Finally, the tone was once again set in the first 12 minutes.
Though the Thunder has won in myriad ways this season, no formula is more proven than a sizzling start, characterized of course by shut-down defense.
Oklahoma City cruised to its most lopsided win of the season, a 111-85 rout of Utah, on Tuesday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena largely because the Thunder reverted to being an overpowering team in the opening quarter.
The Thunder raced to a 16-4 lead after forcing the Jazz into missing 15 of their first 16 shots. Utah's second field goal didn't come until center Al Jefferson scored on a putback with 4:50 remaining in the first period.
By the time the horn sounded on the opening period, Utah had registered just 19 points on 8-for-26 shooting (30.8 percent). It was the first time in 11 games that the Thunder held an opponent to 20 points or less in the first quarter.
“That's been an issue the last five or six games, teams scoring in the 30s or high 20s,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
The Thunder had yielded an average of 28.4 first-quarter points in the previous 10 games before Tuesday. On five occasions over that span, OKC gave up at least 30 points, including an even 30 to this same Utah team the last time out on Friday in Salt Lake City.
“The last few games, we had some lapses and we didn't play as well as we wanted to,” said Kevin Durant, who scored 21 points with six rebounds. “We may have gotten some wins, but we kind of squeaked those out. But tonight was Thunder basketball; defense first, hustling, rebounding, helping each other out on the defensive end and playing together. I think we got some fast-break points as well. So we got back to our brand of basketball, and it feels good to be back.”
The Thunder bumped its league-best record to 22-6 after never trailing and notching its third wire-to-wire win this season. Oklahoma City also never trailed against Phoenix and New Orleans.
But more significantly, in what could be a blueprint for how to sustain that success, the Thunder moved to 6-2 when holding opponents to 20 points or less in the first period. In those six victories, the Thunder has won by an average margin of 10.4 points, the last two blowouts coming by at least 20 points — this one besting the 20-point win over Detroit from Jan. 23 that had previously stood as OKC's largest margin of victory.
“That's when we are at our best, when we're playing defense and defending and making them take and miss tough shots,” Brooks said.
Perhaps no two players embodied that philosophy like Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder's frontcourt duo that is becoming more and more of a problem for opponents as they continue to build chemistry.
Perkins and Ibaka played stout low-post defense on Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap from the start, bodying them on the block and contesting their baseline and mid-range shots with a hand that stayed nearly stuck to their faces. Jefferson and Millsap entered the night as Utah's two leading scorers, combining for 35 points and 18.7 rebounds.
On Tuesday, Jefferson and Millsap missed their first seven shots and combined for just 25 points on 11-for-28 shooting. Together, they pulled down just 13 rebounds.
“They are our anchors,” Brooks said. “They build the game defensively off of one another, and they have good chemistry and that's growing every day. They've only been together for 40 games, maybe. But you can see they understand where one another is going to be and they protect each other and help each other.”
The Thunder held the Jazz to 35.6 percent shooting and used its defense to create offense, scoring 17 points on the break. The Thunder also racked up 24 assists, scored 60 points in the paint and saw all 13 active players score, led by a game-high 22 by James Harden off the bench.
You couldn't have asked for a better start to a stretch that has the Thunder playing six of seven at home going into the All-Star break. It's the perfect situation to be in for a team looking to put some wins in the bank before the final half of the year.
“You want to protect the home court by respecting your opponent and playing extremely hard,” Brooks said, “and I thought that's what we did tonight.”