In place of Darnell Mayberry’s traditional postgame nuggets…
1. Russell Mania – The analytic hoops world has been taken over by efficiency numbers and the advanced metrics craze. It’s understandable. And so useful. But it often can’t tell the whole story. Take a look at Russell Westbrook’s past six games. He’s shooting under 44 percent from the field and 20 percent (6-of-30) from three. Bad, right? Except that Westbrook may be in the midst of one of his best career stretches. Forget the percentages. Just look at his ridiculous per game averages in the past six: 21.1 points, 9.8 assists, 9.1 rebounds. Those are eye-popping, crazy, Oscar Robertson-type numbers. And only in a minor way do they tangibly explain his current impact on the court. He’s just been controlling games with his end-to-end energy and non-stop motor. Now if he would just stop jacking those long, early-in-the-shot-clock threes…
3. Defense - More than anything, the Thunder’s recent hot streak (15 wins in 16 games) has been about defense. OKC is extremely long and athletic, able to disrupt, deflect and distort opposing players and offensive sets. There’s so much versatility up and down the roster that Scott Brooks is able to matchup when necessary and employ screen-switching whenever he sees fit (like he did late in the Denver game, throwing the Nuggets out of whack). Per 100 possessions, the Thunder is giving up 97.5 points, fourth fewest in the NBA behind Indiana, Chicago and San Antonio, three famously great defensive clubs. And during this recent streak, here are the opponent’s field goal percentages by game: 35, 48, 41, 39, 39, 44, 41, 39, 44, 37, 40, 35, 42, 41, 45, 41. You defend like that, coupled with a superstar-driven offense that’s bound to put up points, and you’re going to win a lot of games.
3. Russell’s rebounding - His recent play deserves a bonus section, this one devoted solely to his proficient rebounding. I know it’s been crazy lately (55 in the past six games, 25 in the last two). But this isn’t a recent trend. We’re talking about the NBA’s leading rebounder from the point guard position each of the past three seasons. And at more than 5.7 per game this year, he’s running away with his fourth straight crown (Chris Paul’s 4.7 rpg is the closest). For OKC, it’s such a luxury. And it’s one of the main reasons that, as a team, the Thunder lead the NBA at 47.3 rebounds per game.
KD on Westbrook’s rebounding: “He’s just a freak athlete. He’s 6-3, big, strong, a great rebounder for his position. It does a lot for us because he gets off the boards, pushes the break and gets everybody easy baskets.”
4. Bench play - Tuesday night’s game pitted two of the NBA’s best second-units. And in the battle of the benches, Oklahoma City won. Just take a look at the plus/minuses: Thunder bench +41, Nuggets bench -69. OKC got contributions from everywhere — Nick Collison 8 pts, 6 rebs, 2 blks / Reggie Jackson 8 pts, 2 rebs, 2 asts, 2 stls / Jeremy Lamb 9 pts, 6 rebs, 3 asts, 2 stls, 1 blk — while the Nuggets got a whole lotta Nate Robinson and nothing else. Said Denver coach Brian Shaw: “This was our first night in a while that our second-unit kind of got outplayed by the other team’s second-unit.” Chalk another one up for the Thunder goon squad.
5. Denver - I arrived in Denver on Tuesday morning and had most of the day to check out the city. And what a time to be here. I packed for snowy 10-degree weather and showed up to 66 degrees and sunny. What a nice city, too. It’s very clean and unique, sitting in the shadow of the Rockies. I checked out the outside of Peyton’s Palace (aka Mile High), which was sweet, and hope to catch Coors Field on the way out of town tomorrow. Found a good spot to eat (Jack-n-Grill, home of the 7-pound breakfast burrito) and then settled in for the game. The Pepsi Center was nice, with a near sellout crowd that was vocal throughout the night. Cool environment overall.
-Bird and Magic. Wilt and Russell. MJ and the Pistons. All great basketball rivalries. But I’m not sure any compare to the budding feud between Russell Westbrook and Rocky, star Thunder point guard and cocky Nuggets mascot. You remember the ‘No Queso for You!’ blocked shot incident last season, followed by Rocky’s eventual revenge. Well, apparently, time does not heal all wounds. The two remain mortal enemies, as shown moments before tip on Tuesday night, when Rocky sauntered toward halfcourt, spotted Russell Westbrook at the end of the court and engaged in a lengthy staredown. The drama!!!!
-Serge Ibaka had a fantastic first quarter: 5-of-5 shooting for 13 points. He cooled down the rest of the way, finishing with 17 and 10 rebounds, but the hot start was big.
-The Nuggets have given up 30+ to an opponent five times this season. Three of those: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
-Kevin Durant had his 12th 30-point game of the season. No one else in the NBA has more than seven.
-With 10 minutes left, in a time he usually shines, Reggie Jackson sliced through the lane for a silky layup. But in the process, his shoe fell off, forcing him to quickly foul in order to get it back on. But after the foul, Scott Brooks immediately pulled him from the game. Jackson, sitting on eight points, didn’t reenter until there was less than a minute left, in garbage time, with no chance to extend his double-digit point streak to 10 games. Tough break.
Brooks on the incident: “His shoe wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to foul again because he was getting his shoe. So I wanted Russell to sub in. Then the momentum of the game, I just never got him back.”
-What’s new? Steven Adams’ physical yet emotionless style of play angered another opponent, drawing a silly flagrant and ejection. By my unoffical count, that’s the 134th time this season. This one was by Denver’s Jordan Hamilton (seen below). Side note: A Twitter follower sent me this potential nickname for Adams -> Stone Cold Steve Adams. Gotta say, I love it.
-Brian Shaw seems like a great coach and his team is playing well this year. But my God, why Evan Fournier ever? In the first meeting, he put him in the post on Kevin Durant. Immediate points. On Tuesday, he put Fournier on Westbrook in the second quarter. The result: Two immediate fouls and then a breakaway dunk where Fournier looked completely lost. Check out the play: