Two nights ago, when Scott Brooks and Kevin Durant summed up the Thunder’s shocking loss to Atlanta with words like breakdowns and unacceptable, it became clear what type of performance could be expected on Tuesday night.
Well, let’s be honest, the Toronto Raptors also were on deck, coming to town for their annual visit that generally doesn’t end well for our neighbors to the north.
In a 108-88 blowout win inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder regained its much-desired defensive disposition after falling to the Hawks largely because of a rather disappointing effort on that end.
“I thought the start was a big part of our win tonight,” Brooks said.
The last time out, Brooks had to blast his team’s performance after watching his players allow 30 points in the opening period and 57 in the second half. On Tuesday night, however, his team turned it around and limited Toronto to a 17-point first quarter.
“I thought that was a good indicator,” Brooks said, “leaving that first quarter knowing we played good defensive basketball, solid basketball.”
After hovering around 34 percent shooting for much of the game, the Raptors finished at just 35.7 percent thanks to a renewed commitment to ball pressure on the perimeter, led by Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha, and much better paint protection, captained by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and a rapidly improving Hasheem Thabeet.
The Thunder tallied 10 steals and nine blocked shots while out-rebounding the Raptors 46-37. Oklahoma City also thwarted Toronto’s fast-break game, as the run-and-gun Raptors scored 13 of their 19 transition points in the second half — long after the game had been decided.
“We started the game off with a lot of intensity, and that’s what we need every game from here on out is to start the game off with a lot of energy,” said Durant.
No starter needed to play a single second of the fourth quarter after the Thunder took a 22-point lead into the final frame. It was the type of night most expected the Thunder to enjoy against a Hawks team playing without leading man Josh Smith. But instead of sporting a 3-1 record and an unblemished mark at home, the Thunder evened its record to 2-2, 2-1 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We had a tough loss last game,” Brooks said. “But we’re not a team that’s going to put our head down and run from what we need to work on. And if we have a good win, we’re not going to all of a sudden pump our chest out and say ‘You know what, we’re good now.’ We’re a solid team.”
The Thunder took control of the game with two first-half runs that led to what proved to be insurmountable double-digit deficits for Toronto. Both, impressively, came at the end of quarters. The first was a 15-3 spurt that turned a 15-12 lead into a 15-point cushion for OKC with 1:45 remaining in the opening quarter. But the game changed for good after the Raptors later used a 9-2 run to pull within 11, and then the Thunder went on a 17-7 surge that built a 21-point lead with 28.3 seconds remaining in the first half.
Oklahoma City never trailed in the second half and went on to lead by as many as 29.
“It was a good lesson,” Durant said of Sunday’s setback. “We’ve got to come out with a lot of energy. And tonight we did that.”
Who knew Thabeet would be the spark plug?
The former No. 2 overall pick out of Connecticut scored 10 points with five rebounds and two blocked shots before fouling out in his 23rd minute. Brooks used the 7-foot-2 center as the first man off the bench, ironically succeeding the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, who he hasn’t lived up to despite being taken one spot ahead of James Harden in the 2009 draft.
Against both smaller and more athletic players, such as Dominic McGuire, and more traditional centers, like Aaron Gray and Jonas Valanciunas, Thabeet made an impact. He clogged the paint, controlled the boards and, with growing confidence, even talked a little smack.
“He’s a much improved player from the last time I saw him,” said Kevin Martin, who teamed with Thabeet in Houston for parts of the past two seasons. “I don’t know what’s in this water up here, but it’s good. He’s been tremendous. I’m sure he’ll keep on being motivated to play like that.”
Can he inspire his teammates to follow suit?