The Thunder beat the Rockets 106-98 on Tuesday night in a dramatic tussle between two budding Western Conference rivals. Here are five observations:
1. Defensive turnaround - Maybe all it took was a date with the league’s hottest offense for OKC to finally get its defensive mojo back. Seems like a backwards statement. But when the issue was energy and hustle more than scheme, maybe it was a good time to get a stiff test against a heated rival. It sure brought out the missing ingredient in OKC’s defense. Or at least what’s been lacking since the All-Star break. Houston shot 41 percent overall and 9-of-25 from three. The Thunder’s transition defense — which has been a glaring issue of late — was more committed. Their individual defense more prideful. The results a lot better. Now let’s see if they can sustain that level of play on a consistent basis.
2. **Fireworks** – Can’t think of another regular season (or playoff) game that had this many after-the-whistle skirmishes. The bad blood between these teams is palpable. Each downplayed it after the game, but it was obvious from the tip. And it starts with all the individual rivalries. Russell Westbrook-Patrick Beverley is the most obvious one. It will capture the headlines, for good reason. But you’ve got the building feud between Kevin Durant and Francisco Garcia, stemming from last year’s playoffs, when the Rockets unleashed Garcia’s Beverley-like hounding defense on KD. On Wednesday, it led to a shoving match.
But my favorite of the numerous altercations was between James Harden and Scott Brooks. It came after Steven Adams drilled Harden with a forearm, leading to a flagrant foul call and Harden sprinting into the grill of Adams. As he did, Brooks strolled over and started yelling some things in the direction of his former 6th man (“My mom wouldn’t be proud of what I said,” Brooks admitted). Then Harden started chirping back, telling Brooks ‘I ain’t flopping’, among other things. It’s rare you see a coach get involved in these sorts of things, but it’s the second time we’ve seen Brooks and an opposing player chopping it up (LeBron in Miami). Funny stuff, which just adds to the fireworks.
If you missed it, or just want to experience the dramatics again, here are the highlights from Wednesday’s game, including all the skirmishes:
3. KD - The personal battles and the Russell Westbrook rage and the overall intensity of this game overshadowed what was another MVP-level performance from Kevin Durant. You look up in the first quarter and he’s already got 12. By the middle of the third, he’s put up 25. And by the end of the game, he’s dropped a cool 42. He’s such a smooth operator that his offensive game seems immune to the outside noise. While all the drama builds and all the extracurriculars near a boiling point, Durant’s jumpers maintains its soothing feathery touch. It’s a calming presence in an amped up environment and always such a lethal weapon in ‘must score’ possessions. Tuesday night was his 11th 40-point game of the season, more than double Carmelo Anthony (5), who is the next closest in the NBA. It was his 29th consecutive game of 25-plus points. Via Bleacher Report, he holds the two longest such streaks since the 1988-89 season:
4. Closing time - With 8:03 left in the game, Scott Brooks put Russell Westbrook in for Reggie Jackson. For the rest of the game, he didn’t make a sub. It left Brooks with a closing lineup of Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Fisher and Butler. His three big-money players and two of his most trusted veterans. Seems like a crunch-time lineup we may be seeing a ton in the future, especially in tense games where defense and trust likely trumps all in Brooks’ mind. And on Tuesday night, it was an effective five-man group. KD was hot, Westbrook was composed, Ibaka (12 pts, 16 rebs) was cleaning up the glass and Fisher and Butler provided steady defense and needed spacing, both hitting a big jumper down the stretch. The Thunder lead was 84-74 when the group started playing together. It was 106-98 at the finish. The job was done.
5. Post defense - Steven Adams was big-time on defense. All things considered, maybe his best performance since stepping into a starting role. All night, he played steady post defense on Dwight Howard, making everything tough on the talented big man. And Adams had his highlights, too. In the second quarter, he had an impressive block on a Howard up and under, leading to a Westbrook euro-layup, which got the crowd going. Plus, Adams’ antagonistic style of play seemed to get to Howard. Twice, the Rockets big man (who struggled to a 4-of-12 shooting night for only nine points) shoved Adams after a rebound, earning a pair of loose ball fouls that placed him into foul trouble and a technical when his frustration boiled over. Important game from Adams. Plus, he provided us with this hilarious picture (AP photo):
Steve Adams angry, Steve Adams smash
-My favorite guy to watch during those on-court beefs is Hasheem Thabeet. The dude just starts yapping at everybody. Most of the time, I’m not sure who he’s even talking to. And I’m not sure he does either. As the teams gather during a heated exchange, he’ll walk toward halfcourt and start yelling down toward the opposing bench. Then you look down there and there’s no one engaging back. Just Hasheem letting off some steam. The perfect back-of-the-rotation guy. He has six fouls when you need him. And, when you don’t, he’ll wildly celebrate any positive play and blindly defend you in any altercation.
-Weird game for Nick Collison. Entered in the first quarter, picked up three fouls in two minutes and didn’t see the floor again.
-Jeremy Lamb also only played three minutes. His playing time continues to be slashed.
-Derek Fisher had five assists.
-Francisco Garcia is a Thunder killer. Has been since last season’s playoffs. On Tuesday, he had 11 points in 17 minutes (not sure why Kevin McHale didn’t play him more), drilling three of his four 3s and badgering Kevin Durant around the court. Plus, his pesky defensive style enticed a push and technical from KD in the second half.
-Durant now has 12 technicals this season. His 16th would mean an automatic one-game suspension.
-How about the line from Air Congo: 12 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks and this photo (via NewsOK’s Sarah Phipps):
-Key win for the Thunder tonight. They now hold the tiebreaker over the Spurs and Rockets. OKC is 3-0 against both this season.
-Up next: Lake Show on Thursday. Let’s see if the Thunder can hold Jodie Meeks under 40.