ORLANDO, Fla. — Scott Brooks said it at shootaround.
“They're not going to give up,” the Thunder coach said of the Orlando Magic. “And that's a good trait to have with a good group of young players. They're going to keep fighting for 48 minutes, and they put themselves in a position to make it a close game because of their effort and commitment to not giving up.”
Turns out it wasn't just talk.
The struggling Magic gave the Thunder a pretty good scare Friday night before their youth ultimately backfired and allowed Oklahoma City to get out of Orlando with a much-needed 97-89 victory.
The win, which Kevin Durant two days earlier said his team must have, snapped a two-game skid and put the Thunder back on pace to finish with 60 wins.
“We knew we were going to be in a fight,” Brooks said after his team escaped. “That's how they play. That's a very, very good team that's feisty. Their record does not speak to what they're going to be.”
Orlando fell to 18-52 and dropped its 24th game in 28 outings. So to see the Thunder suddenly in a street fight was shocking to say the least, especially with the Magic missing two of its best players.
Nikola Vucevic, who hung 21 points and 14 rebounds on the Thunder in the last meeting, was ruled out with a concussion and missed his second straight game. Leading scorer Arron Afflalo then had to be helped off the court three minutes into the second quarter after injuring his hamstring.
The Thunder built a 15-point first-half lead and appeared ready to cruise to victory. But the Magic made it a game in the second half, starting the third period on a quick 10-0 spurt that supplied the Eastern Conference's second-worst team all the confidence it needed against the defending Western Conference champion.
“In the third quarter, they got hot on us,” Durant said. “But I think we took their punch and were able to get some stops and make some big plays in the fourth.”
Orlando tied it up twice in the third quarter before entering the final period trailing 70-66. The Magic still wouldn't go away. An 8-4 run to start the fourth quarter resulted in the third tie of the night, and there would be three more over the next five minutes as a seesaw battle ensued.
But in the final six minutes, the Thunder stepped up its defense and sealed the win.
Nearly each Magic drive to the basket was met by two and three defenders and a hand that batted shot attempts back where they came from. Durant had one. Kendrick Perkins had one. Russell Westbrook had one. Serge Ibaka rejected two.
“They hit some 3s in that third that got them over the top and that kind of put us on edge a little bit. That's when they started to drive to the rim,” Durant said. “But we stayed solid with closing up the paint and peeling out to the 3-point line. Those guys were driving and we just contained them at the rim and rebounded the ball.”
Westbrook and Durant combined to score 21 of the Thunder's 27 points in the fourth quarter, including a stretch in which Westbrook scored or assisted on 10 straight.
Durant made a pair of foul shots with 39.1 seconds remaining to give the Thunder a 92-88 lead, and that's when Orlando's inexperience got the best of it.
Tobias Harris attempted to inbound the ball from just past half-court but turned it over on a bad pass. Westbrook split a pair of free throws at the other end to push the lead to five, and Jameer Nelson missed a tightly contested 3-pointer over Perkins.
“When the game gets close like that you've got to find a way to will your team to wins and find a way to get a victory,” said Westbrook. “I think that's what we did tonight.”