Not that you were waiting for them, exactly, but here are some thoughts on the sacking of Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
(Warning: Contains several gratuitous pop-culture references.)
Not that you were waiting for them, exactly, but here are some thoughts on the sacking of Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
(Warning: Contains several gratuitous pop-culture references.)
First, the draft is inherently immoral. Prospects give up their right to chose for whom to work and the right to negotiate terms of their employment outside very narrow parameters as a prerequisite for the right to work in the cartel. To be sure, it’s collectively bargained between the owners and the players union, but the union pointedly doesn’t include those subject to the draft. Consequentially, they’ve negotiated a deal that artificially lowers the earnings of the best new talent for their initial years in the league, thus shifting more of the wages to those already in the union.
It might actually be worse than that, since rookie scale is fixed by the CBA, and the teams get two years’ worth of options before the players have anything to say about it. In theory, a team may offer a draft pick anywhere between 80 and 120 percent of rookie scale; in practice, almost all of them, once added to the roster, are paid 120 percent. (Until he’s added to the roster, though, a draft pick isn’t paid squat; many play overseas until needed, and the Thunder actually stashed one pick last year in the D-League.)
Second, the draft has the perverse effect of rewarding teams for losing games and dumping valuable assets. The worst current teams, the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks have not only traded away their best older players — which is absolutely rational for teams not close to contending for a championship — but have systematically dumped their best young players in a quest to get to the top of the draft. That’s bad for the league and bad for the fans of those teams. (Oddly, the other contender for the worst team in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves, have gone in the other direction. They traded away their best player, Kevin Love, rather than lose him in free agency but got a king’s ransom in young talent and draft picks in return.)
Absent a draft, weak teams would have an incentive to work towards improvement in order to draw fans to the arena. They would still play for the future, jettisoning older players and stockpiling prospects and draft picks, but they would play their best young players and try to get better. The premium would be on player development, rather than winning games per se, but the nature of the sport is that they’d nonetheless win a lot more than 16 or 17 out of 82 games if they weren’t intentionally tanking.
Then there were the ’72-’73 Sixers, who won nine games and lost 73. They would have had to improve to tank. Some teams are just terrible: the just-arrived Oklahoma City Thunder opened the ’08-’09 season 3-29, and they already had Kevin Durant. (And Russell Westbrook, but he started the season at the two because nobody believed he could run the point.) They wound up 23-59, as predicted by EA Sports.
“We haven’t done particularly well against Toronto, but I don’t feel they have the ‘It’ that makes you worried. There isn’t a team I look at in the Eastern Conference that makes me say, ‘They are intimidating, we don’t have a chance’.”
Said Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri at a fan rally before Game 1 of the Toronto/Washington playoff series: “People want me to say something about Paul Pierce, but we don’t give a shit about ‘It’.” The NBA promptly fined Ujiri $35,000 for such untoward language, and added $25,000 more for the entire Raptors organization, presumably for not keeping its GM in line. (The Wizards, you should know, beat the Raptors in overtime, 93-86, with Pierce scoring a team-high 20 points.)
This is the second time Ujiri has gotten in trouble with the NBA’s Language Police; before last year’s playoffs he said something even terser about the Brooklyn Nets. Toronto dropped Game 1 that time, too. You’d think the guy could take a hint.
It was, perhaps, a foregone conclusion. The Timberwolves were disposed of handily, as they have been three times previously this season; the starters began disappearing early, and halfway through the fourth, OKC had a 125-102 lead, on the way to a 138-113 win. (A titanic defensive struggle, this was not; the Thunder rolled up 47 points in the first quarter, something that hasn’t happened since Seattle.) However, the mighty Spurs were humbled by the Pelicans in New Orleans, 108-103 — once trailing by 22, San Antonio could pull no closer than three — and so the 45-37 Beaked Wonders, not the 45-37 Thunder, will grab that last playoff spot on the last day of the season.
There is, of course, a Participation Ribbon: Russell Westbrook, 38-8-7, 34 of those points in the first half (!), finishes ahead of James Harden for the scoring title with a stirring 28.1, and what’s more, Dion Waiters (!!) tied his career high with 33. Enes Kanter had a 25-15 game, and Nick Collison (!!!) led the bench with 12.
The stripped-down Wolves, missing about half the roster, still came up with big offense, quite apart from the Thunder’s general lack of defense. Kevin Martin headed the effort with 29 points; super rookie Andrew Wiggins added 23; Zack LaVine, who played longer than anyone else (almost 41 minutes), finished with 19.
So the West looks like this: Golden State (1) vs New Orleans (8); Houston (2) vs Dallas (7); Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs Memphis (6); Portland (4) vs San Antonio (5). You may have noticed that all five Southwest Division teams are in the playoffs; only two from Pacific and one from Northwest (the Trail Blazers, who actually had the seventh-best record). What this means for the future is anyone’s guess, except mine. I’m just going to set the microphone down and turn on the Dodgers game.
Even before the game started, weird things were happening. Russell Westbrook’s technical from last night was rescinded by the league, so no suspension. Word came down that the newly-Frail Blazers were going to be missing both LaMarcus Aldridge and Arron Afflalo; what’s more, Nicolas Batum banged up his knee after ten minutes and no points, and was not seen again. This one, pronounced the last Chesapeake Arena crowd of the season, might even be winnable; and the 35-21 first quarter reinforced that possibility. Then the Thunder went colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss, coming up with only 14 points in the second, and Portland trailed by seven at the half. Over the next 12 minutes, the Thunder gradually extended that lead to eleven; over the next six, the Blazers gradually shrank it down to six. (Who knew that Meyers Leonard could shoot the three-ball?) The pivot point, if you ask me, came when the Blazers decided they would foul Steven Adams, who is to free throws what Shaquille O’Neal is to, um, free throws. Adams promptly sank two of them, putting the Thunder up eleven, and they were still up eleven at the horn, 101-90. This puts OKC at 44-37 with one game to go, at Minnesota Wednesday. Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Pelicans were spanking the Wolves, 100-88, pushing their own record to 44-37.
Let it be said, though: Meyers Leonard can shoot the three-ball. The Blazers only had eight makes all night, and Leonard, team-high with 24 points, had five of them, in nine tries. (The Thunder in aggregate made only four.) The only other Portland starter in double figures was Damian Lillard, with 10, but three of the reserves (Joel Freeland, Chris Kaman, Alonzo Gee) combined for 40. (The entire Thunder bench had only 15, 11 of them from Anthony Morrow.)
Hobbled by another lousy shooting night — 41 percent, 4-21 on treys, eight missed free throws out of 27 — the Thunder won this one on the boards, with a startling 58-35 rebounding advantage, 18-3 on the offensive glass, and in transition, stealing the rock from the Blazers eight times while losing it only once. (OKC had only eight turnovers all night, three of them not from Westbrook.) Russ’s line for the night: 36-11-7. Enes Kanter cashed another double-double (27 points, 13 rebounds), and Steven Adams approached one (8 points, 11 boards).
So here’s the situation, how it really stands: For the Thunder to get into that eighth playoff slot, they must beat the Wolves day after tomorrow, and the Spurs must more or less simultaneously win at New Orleans. Will Gregg Popovich idle the big guns just to shaft OKC? Probably not. San Antonio is idle tonight, but Houston won tonight at Charlotte, and both Spurs and Rockets now sit at 55-26, with the Spurs owning the tiebreaker and the #2 seed. I can’t see Pop wanting to give that up, especially with the Rockets closing out against the 37-43 Jazz. All will be known in forty-eight hours, unless of course there’s overtime.
It was tied at 88 for a brief moment in the fourth quarter, before the Pacers turned up the pressure. In only two and a half minutes, it was 100-88 Indiana, and Russell Westbrook had been T’d up and advised that he was this close [imagine the gesture] to being broomed. Even then, the Thunder came back, and it was a three-point game, 102-99, with two minutes left. It was still a three-point game after Westbrook uncorked his fifth trey of the night; George Hill got the very definition of a shooter’s roll to run the Pacers’ lead back to five; then C. J. Miles got his sixth trey of the night, and that was the end of that. Indiana’s quest for the #8 seed in the East continues, and Oklahoma City’s quest for #8 in the West is dealt a serious setback. Pacers 116, Thunder 104, and at this writing, the Pelicans were playing the Rockets in Houston; should New Orleans win, the Thunder must win out and the Pelicans must lose its last two. Inasmuch as the next Thunder game is against Northwest leader Portland, you probably should not look for this to happen.
Still, Westbrook did some Westbrooky things, scoring 22 of the Thunder’s 32 first-quarter points and assisting on eight more. In fact, Russ finished with a career-high 54 points. The only question now is whether he’ll even get to play against the Blazers: that technical is his 16th, earning him a one-game suspension unless it’s rescinded. And the problem should be obvious: all those guys not named Russell Westbrook could come up with only 50 points among them. OKC hit at a 43-percent clip, 41-95; the Thunder were 11-28 on treys, a respectable 39 percent, and 11-28 from the stripe, a thousand million times worse than horrible plug-ugly 39 percent. Dion Waiters (7-16) scored 16, Enes Kanter (5-11) scored 13, the entire Thunder bench (5-17) scored 14.
Meanwhile, the Indiana reserves were coming up with 31, including eight from Paul George, who’s been back on limited minutes, for which he’s grateful: that summer leg injury was supposed to have kept him out for the entire season. It was C. J. Miles who did the serious chunking for the Pacers, finishing with 30 and retrieving 10 boards; the towering guys in the middle, Roy Hibbert and David West, hit 17 and 13 respectively, and George Hill came up with 19 while running the point.
The Pacers were not all that swift from the stripe either, hitting only 22 of 35, but 53 percent from the floor — and a 52-43 advantage in rebounding — were more than enough to beat the floundering Thunder.
Last home game in OKC is Monday night. The visiting Trail Blazers will be administering what could be expected to be the death blow. And if Westbrook’s on the bench, he shouldn’t show any ill effects from his 40-minute effort today. Maybe. You never know for sure with Westbrook.
The Kings have never won in Oklahoma City, and it would have been a genuinely lousy time for them to do it now. But it’s unreasonable to expect any team, especially any George Karl-coached team, to just lie down and die, and the Thunder, still seemingly stunned after several recent misadventures, had a great deal of trouble putting Sacramento away. In the end, OKC prevailed, 116-103, but the Pelicans trounced the Suns 90-75, so no ground was gained on New Orleans, and perhaps worse, Perry Jones came down on his ankle with 24 seconds left.
On the upside, the offense was spread around a bit: Russell Westbrook collected the night’s only double-double — 27 points, 10 assists — Enes Kanter knocked down 25, Dion Waiters 22, and Anthony Morrow 19 off the bench. Inexplicably, the Thunder attempted thirty-one treys, nailing ten. (Half of those were scored by Morrow.) Sacramento led the rebound race, 50-47, but somehow OKC gave up only seven turnovers, the Kings yielding on sixteen.
The Kings’ brace of youngish guards, Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum, scored 20 and 17 respectively. Derrick Williams led the bench with 17. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Kings’ presence was the brief appearance of Gursimran Bhullar, from Punjab via Toronto, a seven-five, 340-pound behemoth on a 10-day contract, who played the last 63 seconds, blocking a shot and serving up an assist. Sim, as they call him, is the first NBA player of Indian descent.
Three games to go: at Indiana Sunday, vs. Portland at the Peake on Monday, and at Minnesota on Wednesday to close it out. Somehow the Thunder must win one more than the Pelicans, who face the Rockets and the Wolves on the road, and then the Spurs at home. I don’t even want to know what the Las Vegas line is.
There are only three inevitabilities in life, says Scott Brooks: death, taxes, and the Spurs winning 50 games. That latter has certainly been true for the last 16 seasons, and San Antonio had already won 51 when they arrived at the Peake tonight to trash what was left of Oklahoma City’s playoff hopes. Which is not to say that the black-suited blackguards didn’t have any help from the boys in home white, and all you have to see to prove that is the first-quarter score: San Antonio 29, Oklahoma City 10. Ten. The Thunder managed 31 points in the second, but still lost ground, and after 16 in the third — well, let’s just say it was over long before that. The final was Spurs 113, Thunder 88, the worst thrashing administered to OKC since, well, the last time they played the Spurs, in late March.
Andre Roberson returned to the lineup, though not to his usual starting position. He came up with five points, halfway between the two starting forwards, Enes Kanter (9) and Kyle Singler (1). The starting guards, Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook, managed 10 and 17; the mostly forgotten Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones collected 11 and 10 respectively, mostly in the fourth quarter. The Thunder, after shooting at a decidedly untorried sub-40-percent clip for most of the game, finished with 41; but 5-19 from downtown is not good, and 15-28 from the foul line is a couple of steps into the Horrible range.
Meanwhile, San Antonio strolled through this one with relative ease, what with Kawhi Leonard matching his career high (26 points) and the team shooting a spiffy 53 percent. The Spurs made only nine free throws, but then they took only 13. Tony Parker (two points) did not return after halftime, having gotten some sort of owie; however, Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili happily took up the slack. (Diaw played the most minutes of any Spur, at 26; he scored only six, but he was +26 for the night.) If there’s a saving grace in any of this, it’s that the Spurs are already on the plane, heading for Houston, where the Rockets would like to give them a bit of red glare.
While all this happened, or failed to happen, the New Orleans Pelicans moved into the eighth and final playoff slot, half a game ahead of the Thunder, by dint of having beaten the Golden State Warriors 103-100. (And the Birds own the tiebreaker over OKC, should it come to that.) With four games to go, I think the operative word is “tired.”
The story of this game was written fairly quickly: the Thunder jumped out to an early 10-3 lead, and yet were down 27-17 after the first quarter, the Rockets having burned them with an 18-0 run. After that, it was not quite catching up for most of the rest of the afternoon, hindered by foul trouble and the failure to connect on several shots right at the rim. Still, with 3:06 left, the Thunder did manage to catch up, a Russell Westbrook trey tying it at 100-all. James Harden scored the next eight Houston points, and then fouled out; it was 108-104 Rockets when Harden retired from the game, and Houston kept making free throws. On the last blast, it was 115-112 with 3.4 seconds; the last Thunder shot was two feet short of the rim, and that’s the way it ended.
Harden was something like 0.03 points ahead of Westbrook for leading scorer in the NBA; The Beard will gain some infinitesimal fraction after his 41-6-6 performance. Westbrook finished at 40-11-13. Thunder shooting was fairly blah at 44 percent, a little better (14-30, 47 percent) from downtown. OKC had a 51-42 edge in rebounding, 17-12 offensive, but what mattered more were those 18 turnovers; the Rockets gave up only 10. And while big numbers were gotten by some — Enes Kanter had yet another double-double (21 points, 17 rebounds) and Anthony Morrow still hit from outside (22 points, 6-8 for three), big stops were still hard to come by, what with the best defenders still on the injured list.
Speaking of injured, Dwight Howard, who had been for several weeks, came back with a minutes limitation; in 23 minutes he scored 22 and hauled in eight rebounds. Trevor Ariza came up one board short of a double-double, scoring 12; Josh Smith led the bench with 14. But the difference was Harden, who was pretty much everywhere for 38 minutes before incurring that sixth foul.
The Spurs will be in on Tuesday. Nobody said this was going to be a breeze.
Better teams than this Thunder squad have been ground down into lunch meat in the FedEx Forum this year, and there was little reason to hope for anything other than cold cuts, given the ectoplasmic nature of the OKC defense, plus a particularly blah night from Russell Westbrook, who scored his first second-half points with 3:30 left, and, just to hammer it home, a circus shot by Nick Calathes to end the third quarter. What’s more, there were “horrific calls,” as radio guy Matt Pinto put it. (Then again, there was a moment late in the fourth in which Pinto pointed out semi-helpfully that Westbrook was doubled by “two men.”) As close as OKC would get in that final frame was four points, at 92-88. And about the moment I marveled on Twitter as to how good Jeff Green was these days, Green inadvertently kneed Westbrook in the face, dislodging the Iron Mask. Russ delivered one of two free throws, but it was already over. Memphis 100, Oklahoma City 92, 3-1 in the season series, and that last playoff seed is slipping away.
All five Memphis starters scored in double figures, led by yes, Uncle Jeff with 22. Marc Gasol added 19. And not to snub Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, or even Zach Randolph, who rolled up 40 among them, but arguably the most interesting line came from Calathes, who hit all five of his shots and several Thunder players, fouling out in a mere 13 minutes. The same OKC sub-D that gave up 72 points in the paint to the Mavs day before yesterday yielded 60 to the Griz. Memphis was terrible on the long ball (4-21), but hey: 60 points in the paint.
Not that the Thunder were all that swift on the long ball either (4-17), or the short one (36-88, 41 percent, seven back of the Griz). And while Enes Kanter scarfed down 17 rebounds to go with a game-high 24 points, the night’s only double-double, Westbrook managed only 17 points on 5-20 shooting, if “shooting” is the word, and Dion Waiters, having curbed his tendency to take too many wasted threes, came up with a measly 3-11 around the rim. And here’s a first: Kyle Singler in double figures, with 13 points, including three of the Thunder’s four three-point makes. (Anthony Morrow, also with 13, got the other one.)
The Griz now climb into a tie with Houston for the #2 seed in the West, though the Rockets hold the tiebreaker. Guess who’s coming to OKC Sunday? It’s going to be one of those weekends.
There was a lot of rumbling in recent days, not so much about holding on to eighth place in the West, but going for seventh place, on the sensible basis that it’s better to play anyone other than the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The current occupant of seventh, the Dallas Mavericks, might have something to say about that, but hey, they’re 5-5 in their last ten and are averaging something like 90 points a game of late. Then those same Mavericks showed up at the ‘Peake shooting 60 percent and collecting something like three points in the paint every 60 seconds. OKC stayed with them, though: it was tied 101-all after three. Dallas then ran off the first ten points of the fourth quarter, but the Thunder came back; at the 2:20 mark it was 125-all. Defense? Nobody had any, but Dallas’ lack of D wasn’t as blatant as OKC’s. With forty seconds to go, it was Mavs 132-129. Russell Westbrook knocked down two foul shots to pull within one; Chandler Parsons burned up most of the rest of the clock and finished with a turnaround jumper; the Thunder came up empty, Steven Adams limped away, and Monta Ellis completed the rout with a free throw. Dallas 135, Oklahoma City 131, and that’s the last we’ll hear about seventh place; the Mavs have beaten the Thunder three times this year, each time by four points.
Of those 135 Dallas points, 72 were earned in the paint, and seven Mavs — all five starters plus Amar’e Stoudemire and Al-Farouq Aminu — scored in double figures. Ellis (26) and Parsons (22) had the most; Dirk Nowitzki nailed 18, and double-doubles were collected by Rajon Rondo (10 points, 10 assists) and Tyson Chandler (14 points, 10 rebounds). The startling figure, though, is this: 56 of 91 from the floor, 61.5 percent, despite a lousy 4-15 from beyond the arc. Rick Carlisle, if you asked him, would tell you that if you make enough two-pointers, you don’t need treys, and of course he would be correct.
And then you wonder what in the heck happened to the Thunder in a game when Enes Kanter had a double-double and a career high in points (30, with 16 rebounds), Russell Westbrook had a triple-double (31-11-11), and Anthony Morrow outscored both (32 on 11-16 shooting). Well, Adams spent much of the evening in foul trouble; the bench, apart from Morrow, didn’t have much to contribute; and OKC’s 11 turnovers handed Dallas 18 points. The Mavs coughed up the rock only six times, costing eight. And maybe if Westbrook hadn’t started out so cold: he finished at 10-32, 2-11 from outside. (The rest of the team managed 12 treys, half of them from Morrow.)
What could be worse than a home loss this late in the season? Answer: a home loss this late in the season followed by a trip to Memphis. The Grizzlies, you should pardon the expression, are always loaded for bear.
So here we are at a back-to-back. From the very beginning, it did not look good: the Suns were up eleven after the first quarter, and the Thunder cut that lead only to eight at halftime. Then things started to move. From that 62-54 deficit, OKC, with Russell Westbrook running at about 105% of top speed, tied it up at 71. Phoenix eventually righted themselves, and the Suns led 79-76 after three. The Thunder scored the first four points of the fourth to take the lead; there were a couple of bucket exchanges, and suddenly OKC went on a 13-0 run to go up a dozen — while Westbrook was resting. With 3:30 left and the Thunder up 11, the Suns decided that fouling Steven Adams was the thing to do. Adams duly missed two foul shots, Phoenix started moving again, and Scott Brooks replaced Adams with Enes Kanter. That was it for the Suns, with the Thunder finally winning one on the road, 109-97, taking the season series 3-1 and probably (though not mathematically) eliminating the Suns from the playoffs.
For reasons known but to Scott Brooks, only eight Thunder players saw action; seven scored, and six scored in double figures. It was the end of Kanter’s double-double streak: he had 11 points and nine rebounds. Next door, Adams, despite 1-4 foul shooting, came up with 13 points and 16 boards. Anthony Morrow and D. J. Augustin were hitting left and right in that final frame, with D. J. scoring 19 (4-5 from beyond the arc) and AMO 11 (3-5). Westbrook engaged in the usual Westbrookery: 33-9-7 despite missing his first five shots. And there’s an object lesson here for Dion Waiters (18 points), who was 7-14 inside the circle, 1-6 from without.
The Morris twins started for Phoenix; Markieff had 20 by halftime, but finished with only 24. Marcus had 15, as did Eric Bledsoe. Brandon Knight, back from an ankle sprain, had the worst possible night: 1-10 for three points, and then he sprained the other ankle. In his absence, T. J. Warren rolled up 18 points for the Sun reserves.
And that ends March. April opens with a visit from Dallas on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Memphis on Friday, after which there are only six games left, four at home, three of them consecutive. It doesn’t get any easier.
This promised to be an emotional event, simply because of Enes Kanter’s public dissing of the Jazz organization. “It wasn’t just a one game, two game frustration,” he said: “it was a three and a half year frustration.” And typically for Kanter, he was playing at an extremely high level early on, as the Thunder jumped to a 32-21 first-quarter lead. And then it all went poop: Utah outscored OKC 55-34 over the next 24 minutes. It wasn’t that the Jazz defense was all that wonderful, although it was certainly adequate; it’s simply that the Thunder offense disappeared early in the second and was scarcely ever seen again. Blame Rudy Gobert, occupying Kanter’s old slot in the Jazz lineup: he was seemingly everywhere at once. A late Thunder rally made it a two-point game; Gobert went to the foul line with just under nine seconds left, nailed them both, and that was it. Utah 94, Oklahoma City 89, and it’s scary to contemplate what this game could have been had the Thunder not turned the ball over twenty-three times.
In fact, you might argue that Thunder ineptitude was Utah’s leading scorer: the Jazz got 28 points off those miscues. Of flesh-and-blood players, sixth man Trey Burke led the team with 22, with Gordon Hayward adding 20. Gobert recorded a double-double, 13 points and 15 rebounds. Still, the Jazz did not shoot well: 32-84 (38 percent), 6-29 (21 percent) on the long ball, and 24-35 from the stripe. Only twelve turnovers, though, and the Thunder got only eight points from them.
Russell Westbrook scored most of OKC’s 23 points in the fourth quarter, finishing with 37. As expected, Enes Kanter had another double-double, with 18 points and 11 boards; not as expected, the only other Thunder player in double figures was Anthony Morrow, with 12. OKC shot 43 percent (31-73), 38 percent on treys (6-16), and 21-32 from the stripe. (This was not a great night for people who enjoy seeing the net pierced.) OKC did outrebound the Jazz, 48-42, but Utah came up with six more offensive boards, 16-10.
Redemption, if there is to be any, will have to come tomorrow night against the Suns in Phoenix.
After the 32-28 first quarter, this game was looking like typical Thunder-Spurs: fierce competition, and just wait until you see the fourth. Yeah, right. This one was over at halftime — 71-50 — and it just kept getting worse. Can you say 100-74 after three? About three minutes later, the benches were cleared, and Scott Brooks probably spent the rest of the time trying to come up with synonyms for “defense.” The final was 130-91, and if you think a 39-point lead is tremendous, well, you should have seen it when it was 44. Last time the Thunder visited the Alamo City, they administered a beating to the Men In Black, so this is payback and then some, with one game yet to play in the season series.
How dominant? Only at the very end did the Spurs drop below 60 percent shooting, falling to 58. (They hit 51 of 88; the Thunder, 36 of 90. What does that tell you?) They even hit 62 percent of their treys. Rebounding? Spurs, 50-36. Assists? Spurs, 28-16. Turnovers? Spurs, 11-10. (Oh, well, you can’t have everything.) San Antonio got to play all 13 active men, 12 of them scored, and seven of them scored in double figures. Even more remarkable: one of them was Patty Mills, who has not been having a great year. Tony Parker led everyone with 21; sixth man Boris Diaw had 19. And the only Spur on the minus side of +/- was Manu Ginobili, a modest -3 in 15 minutes.
Still, of all the minuses, the minusest was Russell Westbrook, with 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds, a -30 in 26 minutes. Enes Kanter started out with a bang — 10 points in the first quarter — but finished with a whimpering 16, though he did once again collect a double-double, having retrieved 10 rebounds. Dion Waiters got 14; after that, it’s a big jump to Jeremy Lamb’s nine.
What does this mean? Only that the Thunder’s defensive woes continue to be, well, woeful, and that they’re not going to breeze through the last ten games.
The third and final Thunder-Lakers game figured to be entertaining, if only because the Lakers, woeful as they are this season, have pretty much always brought their A, or at least B-plus, game to OKC, and with Byron Scott away on personal business, assistant Paul Pressey was calling the shots. The Lakers starting lineup was duly shuffled, with Tarik Black in the middle, Jordan Clarkson as shooting guard, and Jeremy Lin running the point. L. A. came out in a 2-3 zone, which at first baffled the Thunder; the tenacious defense we’d seen in recent OKC games was not in evidence — the loss of Andre Roberson last game was almost certainly a contributing factor — so the offensive guns were brought out. With that condition obtaining, the final score shouldn’t make anyone blink: 127-117.
Those Laker wing guys were pretty sharp, too; Lin had 19 points, Clarkson a career-high 30, and both served up seven assists. Four other Lakers made it to double figures, and that’s with Carlos Boozer getting the night off. (L. A. is embarking on a long road trip.) They shot an excellent 52 percent, highlighting the frequent OKC defensive lapses.
Still, if the opponents are going to score a lot, you can beat them by scoring more. Three double-doubles for the Thunder: Russell Westbrook (27 points, 11 assists), Steven Adams (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Enes Kanter (25 points, 16 boards). Dion Waiters, working to shed his Sir Miss-A-Lot reputation, made 10 of 16 for 23 points and the night’s only plus-20. And the Thunder shot 56 percent, even making more than half their treys (11 of 21). Rebounds, you ask? OKC, 49-28. Wasn’t even close.
A 4-0 homestand is by definition successful. Now comes the heavy lifting: tomorrow night in San Antonio, Saturday at Utah, Sunday at Phoenix. And then it’s April.
The revolving door for the wounded continues to spin: Enes Kanter was back today, but Andre Roberson rolled his ankle in the first 90 seconds of play and did not return. Still, this wasn’t going to be a tragedy for the Thunder, and the one play that epitomizes the whole game — maybe the whole season — was yet another pass by Russell Westbrook to Steven Adams, who dunked the ball while drawing a foul from Hassan Whiteside. The sixth foul, natch. Adams missed the free throw, but no matter: Westbrook had yet another triple-double (12-10-17), and the outcome of the game wasn’t even close to being in doubt: the benches were cleared inside the three-minute mark, and the only question left was whether OKC could finish at 100 points or more for the twenty-third time. They couldn’t. Still, dispatching the new, improved Heat by a 93-75 count points to something we’d been hoping to see for some time: darn near lockdown defense.
And the Heat were indeed throttled. From the floor, 39.5 percent; from outside the circle, 3 of 18; from the free-throw line, 8 of 15. (Not that OKC can claim any credit for the latter.) While Miami had five players in double figures, team-high was Whiteside, who collected 13 points — 6-8 from the floor — before fouling out. Dwyane Wade, who’d been on fire of late, was held to twelve.
Now look at that Westbrook triple-double again. Only 12 points. He was an iffy 5-16 from the floor. Still, it’s his tenth of the season; the rest of the league has only 17.) And Kanter was there to catch passes, collect rebounds, knock down shots and maybe even chew gum: he finished with 27-12. Adams squeaked in with ten points and ten boards. Mitch McGary led the bench with 14, two ahead of Anthony Morrow.
Oklahoma City is now 40-30, which is a fairly remarkable recovery from that 3-12 start. (Do the math. Over the last 55 games they’re 37-18 for .672.) Fifty wins is not out of reach, but they’d have to go 10-2 the rest of the way. First obstacle: the Lakers, on Tuesday.
I had a feeling I was going to regret this:
The Hawks, the East’s top team by a considerable margin, will be here Friday night, having already thrashed the Thunder in Atlanta. They’ll be missing Kyle Korver. At this point, God only knows who’ll be missing from the OKC lineup.
God, of course, called it correctly: Enes Kanter, roughed up in the Boston game, was out, Serge Ibaka was already out, and Kevin Durant will be out for the duration. Despite that, the Thunder jumped out to an early lead, which Atlanta gradually eroded; the Hawks dominated until halfway through the fourth quarter. But OKC had other ideas: after tying it at 105 on a 9-2 run, the Thunder ran off the next ten points. The Hawks pulled back to within six, but they’d never catch up: the Thunder won it 123-115, on the strength of Anthony Morrow’s six treys (of 10), of Dion Waiters’ implausible 26 points as a starter, and of all manner of Westbrookery, with Russell recording yet another triple double (36-10-14).
There’s even a Telltale Statistic: Oklahoma City turned the ball over only 12 times, none of them in that fourth quarter, in which they outscored the Hawks 33-20. Atlanta’s three-ball had kept them comfortably ahead, but the Thunder ended up 13-30 from deep, only marginally behind the Hawks’ 13-29. There was the usual OKC rebounding superiority: 44-34. And for a change, there were blocks: two from Waiters (!), two from Steven Adams (12 points, 16 rebounds) and two from Nick Collison (13 points, five boards).
Despite all that, seven of nine Hawks finished in double figures, including all five starters, but the two top finishers came off the bench: Pero Antić with 22 and Dennis Schröder with 21. Al Horford did compile a double-double: 10 points, 11 rebounds. Still, this was Westbrook’s game, despite sub-meh 8-24 shooting; he hit all 17 of his free throws, and those 14 assists overshadowed six turnovers.
The Heat will be here Sunday afternoon, and the Lakers will follow on Tuesday. Neither is a pushover, but both can be beaten. If you don’t believe me, just ask God: his NCAA bracket isn’t even broken.
The Thunder have been plagued with injuries all season, but nothing — really, nothing — compares to this:
The Minnesota Timberwolves are so desperate for bodies they signed a player Thursday based on how quickly he could get to the game.
The Timberwolves signed guard Sean Kilpatrick to a 10-day contract, and he arrived in time to give them the league-mandated eight players in uniform for their 95-92 win over the New York Knicks.
The NBA roster being fixed at fifteen, this tells you that eight Wolves were out. It might have been easier to just tap the Knicks’ D-League team in Westchester, just up the road a piece, but the Knicklets were on their way to a game in Sioux Falls. Kilpatrick, who was playing for the Delaware 87ers but who had been on the Wolves’ radar for some time, was with his family in New York, and he happily drove to Madison Square Garden, arriving at a quarter to seven for a 7:30 tip.
How much will Kilpatrick be paid for his services? At least this much:
The minimum salary a 10-day contract can offer is the # of days in the contract divided by the # of days in the regular season multiplied by the minimum annual salary.
The minimum salary for a player with no previous NBA (D-League doesn’t count) experience this season is $507,336; there being 170 days in this season (28 October 2014 through 15 April 2015), Kilpatrick will be paid no less than $29,843. He put in ten minutes against the Knicks; he did not score, but he did grab a rebound.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders, before the game:
“We’ll be undermanned, but guys that have complained in the past about playing time won’t have to worry about it tonight.”
Saunders was even more of a prophet than he thought: the game went into overtime, and three of the five Minnesota starters played 40 minutes or more.
First, because I thought it was swell:
Good news: no Durant or Ibaka tonight. Bad news: "Flaming hammer of death" Westbrook will be playing.
— CelticsBlog (@celticsblog) March 18, 2015
It was almost 29 minutes into this game when the Celtics took their first foul shot. (Actually, there were two, and Brandon Bass made them both.) One might applaud the Thunder’s ability to not foul, but Boston didn’t need to draw fouls so long as they were hitting over 55 percent from the floor, which they did through two quarters and half of the third. Then the OKC defense kicked in, and the sputtering offense suddenly found the rim: down four at halftime, the Thunder banged up Beantown 40-24 in the third. The Celtics, of course, didn’t wait around to be beaten, pulling back to within five at the 2:31 mark, and to within four at 0:09. What kept the Greenies at bay was, yes, Mr. Death Hammer himself, whom the Celtics had to foul to buy time; three times Russell Westbrook knocked down a pair of free throws to offset Boston treys, and four was the margin at the end, 122-118.
Westbrook’s flaming, it should be noted, was a product of sheer ferocity. It certainly wasn’t his shooting, 8 for 26, one of six treys. But 19 free throws out of 23 tries gave him 36 for the night, and ten assists gave him one of three Thunder double-doubles, the others coming from the Bruise Brothers, Enes Kanter (22 points/10 rebounds) and Steven Adams (14/13). Anthony Morrow knocked down 20 from off the bench. The Celtics still outshot the Thunder, 52 percent to 48, and dished up 32 dimes to OKC’s 19, but Boston left 11 points at the stripe, the Thunder only six.
It was Marcus Smart’s night, really: 25 points, including 7 of 12 from outside. Bass, who made those first two free throws, finished with 20, as did Kelly Olynyk from the reserves. (Both Smart and Jay Crowder gathered nine rebounds.) Weirdly, both benches scored exactly 40 points.
The Hawks, the East’s top team by a considerable margin, will be here Friday night, having already thrashed the Thunder in Atlanta. They’ll be missing Kyle Korver. At this point, God only knows who’ll be missing from the OKC lineup.
The Thunder were up ten at the half, fifteen shortly thereafter — and then it all unwound in a big hurry, with the Mavs tying it up after three (a 39-point quarter!) and then holding OKC to eight points in seven minutes. Even radio guy Matt Pinto seemed dispirited for a while there:
Seriously. Pinto has given up. He's going to broadcast the rest of the game driving up 35 while he sighs deeply into his microphone.
— Mike Koehler (@mkokc) March 17, 2015
But the Mavs didn’t run away with it either, and at 4:18 the Thunder closed the gap to zilch. They’d never regain the lead, though, and with both Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook fouling out late, Dallas pulled ahead by six; OKC shaved it to three, then to two; a pair of Monta Ellis free throws put the Mavs up four, and that’s the way it ended, 119-115. Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t even on the court at the time.
Then again, Dirk wasn’t needed at that moment: matters were well in hand. Chandler Parsons went off for 10-14 and 31 points; those last two freebies from Ellis gave him 24; Rajon Rondo recorded a double-double (11 points, 13 assists) and two Dallas reserves, Charlie Villanueva and Amar’e Stoudemire, had 10 each. About the only thing the Mavs didn’t do was rebound: they pulled down only 37, versus 59 for the Thunder. Oh, wait: the Mavs also didn’t turn the ball over a lot (13 versus 21).
Meanwhile, OKC was failing to connect on half-court shots (7-26 from Three Point Island) and failing to get stops in the second half. Westbrook, before he departed, was 24-8-12, not too far off his regular pace or late; Enes Kanter and Mitch McGary posted double-doubles. (McGary, in fact, got there in the first half.) But even six players in double-figures would not be enough to save the Thunder tonight.
Much was made of the fact that this was the Thunder’s 21st road loss, meaning that there was no way the team could finish with a winning road record. Then again, look who’s coming to town: the Celtics (Wednesday), the Hawks (Friday), and the Heat (Sunday). No way will OKC lose 21 at home — they’re 23-9 at the Peake — but that last playoff slot is most assuredly not going to be handed to them.
Michael Cage: “This game will come down to who can make shots.” Um, yeah, Mike, thanks for that. Nobody was making shots in that dreadful 17-15 first quarter, even with yet another Thunder starting lineup: Westbrook, Roberson, Waiters, Kanter, Adams. There was more motion in the second, which ended at a 47-47 tie; it was 75-70 Thunder after three, but the Bulls scored the first five points in the fourth, so it was back to the teeter-totter, as radio guy Matt Pinto might say. With 1:12 left, it was OKC 99, Chicago 95; with 0:22 left, 106-97; Nikola Mirotić knocked down three free throws to bring the Bulls up to 100, and then Something Weird: Russell Westbrook hit a free throw, missed the second, got his own rebound — and was fouled. Westbrook duly knocked down two more, and that was the end of it: 109-100, a split in the season series, and one game closer (for now) to the playoffs.
As they were the last time these two clubs met, two of the Bull reserves caused major grief: Mirotić, with a game-high 27, and E’Twaun Moore, with 11, only the second game for Moore this year in which he scored in double figures. (The first was against, yes, OKC.) It was evident early on that Enes Kanter really couldn’t guard Pau Gasol; then again, Gasol wasn’t defending Kanter especially well either. Gasol finished with 20 points and eight rebounds; Kanter had 18 points and 18 boards. The Bulls were basically obliterated on the boards, 52-33; what kept them in the game was the Thunder getting turnover-happy (17, versus only 11 for Chicago).
Starting Adams and Kanter together, made possible by Serge Ibaka’s bad knee, made for a fearsome front, and Adams too picked up a double-double — 14 points, 11 rebounds — before fouling out with about two minutes left. Dion Waiters, D. J. Augustin and Anthony Morrow contributed 11 points each to the cause, and there was another scary-looking Russell Westbrook line: 36-11-6. Russ hadn’t shot well — 12-27, 2-6 from outside — but it turned out to be well enough, and he still draws fouls in mass quantities.
The homestand ends here at 3-1; it’s off to Dallas tomorrow night. The Mavs, darn them, have tonight off.
And yet another starting lineup tonight: Serge Ibaka complained, though probably not loudly, of a sore knee, giving Mitch McGary a chance, and Kyle Singler was swapped out for Dion Waiters. (If Scott Brooks has learned anything during this annus horribilis, it’s how to mix up the rotation.) Weirdly, Singler seems to score more as a reserve, and in these Durantless days, we had the unusual sensation of four Thunder starters in double figures. (No, not Roberson. Get real.) The Timberwolves, on the other hand, were more or less intact, though Ricky Rubio tweaked his ankle in the second half and did not return, and Kevin Garnett did not appear at all. And through the third quarter, the Wolves made a game of it. Came the fourth quarter, and the Thunder woke up from dreaming about Chicago on Sunday; Russell Westbrook, who’d had a so-so night, scored 15 in the fourth after 14 in the first three, not to mention 12 assists and 10 rebounds. (Can you say “triple-double”? Sure you can.) Waiters and McGary picked up 12 points each, and Enes Kanter had a stirring 23 points and 15 rebounds. The final was 113-99, with the last three OKC points coming from the recently appendixless Steve Novak; it’s 3-0 for the Thunder over the Wolves this season.
Still, some of those Wolves did some pretty remarkable things. Hotly hyped rookie forward Andrew Wiggins lived up to his billing, collecting 19 points, more than half of them from the foul line. Sophomore center Gorgui Dieng hauled in 14 rebounds while scoring 21. And Kevin Martin was in decent form, knocking down 14. The Minnesota reserves came up with 30 points, 17 of which came from Justin Hamilton. And we do have to play these guys once more this season: in the finale on the 15th of April, a date which will live in infamy for other reasons.
But Sunday, there’s Chicago at high noon, and you can’t get much more ominous than that, unless you have to get on the plane to Dallas right afterwards, which the Thunder do. Dallas, for its part, spent this evening stomping the Clippers.
Right off the bat, you get the Telltale Statistic: the Clippers executed 11 steals tonight, the Thunder only five, and two of those came very late. That level of non-defense undid Oklahoma City early: seven minutes in, L. A. was up 28-11. There was enough rally in the Thunder to tie it a couple of times in the second quarter, but there was no stopping the Clips, even without Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford; things were so dire for OKC that they had to resort to fouling DeAndre Jordan. (Jordan took it in stride, hitting 12 of 22, 15 percentage points above his average from the stripe.) Eventually, Loud City was bored enough, or demoralized enough, to yell at head zebra Joey Crawford to pull up his damn pants already. The Clippers won the game, 120-108, and the season series, 2-1, and the Thunder fell half a game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth and last playoff spot.
The numbers, except for steals and turnovers (OKC 20, Clippers 14) were actually pretty close: the Thunder got one more rebound (39-38), the Clips three more assists (22-19), and while there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Los Angeles longball, their 15-30 was only a tick or two above the Thunder’s 12-25. Maybe it was who got those treys: Chris Paul was 5-8, Matt Barnes 6-7, J. J. Redick 3-6, and somewhere Spencer Hawes made one. So it’s no surprise that CP3 ended up with 33 points, Barnes with 22, and Redick with 25. Meanwhile, Jordan was collecting those freebies and reeling in 18 points and 17 boards.
Maybe a Westbrook triple-double would have helped, but Russ was merely good, not great: 24-9-7, and a whopping 10 of those 20 OKC turnovers. He had help offensively: Anthony Morrow came up with 26 off the bench, including 6-9 from outside, and Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka added 18 and 15 respectively. Just don’t look at the plus/minus: all the Thunder starters were minus, all the reserves were plus, and the opposite was true for Los Angeles.
The newly revitalized Minnesota Timberwolves will show up Friday night: some of their long-injured players are injured no longer, and, well, Kevin Garnett. You don’t, or at least I don’t, bet against the Big Ticket.
The Raptors have not had the easiest time of it of late, having fallen to third in the East after winning only three of their last ten. Still, Toronto is one team that can always be counted upon to give the Thunder a hard time, be they in third place or thirteenth, and they lived up to expectations tonight, following Terrence Ross’s hot hand with the long ball and the general DeStruction wrought by DeMar DeRozan to a 61-58 lead at halftime. OKC responded by cranking up the defense in the third, holding T.O. to 18 points; the Raptors rallied in the fourth, cutting a 12-point Thunder lead to three. This is not the sort of thing Loud City wants to see, and with two minutes left, an Enes Kanter free throw ran the lead back to seven at 103-96. DeRozan, who hadn’t scored since the first half, nailed a jumper, fouled Serge Ibaka, and delivered a layup, but it was still a six-point game with 44 seconds to go; DeRozan then rang up two more buckets. Finally Russell Westbrook, Mr. Triple Double, knocked down two freebies; DeRozan’s streak abruptly ended, D. J. Augustin missed two freebies inside the two-second mark, but the Raptors were wrapped up, 108-104.
Six of nine Raptors, nonetheless, hit double figures, with DeRozan (24) and Ross (20, including six of nine treys) leading the way. Toronto only took nine free throws, but made them all, and delivered 24 assists against only eight turnovers. (The Thunder had 30 assists, a season high, but also coughed up the ball 18 times.)
Scott Brooks played ten tonight, with Steven Adams backing up Enes Kanter in the middle. Kanter collected a double-double, with 21 points and ten rebounds, but Adams, playing 16 minutes, scored six and retrieved six. Westbrook? 30-11-17. His lines are starting to converge toward that. OKC owned the boards, 49-33. And while the Thunder made 42 shots, same as Toronto, it only took them 87 tries; the Raptors had to put up 98.
A four-game homestand continues with the Clippers (Wednesday), the Timberwolves (Friday), and the Bulls (Sunday), followed by a quick trip to Dallas on Monday.
How good are these Bulls? Yes, they started the day ten and a half games back of Atlanta, but everybody else in the East is at least ten and a half games back of Atlanta. The loss of Derrick Rose (again!) surely hurts: this man collects injuries the way Warren Buffett collects companies. Still, you have to admire a team that, according to that little squib in this morning’s Oklahoman, pulled off four wins against two losses before reaching the fifth and final game in this homestand. For something not at all connected to electoral politics in Chicago, that’s pretty damned impressive. Still, the Bulls, for the moment, are short on guards, though Aaron Brooks is no slouch, and besides there’s Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah to tower over anyone in the neighborhood. The Thunder jumped out to an early lead, which the Bulls entirely erased by the third quarter, but they couldn’t get a lead of more than one, and inside the 2:00 mark the Bulls were down only one at 100-99. Russell Westbrook (of course) drew a foul at 1:07, hit the first free throw, and when the second one didn’t fall, Enes Kanter stuffed it back in. Nikola Mirotić, who’d been firing treys all night, got his second (in nine tries) to bring the Bulls back to within one; a Westbrook jumper made it OKC 105-102. Mirotić, much more deadly at the stripe, knocked down two free throws, and with 4.9 seconds left, the Bulls got the shot of the night: a jumper by E’Twaun Moore. OKC came up empty, and Mirotić finished the job with one more free throw. Chicago 108, Oklahoma City 105, and that’s how good those Bulls are.
If your first question is “Another triple-double for Westbrook?” the answer is no. Still, in the third quarter Westbrook put up ten points in a mere 1:41, and he wound up with a better-than-respectable 43-7-8. Serge Ibaka, who had two points last night, had 25 this time; D. J. Augustin led the bench with 10. Uncharacteristically, the Thunder were seriously outrebounded, 48-41, and while they didn’t shoot badly — 47 percent, one better than the Bulls — their misses seemed that much more exasperating.
Chicago had three players over 20 — Mirotić, off the bench, was team-high with 26, fourteen of them from the stripe (one fewer than the entire Thunder team), and both Gasol and Mike Dunleavy checked in with 21. The man of the moment, though, was Moore, whose 19 points set a new career high, not to mention the fact that it was ten times his per-game average.
One of those other teams who were ten and a half behind Atlanta, the Toronto Raptors, will be in OKC Sunday evening.
So much has been written of late about the 76ers’ alleged tanking that I have to believe that someone in Philadelphia took enough umbrage to do something about it, which is one way to explain the Sixers’ 32-17 lead with five minutes left in the first quarter, 15 of those points coming from guard Isaiah Canaan, who hit five treys in six tries. Weirder still, the Thunder had a 37-34 lead when that quarter ended, the Man in the Clear Mask — that would be Russell Westbrook, recovering from surgery to his jaw — having knocked out 16 points in that quarter. Philly was not impressed; they were up 59-56 at the half and opened the third with a 13-4 run. The Thunder persevered, cutting a 16-point Sixer lead to six by the end of the quarter, tying it two minutes later, and finally taking the lead, 93-90, on a D. J. Augustin trey. It was about this point that the Philly scoring machine ground to a halt: through eight minutes of the fourth they’d hit exactly one bucket, and OKC was up eight. Still the Sixers would not go away: just inside the 1:00 mark, Hollis Thompson, who hadn’t scored all night, swished a trey to pull within three, and then Jason Richardson, who’d scored plenty, knocked down another one to tie it at 110-all. With 4.3 seconds left, Philadelphia got one more shot, Dion Waiters blocked a Nerlens Noel layup, and — “Who’d have foreseen this?” asked radio guy Matt Pinto.
And 1:56 into the overtime period, the Masked Man did it again: notched a triple-double, his fourth in succession and sixth for the season, delivering his tenth dime to Augustin. Serge Ibaka, who’d logged more blocks than points for the evening (four swats, two points), set up Westbrook’s 40th and 41st points; Ibaka fouled out, and Westbrook got two more. The Sixers came back: three free throws by Richardson and a Jerami Grant trey, to make it 117-116. Inevitably, this was followed by a Westbrook bucket and a free throw, giving him 46. Richardson swished two more foul shots to make it a two-point game; Grant was called for a blocking foul, and Westbrook went back to the stripe, hitting one of two. Richardson’s last trey ended up out of bounds, and yet again, Westbrook went back to the stripe, hitting both of them. The last Sixers shot would not fall, and, as one of the records guys noted, “Russell Westbrook joins Vince Carter as the only players with 45 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists in a game over the last 30 seasons.” In fact, he had 49 points, 16 boards and ten dimes, new career highs in points and rebounds.
Still, despite the 123-118 win, there’s a Telltale Statistic waiting in the weeds: all five Thunder starters were minus for the night (even Westbrook, -12), all five reserves were plus. The bench, in fact, scored more than the starters: 62-61. Waiters, in fact, had a double-double: 20 points, 10 rebounds. Augustin finished with 17, and Anthony Morrow (+34!) checked in with 11.
And dammit, these Sixers are no slouches no matter what you read. Richardson finished with 29, Canaan logged a new career high with 31, and Philly made 15 of 35 treys. (On two-pointers, they were 19-61. Go figure.) What’s more, they managed to earn 44 free throws, hitting 35 of them, and held a 58-54 rebounding advantage. This is called hard work.
After all that, it’s off to the plane for tomorrow night at Chicago. Is anyone tired? Let’s hope not.
Addendum: Oh, and there’s this:
Russell Westbrook is now the only player in history with three straight 39-plus point triple-doubles. MJ only guy to do it twice in a row.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 5, 2015
After two losses on this road trip, the Thunder were keen to salvage something from the experience. The Lakers, you may be certain, weren’t in any mood to let them; while Los Angeles had won only 16 games this year, they were on a three-game winning streak, and OKC came in missing three starters: Steven Adams and his hand, Kevin Durant and his foot, Russell Westbrook and his face. Not to worry: in the absence of superstars, some of the role players shone, and the Lakers never led. A Serge Ibaka block (his third) at the horn closed the door, 108-101.
There are, of course, only two actual point guards on the Thunder roster, so if you’re a wiseguy, you’re going to ask “So who’s gonna run the offense when D. J. Augustin sits? Jeremy freaking Lamb?” Yes, Jeremy freaking Lamb: while Augustin played 41 minutes and turned in a great line — 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists — Lamb in 16 minutes, some of them alongside Augustin, shot 5-8 for 14 points and generally did much better than “Please don’t mess up.” Both Ibaka and the returned Enes Kanter collected double-doubles, Serge with 18 points/14 boards and Enes with 16 points/15 boards. Nick Collison also landed in double figures with 12 points. Despite all this offense, the Thunder were seriously outshot by the Lakers: both teams had 40 makes, but it took OKC seven more shots to get them. And weirdly, the Thunder put up a whopping 32 treys, 11 of which fell.
Only nine Lakers played, all of them scored, and six of them hit double figures, led by Jeremy Lin with a game-high 20; Jordan Hill, also off the bench, knocked down 14, including his first trey since, well, ever, and also reeled in 12 rebounds. Wayne Ellingson and Jordan Clarkson led the starters with 12 each. And it was kind of nice to see Carlos Boozer again, even past his prime.
So 1-2 on the road trip. We’ve had worse. And the schedule gets marginally easier for the next few: Philadelphia at home (Wednesday), up to Chicago the next night, and then back home for four, starting with the Raptors on Sunday.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been on top of the Northwest Division for most of the season, a position that guarantees a seed no lower than fourth. The eighth-place Thunder had lost twice to the Blazers already this season, and drawing the Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back hardly qualifies as fun. Still, it’s not like anyone promised the Thunder, you should pardon the expression, a rose garden, and after trailing much of the first quarter, OKC opened up in the second and took a 12-point lead at halftime. The Blazers knocked off one of those points in the third quarter, the rest of them in the first seven and a half minutes of the fourth. Inside the two-minute mark, collars got hot under; one minute later, it was tied at 110-all. LaMarcus Aldridge knocked down one of two free throws with 44 seconds left; 33 seconds later, the Thunder plotted a final play; Russell Westbrook bounced it a little too hard, Aaron Afflalo nailed two more free throws, and the Blazers were up three. All Westbrook had to do was hit three free throws to tie it up; he missed the first, and Damien Lillard finished the Thunder off with two freebies of his own to make it 115-112 at the horn.
Lillard and Aldridge, between them, got more than half the Blazers’ scoring, with 29 points each; Aldridge also pulled down 16 rebounds. The only other scorer in double figures was newly-acquired sixth man Arron Afflalo, who had 18 of the 32 bench points. Still, the Blazers shot well enough, 44 percent from the floor, 10-26 on treys, and 27-31 from the stripe.
The Thunder, meanwhile, were shooting better, though not for distance (48 percent, 4-14 on treys), but didn’t get to the line quite so much, and while they outrebounded the Blazers, it was only by four (47-43). Russell Westbrook got yet another triple-double, his third in three games: 40 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists. With Enas Kanter sidelined with a thigh contusion, points from the middle had to come from Nick Collison (six) or Mitch McGary (a career-high 20 with nine rebounds). The Thunder bench contributed 46 points from just four guys: McGary, Anthony Morrow (13), Dion Waiters (7) and D. J. Augustin (6). Serge Ibaka was good-but-not-great, collecting 14 points and six boards.
Which leaves a Sunday-evening clash with the Lakers as the one chance of getting a win out of this road trip. And the Lakers are wildly inconsistent: despite dwelling near the West cellar most of this season, they roused themselves tonight to beat a respectable bunch of Milwaukee Bucks. Me, I just hope the weather lets up enough to let the Thunder come home this week.
The Suns started the game with a 9-0 run and never looked back; it was 25-15 after the first quarter, and Russell Westbrook missed nine shots before finally nailing one halfway through the second. Frustration? Even Scott Brooks drew a technical. Still, the Thunder made up half of that ten-point deficit by halftime, largely due to buckets by the bench: twenty-four minutes in, the reserves had made ten of 16 shots, versus seven of 28 for the starters. And then those starters ran off six points to begin the third quarter, giving OKC its first lead at 54-53; it was three minutes in before Phoenix hit a basket. The Suns stabilized, and were up two to begin the final frame; they then knocked out nine consecutive points for an eleven-point lead, against those OKC reserves who had been so effective two quarters ago. Then again, it’s a game of streaks; the Thunder tied it at 102 on a D. J. Augustin trey, Phoenix ran off four straight, OKC followed with four straight, one of the Morris twins got an and-one, and then Westbrook got an and-one with 13.4 left. Serge Ibaka blocked the last Phoenix shot, and overtime ensued; with 11 seconds left, it was Suns 115, Thunder 113, Westbrook missed his last shot, and P. J. Tucker, the last of the Sun starters to go to double figures, sank two free throws to bring things to a very late conclusion, 117-113.
Eric Bledsoe put up a very Westbrookian line: 28 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists. (Westbrook’s own line: 39 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, yet another triple-double.) Still, Bledsoe was a tad more efficient, 11-16 from the floor, versus Westbrook’s, um, 12-38. Both Markieff Morris and Alex Len showed double-doubles: Morris 29 points, 11 boards, and Len 12 points, 11 boards. Morris’ brother Marcus led the bench with 11 points; the Phoenix reserves came up with 21 points total, versus 36 for the Thunder second string.
What undid the Thunder, in the end, was simply lousy shooting. Take out Westbrook’s 12-38 and OKC went 27-63, a plausible 43 percent — but the Suns were at 50 or above most of the night, finishing at 49.5. The Suns outrebounded the Thunder by two, 52-50. In double figures: Ibaka 13, Augustin 13, Dion Waiters 16, and ex-Sun Enes Kanter 18.
Friday night: Portland, struggling lately but still atop the Northwest Division, and already two up on the Thunder in the season series.
Sometimes streaky is good. The Thunder took a 30-20 lead over Indiana in the first quarter, kept the Pacers somewhat at bay in the second, and watched uncomfortably as that lead shrank to one in the third. (In fact, it looked like Indiana had tied it up, but a Pacer trey was later ruled to be a two-pointer.) And then the Thunder hit 15 points in a row — on two triples from Dion Waiters, two from Anthony Morrow, one from D. J. Augustin. It was almost 18 points: Morrow hoisted yet another trey at the third-quarter horn, which was too late to count. But by then OKC had built a twenty-point lead, and for the next few minutes the Thunder and the Pacers traded buckets — which does no good when you’re behind 20 points. The OKC starters were not seen again, and after 5:02 of garbage time, the Pacers pulled within 11, only to lose it 105-92.
Oh, the starters? Well, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double (20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), Serge Ibaka piled up 23 points and retrieved 10 boards, and Enes Kanter knocked down 15 points. That’s 58 points; Andre Roberson hit one bucket to make it 60, but 45 came from the suddenly-mighty bench, led (unsurprisingly) by Waiters (14) and Morrow (12). Indiana, which is known for its bench strength, what with guys like Ian Mahinmi and Rodney Stuckey and Luis Scola manning the second unit, produced only 30 from its reserves. Then again, the Pacers had four starters in double figures — C. J. Miles 21, George Hill (no relation) 13, Solomon Hill (no relation either) 11, and David West 11. Roy Hibbert, perennial man in the middle, collected six points and 10 boards.
Indiana wound up with a better shooting percentage (43-42), what with the Thunder sort of nodding off at the end, but OKC, as usual, owned the glass (57-48), and coughed up only ten turnovers. (Which explains this: steals, OKC 10, Indiana 5; blocks, OKC 10, Indiana 3.) And the Pacers put up only 11 free throws all night, making seven, while the Thunder were 16-18 from the stripe.
And now, it’s Way Out West: Phoenix on Thursday, Portland on Friday, wrapping up with the Lakers on Sunday before returning home long enough to take on the Sixers.