the post on isolations. And he wasn’t successful on any after that gorgeous move he had early on. Even that was more of a broken play than a designed call.
  • But Ibaka’s work on the glass — five rebounds in the fourth quarter — was huge. He kept possessions alive with three enormous offensive rebounds, and he would have had a fourth had he not been called for an over-the-back violation.
  • Ibaka also had four assists, tying a career high and capping a sneaky good game that you wouldn’t think he performed well in had you just compared his final line to his statistical production from the previous six.
  • Brooks waited until 3:01 to insert Jackson in the third quarter. I’m sure he’ll tell you Jackson still got 24 minutes, but this is what Brooks used to do with Harden that drove me nuts. It’s not a matter of how many minutes a player ends up with at the end of the night, it’s when those minutes come. And Jackson checked in only after the Thunder’s offense had stalled and the Nuggets had constructed an 11-point lead.
  • While Jackson was stuck on the bench, the Thunder mustered just 11 points in the first nine minutes of the third. OKC went 2-for-9 in the first 4:46 of the quarter before replacing Kendrick Perkins with Collison and, later, subbing Jeremy Lamb for Ibaka and Perry Jones III for Thabo Sefolosha. So the Thunder’s best bench player was the fourth player off the bench when the team was stuck in a rut. Again, I think Brooks is tinkering early in the season and that’s a good sign. But if this is happening in February, there’s a problem.
  • Two more things about the point in time that Jackson subbed in: 1) the Thunder was 5-for-18 when Jackson checked in. Westbrook and Durant had taken 10 of the Thunder’s 18 shots. They clearly needed some help. 2) If Jackson isn’t going to check in until that late in the quarter, he needs to play the rest of the game. And to Brooks’ credit, Jackson essentially did, subbing situationally only in the final four seconds when the Thunder needed defense for offense.
  • With that said, tonight was a bad time for Brooks to play Jackson the entire fourth quarter. He should have stuck Lamb in there. Jackson wasn’t a threat when the ball swung to him on the perimeter, and when he had the ball in his hands he basically had to fire it right back to Durant or Westbrook. It took away his biggest strength while exposing his biggest weakness. In the end, the Thunder got away with it.
  • We’re seeing the Thunder have lots of success with crunch time lineups of two point guards or three guards. We saw a unit that included Westbrook, Jackson and Lamb/Sefolosha mount a comeback at Golden State, Westbrook and Fisher pull away from Milwaukee and Westbrook, Jackson and Derek Fisher close it out tonight.
  • Brooks wasted little to no time in praising Fish’s effort again. Two nights after calling him the “unsung hero” of Saturday’s win at Milwaukee, Brooks again pointed to Fish’s production as being a big key. “In that fourth quarter, we really locked in and did a much better job,” Brooks said. “We played inspired basketball for one another, and I think Fish was a huge part of that. You just got to love guys that play with everything they have. You can’t say enough about his effort. His effort turned that game around.”
  • And with that, the bromance is back on. That’s now two straight in which Fish has played all 12 fourth-quarter minutes.
  • Westbrook and Durant are really what turned the game around. They represented the closers Denver (still?) thinks it can win without. The two combined for 24 of the Thunder’s 32 fourth-quarter points. They produced three more points than the Nuggets in the final frame.
  • Durant: “It’s kind of pick your poison.”
  • Durant hit a huge 3 with 1:26 remaining to put the Thunder ahead 108-105. He had missed his previous four 3-point attempts in the period and unleashed an unexpected celebration when he got that shot to fall. He posed at the top of the arc, leaning back, ever so slightly, legs spread, and did a shoulder shimmy.
  • “That was a ‘Finally’ shimmy,” said Westbrook.
  • “Finally, I made a shot,” Durant explained. “I had, like, three wide open 3s that rimmed in and out for me. And I just wanted to hit a big shot for my team. I guess that’s the only thing that came to mind.”
  • Two possessions later, Westbrook turned the corner past Ty Lawson and froze Hickson with a filthy, nasty inside-out dribble before getting to the cup for a layup. It put the Thunder ahead by four, its largest lead of the night.
  • Some questionable officiating took place, most notably a phantom foul on Westbrook against Lawson at halfcourt with 3.5 seconds remaining. No need to go into great detail. Down three, it gave the Nuggets a chance to tie or win the game.
  • I loved Brooks’ decision to foul prior to that, though, while up 113-110 with 6.2 seconds left. Don’t even let Denver get a good look at a 3.
  • After Lawson made the first and intentionally missed the second free throw following the phantom foul, the ball went out of bounds on Collison, giving Denver the chance to tie with a 2 or win it with a 3. Denver, shockingly, went for the tie. And Ibaka totally got away with holding Timofey Mozgov on the final inbounds pass, a lob intended for Mozgov. The ball trickled out to the 3-point line and Hickson had to throw up a desperation heave. It missed badly, and the Thunder escaped. Again.
  • Up next: Clippers on Thursday

-DM-

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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