The Thunder returned to games that count Wednesday night, and we all felt the same thing we felt the last time the Thunder took the court. Wish Russell Westbrook was out there.
The Thunder beat the Jazz 101-98 in Salt Lake City. Some positive things developed. Some worrisome trends continued. Here’s what I saw:
* Scotty Brooks played his B team in its entirety in both halves. And the bench was spectacular in the first half, outscoring Utah 13-7 over a span of 5:45. The full B team played just 24 seconds together in the second half, thanks to Nick Collison getting his fifth foul. But the bench wasn’t nearly as effective with one of the starters playing alongside.
Collison replaced Kendrick Perkins with 4:10 left in the third quarter and OKC up 76-64. With 3:13 left, Steven Adams replaced Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb replaced Kevin Durant. At that point, the lead had grown to 79-65. At 1:48, Derek Fisher replaced Reggie Jackson, with OKC up 79-69. At 1:23, Perry Jones III came in for Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder leading 81-69. The five-man unit played 24 seconds before Ibaka returned, with the score 81-71. Durant returned 52 seconds after that and the score 81-73. At the start of the fourth quarter, Durant and Ibaka played with Adams, Lamb and Fisher. Disaster is too strong a word, but “ineffective” isn’t strong enough. When Jackson returned at 7:55, the Thunder lead was just 87-83 and the game was dicey the rest of the way.
* Interesting plus/minus. Perkins and Thabo each had +9. I didn’t see that coming from Perk, even after watching the game. But Thabo? He was OKC’s second-best player, and I have no idea who would be third. Sefolosha played 31:25, and until Westbrook returns, Thabo’s playing time is going to have to go up. Sefolosha had 14 points, four rebounds, two steals and 6-of-11 shooting (in a game in which his teammates went 27 of 70). We sometimes forget about Sefolosha’s scoring potential, but maybe Thabo will provide routine scoring punch in Westbrook’s absence. Or maybe even in Westbrook’s presence. If Thabo averages 10 points a game (and does it the way he does everything else, efficiently), all of a sudden the Kevin Martin void looms less large.
* Jackson’s stat line was solid: 14 points, 5-of-10 shooting, three assists, five steals. He made two of three 3-pointers, including the game’s biggest play, a trey with 5:46 left, as the shot clock was about to expire, that gave the Thunder a 90-85 lead. The Thunder made just four baskets in the fourth quarter. Durant had three of them, including two in the first 2:09. So that’s two field goals in the final 9:51 of the game. Without Jackson’s 3-pointer, I say the Thunder loses.
* But Jackson has to be aggressive. His penetration into the lane was minimal. And HE WAS GUARDED BY JOHN LUCAS. I have a long and distinguished record of hailing John Lucas. I remember when he carved up Baylor while at OSU, when an OSU Final Four was just a gleam in everybody’s eye. But Lucas really can’t guard anybody anymore and I don’t know if he ever could. The Thunder needs Jackson to penetrate, both now and when Westbrook returns.
* I don’t know whether to be more excited about Ibaka’s 10 rebounds or dismayed about his 4-of-15 shooting. I think I’ll go with the dismay. Are we ready to concede that nobody misses Westbrook more than does Ibaka?
* For everyone who feared that Scotty Brooks wouldn’t give Adams minutes, your fears were unfounded. Adams played 181/2 minutes. Brooks played his rookie center almost half the fourth quarter. Finally took him out at 6:13 and Utah having crept within 87-85. It’s not like Adams played poorly, but his production wasn’t what we saw in the preseason. Against the Jazz, Adams had two points and three rebounds. His defense against Utah center Enes Kanter was solid. Kanter made two of five shots with Adams on the floor; Kanter made four of five shots with Perk on the floor. But things certainly ran more smoothly with Perkins on the floor. Not sure why.
* I guess old habits are hard to break. The Thunder couldn’t keep its hands off its own made baskets, which now are going to result in a technical foul with every violation after the first. The Jazz got three technical foul shots because of the Thunder’s propensity to grab the ball. Plus a tech for a defensive three-second violation. Three seconds, OK. You’re trying to play some defense. But delay of game? That’s just giving away points.
* Let’s make a deal. I won’t rag on Jeremy Lamb. I’ll just let you know when I see signs of life. Which will be the first time.
* I wonder if every NBA team has such a wide disparity in the amount of time spent talking about ball movement and the amount of time actually moving the ball? Probably so.
* If last night had been a playoff series, surely Ryan Gomes would have been the 10th man. Not Perry Jones III. I assume Brooks is trying to figure out if Jones can ever be a ballplayer.
* Let’s see. That’s 835 words, and really no analysis of Durant’s game. Suffice to say, it’s probably a good deal that he’s on the team. Durant leads the NBA in scoring after one game, with 42 points. His shooting wasn’t great (nine of 24), but his efficiency was fine: 42 points on 41 possessions. Durant can do a lot better, but it’s really in poor taste to ask him to do so, since he’s doing so much.
* The Thunder has to get easier shots. Not a ton of paint points — 32, compared to Utah’s 56. Some of that was made up with foul shots. I think foul shots after fouls in the paint ought to count as paint points. But still. The Thunder did not generate many easy baskets out of the halfcourt set. Which, sad to say, is nothing new. Hurry back soon, Russell.