Under the Texas heat

Actually, it only got up to 74 degrees in Dallas today, and come to think of it, the Mavericks weren’t all that hot. But the cold-shooting Thunder managed only ten points in the second quarter and trailed at halftime 50-35. Perhaps something magic might happen in the locker room? If so, it faded quickly: OKC started the third quarter with an 11-0 run, but never pulled even with Dallas until the literal last minute. Over the last 3:30, a late 14-0 run — 12 of those 14 by Russell Westbrook — utterly stunned the Mavs, 92-91. “Quite MVP-y,” said ESPN’s Royce Young.

You had to ask? Westbrook did post another triple-double, though he’d gotten there long before that final push. (He finished 37-13-10.) And it was needed, inasmuch as the bench was decidedly unproductive: six players, 17 points. (Dallas’ four reserved scored 30.) And you gotta wonder how they got 35 points in that fourth quarter when they managed only 35 in the first two. But no matter: it’s a W, the 42nd of the season. If you asked Westbrook, he’d just grin. You can make a case, though, for Taj Gibson as second in command: four offensive rebounds, three in the fourth quarter, six of 10 shooting, and +27 for the night, a game high. And here’s the weirdest statistic I can think of: four of the Dallas starters made double figures. The one who didn’t? Dirk, who hit only 3-9.

On Wednesday, the Magic will be waiting. Orlando is lottery-bound this year, but they can make life miserable for a visiting team. And then it’s back home to take on the Spurs, the same Spurs who have won five straight and who sit only two games behind the almighty Warriors. (Golden State, as it happens, has won seven straight.) Welcome to the crunch of all crunches.


A glimpse into the future

Had the playoffs begun today, the sixth-place Thunder would be playing the third-place Rockets in Houston. The playoffs are still nearly a month away, the Thunder played the Rockets in Houston, and the Rockets slapped them around unmercifully; you have to figure that if you come up with 59 points in the first half and you’re behind by 20, things are clearly not going well for you. The Rockets opened with a 9-0 run, shot more than 60 percent all day, hit twenty three-pointers, and a late Thunder rally couldn’t cut that margin down below eight points. Houston 137, Oklahoma City 125, the Rockets’ third victory in the four-game season series, and if this is a harbinger of things to come, OKC will have to be extremely lucky to make it to the second round.

They weren’t particularly unlucky today: the offense was good enough, after all, to come up with 125 points, six men in double figures, 50-percent shooting, and yet another Russell Westbrook triple-double (39-11-13). But defense was conspicuous by its absence, and if you think James Harden is tricky to guard, be grateful you weren’t assigned to follow Lou Williams around. Coming off the Rocket bench, Williams hit his first eight shots, finishing with a highly respectable 11-15, and knocking down seven of eight three-point tries for a total of 31. (Harden, by comparison, had a modest 22 points and 12 assists.) The Thunder were dominant on the boards, as usual, with 42 retrievals, 16 offensive — the Rockets garnered a total of 36 boards, two off the offensive glass — but it doesn’t really matter how many rebounds you can collect when the opponents are hitting 63 percent of their shots.

So game one of this road trip is a bust. Game two is tomorrow evening, in Dallas, followed by a Wednesday session in Orlando. The Thunder, having won 41 games, can finish no lower than .500. They’re going to have to prove they can do better than .500.


Played great, less Philly

This year’s Sixers are so much better than last year’s Sixers it isn’t funny. Admittedly, 26-45 (so far) is probably not much to write home about, but 10-72, posted by the previous edition, is the stuff of bad comedy routines. That said, Philly was somewhat depleted coming in, missing Tiago Splitter, Jerryd Bayless, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but they put up quite a fight early on, and they were down only seven after the first quarter. Still, the Sixers have never won in Oklahoma City, and they weren’t about to start now. With the starters mostly cooped up, the Sixers bench got a chance to shine, with Nik Staukas posting a team-high 20 and the reserves grabbing 62 of Philadelphia’s 97 points. Just their luck, the Thunder bench was destined for 63 tonight, as OKC swept the Sixers for yet another year, 122-97.

The dominance of the Thunder in the usual statistical categories was pretty much total, with 55 percent shooting, a 54-29 advantage on the boards, and 26-19 on assists. (One exception: three-point shots, at which the Thunder managed only four of 16, while the Sixers made eight of 25.) Russell Westbrook had one of his more efficient outings, bagging a triple-double (18-11-14) on a mere six shots and six free throws; he didn’t miss a shot all night. Victor Oladipo came up with 18 of his own, but team high, once more, went to Enes Kanter, who hit eight of nine for 24 points. Things were going well enough that Nick Collison was pried off the bench for eight and a half minutes; he responded with seven points and five rebounds.

So ends a 2-1 homestand. Now the road beckons for three, at Houston Sunday afternoon, at Dallas Monday evening, and at Orlando Wednesday evening. The Thunder remain in the #6 slot, a game and a half behind the Clippers and a game ahead of the Grizzlies. In the first round of the playoffs, sixth seed plays third seed, which will likely be the Rockets. But you gotta beat ’em this weekend first.


And that was the end of that

This, I think, summed up the entire four-game series:

And this game was in doubt for maybe the first twelve minutes, but no longer: the Warriors doubled up on the Thunder 34-17 in the second quarter and kept a double-digit margin, usually a substantial one, until everything dissolved into the bleakness of a 111-95 final. The Thunder couldn’t hit the three-pointers, but then they could barely hit the two- pointers. Then again, OKC had five in double figures, led by, um, Victor Oladipo with 17; the Warriors had only three, but Klay Thompson hung around long enough to collect 34, and Steph Curry bagged 23. Both of those guys hit seven treys; the Thunder in aggregate made only four.

The game had its absurd moments, most notably a second-quarter dustup that resulted in quadruple technicals. (I am not making this up. Ticketed: Curry, allegedly the instigator; Russell Westbrook; Semaj Christon; Draymond Green.) Westbrook didn’t even come close to a double-double, let alone a triple. (Enes Kanter had the only double-double on either side: 15 points, 10 rebounds.) Golden State had a smallish 46-40 edge in rebounds, a bigger one — 28-18 — in assists, and were at least marginally acceptable at the free-throw line, collecting 16 of 21. The Thunder had no trouble getting to the line, the Warriors’ reputation for Never Ever Fouling notwithstanding, but it didn’t make much difference, as they missed 14 of 31.

Twelve games to go and 40-30. Now what? OKC probably can’t really aspire to a finish much higher than fifth or sixth. The Grizzlies, also 40-30, got to that point by winning four straight. It’s highly unlikely the Thunder will slump their way out of the playoffs entirely. The next game, against the 76ers, should come close to icing that playoff spot.


Return of (some) Kings

Today’s version of the Sacramento Kings could fairly be described as “depleted”; Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore were not available, and Arron Afflalo did not travel with the team for personal reasons. The 63-41 halftime score reflects this situation to a certain extent; however, the Kings who remained put up a decent fight in the second half, outscoring the Thunder 53-47. It wasn’t enough to give Sacramento the win — OKC tucked the W away, 110-94 — but it did make for a more entertaining spectacle than one might have expected.

The Sacramento reserves, in fact, collected bigger numbers than did the starters. Big man Georgios Papagiannis put together a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds; Skal Labissiere followed with 13. (The top scorer among the King starters was Buddy Hield, who pocketed 11.) Still, everyone in purple was on the minus side, and all the Thundermen were plus except Jerami Grant, who played one minute of garbage time.

Once again, OKC shot 50 percent, and two double-doubles were recorded, by Russell Westbrook (28 points, 10 assists) and Steven Adams (16 points, 13 boards). And the rise of Doug McDermott, who shot 8 of 9 for 21 points (4-5 from the three-point line), elicited several delighted eruptions from Loud City. Still, the Thunder were not all that wonderful in the second half, and Billy Donovan will give them a tongue-lashing or two before Monday night, when the dreaded Golden State Warriors arrive. There’s slightly less dread than usual — Kevin Iscariot is not going to suit up — but GS is still the top team in the West, if by less of a margin than they were early in the season. And the Thunder have lost three in a row to the Warriors; it would be nice to trounce them in front of the home crowd.


Extinction alert

No, the Raptors aren’t dead. Far from it. But for much of tonight’s game in Toronto, they looked like they were far from their final form. The Thunder owned the first quarter, 29-24; the Thunder owned the second quarter, 29-24. Third quarter, you ask? 39-22. Fourth quarter, and there wasn’t much point in bringing out the starters for the stretch. Despite that, all five Thunder starters made it into double figures, and Russell Westbrook had the by-now-usual triple-double (24-10-16). Oklahoma City 123, Toronto 102, tying the season series at 1-1.

The offensive barrage notwithstanding, what won this game was defense: DeMar DeRozen (22 points) was hardly DeFended into insignificance, but the other four Raptors in double figures managed only 10 to 13. (Serge Ibaka had 10.) And guard Cory Joseph somehow compiled a -30 over just under 30 minutes. And the Raptors’ prowess at the three-point line seemed to have taken leave of them: they hit only five of 20, and four of those were scored by the reserves. This is perhaps not what one expects from a team ten games over .500.

Then again, the Thunder only just crawled back to ten games over .500, and are now a game up on Memphis for the #6 seed in the West. (If anyone cares, the Brooklyn Nets, thrashed by the Thunder on Tuesday last, are the first team eliminated from the playoffs.) If they can keep shooting over 50 percent — not to mention a whopping 14-25 from beyond the arc — they might gain some ground on the frontrunners: Golden State (of course) and San Antonio (one game back).

And I’m throwing this in because it’s funny:

The honey badger of point guards, Westbrook is.

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Crushed ice

This year’s Blizzard of the Century turned out to be nothing of the sort, which surprises no one. And the Brooklyn Nets, winners of all of 12 games in the first 65, might have been figured by some for patsies, but they were, you got it, nothing of the sort. The game was tied 32-all after the first quarter, 62-all at the half, and only then did the Thunder defense get the measure of Brooklyn’s offensive machine, shutting down the Nets 122-104 and sweeping the two-game season series. Just the same, four Brooklyn starters cleared double figures, with long, tall Brook Lopez collecting 25 points and short, speedy Jeremy Lin adding 24. The Nets’ bench, despite the reputation they’d built this season, proved to be better tonight at defending than at scoring: they wrangled only 20 points. Still, the Nets shot 47 percent, splashed 12 of 24 treys, and missed only four of 30 free throws; you have to wonder where they’d be if they’d been a bit more consistent, or if they’d been able to put together a winning streak. (Longest win streak for the Nets this season: one game. That’s it.)

The Thunder had five in double figures plus Yet Another Triple-Double from Russell Westbrook (25-12-19). Victor Oladipo broke 20 again, with 21 points on 9-15 shooting. And Alex Abrines, who went 3-5 from deep and 5-7 overall, was christened by radio guy Matt Pinto “Señor Splash,” which the rookie seemed to appreciate. Abrines had 13 points, second only to Enes Kanter (17) among the Thunder reserves.

If I have any Great White North jokes left, they’ll have to wait for Thursday night in Toronto, fourth in the East at 39-28, where it’s snowing now and the predicted high for Thursday is, um, one degree Celsius. Also waiting in Toronto: Thunder expat Serge Ibaka, who will be happy to swat away anything he can.


Jazz cooled

Rudy Gobert is the center of the Utah Jazz, in several senses of the word; his absence from this afternoon’s game proved to be a serious handicap to the team — but not the sort that kills a team’s hopes, even with Derrick Favors also sidelined. The Utah bench rose to the occasion, and then some: no Jazz starter managed double figures, but the reserves definitely carried their weight, with Dante Exum scoring a career-high 22 points and Alec Burks picking up 21 more. If the Thunder thought this was going to be easy, their wake-up call came quickly enough: a 20-plus-point lead was almost entirely erased in the fourth quarter, waiting for Russell Westbrook to take over the game. Which, of course, Westbrook did, going 33-11-14 and sinking 12 of 13 free throws. And so it was that the Thunder would win the season series, 3-1, with a 112-104 victory over the visiting Utahns, pulling OKC to within four games of the Jazz for the Northwest Division lead.

The Jazz did shoot decently — 48 percent, nine of 20 treys — and pulled off nine steals. The Thunder owned most of the rest of the statistics, though, and any day that Gordon Hayward is held to nine points, the Jazz are going down. Victor Oladipo did another of his patented 20-pointers (22, actually), and the Stache Brothers collected double figures, 11 for Steven Adams starting and 16 for Enes Kanter off the bench. (Kanter, obtained from Utah, generally does well against his former team.) Taj Gibson started up front, but was pulled in the second half with what appeared to be a minor hip ailment.

Coming up next: a two-game Chill Factor tour, starting with Brooklyn (Tuesday) and then moving to Toronto (Thursday). In this time slot next week: the Sacramento Kings come to town.


San Antonio trolled

How did the Thunder lose four in a row to league also-rans — the Suns, the Mavericks, and the Trail Blazers twice — and then come back to crush the Spurs? If I didn’t think too long, I might say it had something to do with Taj Gibson’s being moved into a starting slot. Or I might simply point to the location: three of those losses were on the road. But maybe it’s nothing more than this: it’s all in how you execute. Tonight, the Thunder executed, and they did it just a hair better than San Antonio did. Okay, more than a hair: before garbage time, the Spurs were down 20. So the final score — Oklahoma City 102, San Antonio 92 — might be slightly deceiving.

The Spurs were admittedly slightly below full strength: Manu Ginobili had been given a day of rest, and Tony Parker was not well. Still, most of the core was on hand, with Dewayne Dedmon starting in the middle and Pau Gasol coming off the bench. As usual, Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and the scary Kawhi Leonard were responsible for the offense: they got 54 of the Spurs’ 92 points. Leonard departed early in the fourth quarter for some reason we were not told. SA shot only 42 percent, 32 percent from the three-point line, and that just doesn’t happen, does it?

The difference, of course, is (1) Russell Westbrook got another triple-double (23-13-13), and (2) he didn’t have to carry the offense alone. Victor Oladipo was healed enough to snag 20 points, and Enes Kanter produced a double-double (14-10) off the bench. Domas Sabonis played about the same 20 minutes a reserve as he did as a starter, and got the same six points. Meanwhile, Semaj Christon, one of very few players with a five-letter, three-syllable first name, seems to have worked his way back into the backup point-guard slot. He didn’t score, but he didn’t turn it over either.

Up next: the Jazz, on Saturday afternoon. Utah leads the Northwest by five games and is wedged between Houston and the Clippers for fourth place in the West. (The Thunder are in sixth, a tiebreaker ahead of the Grizzlies.) So this is Serious Business for a matinee game. Let’s hope nothing laughable happens.

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The triumph of Portlandia

For just a moment — okay, for twelve minutes — it looked like the Thunder were going to stomp the Trail Blazers. It was 40-29 at the first quarter break. Then Portland ran off 11 in a row to tie it up, and the Blazers didn’t let up. How dominant were they? We’re talking seven players (out of nine) in double figures, led by reserve guard Allan Crabbe with 23. (The word “reserve” matters here; seven Thunder bench players in aggregate managed only 26.) OKC did manage a tie or two, but with 31 seconds left the Blazers were up 120-116, those last four points contributed by Jusuf Nurkić. In the next five seconds, Steven Adams threw up a high screen, everyone went after Russell Westbrook, and Victor Oladipo sneaked through a trey, making it a one-point game. Inexplicably, Westbrook fouled C. J. McCollum, one of the stalwarts of the stripe. McCollum promptly swished his two charity tosses. Westbrook had a good look on his next shot, but it fell short, and Nurkić essentially finished the job. Yeah, there was one more Westbrook shot, but Damien Lillard drew a foul and knocked down two more, so it ended with Portland up 126-121, winning the season series 3-1.

It seemed like there was always one more Westbrook shot. In fact, the Thunder put up 85 shots, and Westbrook had 39 of them, making 21 and finishing with a career-high 58 points. (Before you ask: the rest of the team got 63.) I suspect he’s less impressed by that than the fact that it’s another L. The Thunder had a slight edge in rebounds (39-36), but the Blazers did that whole assist thing better (24-16). To look upward for a moment: Memphis has lost three straight and remains one game ahead of OKC for the sixth seed in the West. Denver remains in eighth, five and a half back, but the Blazers are only one and a half behind the Nuggets.

The crunch, though, is clearly on. There are only 18 regular-season games left, nine at home, nine on the road, and while the Thunder are a better-than-respectable 23-9 at home, they’re an indifferent 12-20 on the road. The next two are at home, but they’re against recognized powerhouses: first the Spurs on Thursday, followed by the Jazz on Saturday afternoon. I’m readying the fainting couch.

And about an hour after the game, ESPN’s Royce Young delivered the statistical blow:

What can we learn from this?

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Sputtering we will go

So much for that road trip. The Thunder won no road games in February, and so far they’ve won none in March; Dallas, barely within sight of the .500 mark, had more than enough vision tonight to thrash OKC, even without the ailing J. J. Barea. How bad a thrashing? We’re talking 104-89. Both sides emptied their benches before the two-minute mark. Russell Westbrook’s string of four games over 40 points came to a halt, the season series between these two teams is even at 1-1 with one to play, and, perhaps most horrifyingly, Kyle Singler got some playing time.

Perhaps we can blame it on Dirk. He’s not the consummate athlete he used to be, perhaps, but he still put his half-hour to good use, scoring 18 points and retrieving 12 rebounds. That’s more points than anyone else on the team except Seth Curry, who knocked down 22. And Wesley Matthews, who has not been well of late, came back well enough to record three of the Mavs’ six steals. The Thunder’s vaunted superiority on the boards was still evident — OKC grabbed 49 rebounds, Dallas only 38 — but obviously, it didn’t make any difference. What did matter was shooting, and the Thunder didn’t do it well, finishing just barely above 40 percent and missing 20 of 22 would-be treys. Westbrook still had a respectable line, 29-6-5, and Enes Kanter was up for a double-double (16 points, 10 boards), but nobody else except Steven Adams (19) scored more than six. Even Alex Abrines failed to produce: he missed his first three shots, and then got poked in the eye and sat the rest of the game.

Back home, at least, they can lick their wounds and prepare themselves for the next visitors, the Trail Blazers, who waxed the Thunder royally in Portland earlier this week. You’ve got to wonder at this point if being at home is going to make much of a difference.


Now bring me a switch

The Suns’ home in Phoenix is now officially the Talking Stick Resort Arena, after a hotel/casino in Scottsdale, and I don’t know how much talking they did, but the Suns definitely beat the Thunder with whatever sticks were at hand. Oklahoma City led 28-23 after the first quarter, but Phoenix took over in the second and never, ever let up. At the obligatory around-two-minutes timeout, the Suns led by eight, the same margin they’d had at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and a minute later, they were up nine. The rest of the night, it was Thunder buckets alternating with Suns free throws, and Phoenix wins it 118-111. OKC hasn’t won a road game since late January.

Again, a balanced attack undid the Thunder. The Suns had three starters and three reserves in double figures; Eric Bledsoe posted a team-high 18 points, and Alan Williams had a 14-13 double-double off the bench. And that bench proved formidable, rolling up 55 points. Thunder reserves came up with only 22. Blame ball movement, if you will; the Suns dished up 28 assists, the Thunder merely 14. Russell Westbrook put up 48 points and corralled 17 rebounds. (No triple-double, though: only 9 dimes.) We will tiptoe past OKC’s 9-35 futility from the three-point circle. Back-to-back, you say? Well, yeah, but then Phoenix played last night too. Then again, they were in the friendly confines of the Talking Stick, and they pounded Charlotte something fierce.

Sunday night, it’s off to Dallas, where the Mavs have something to celebrate for once, having knocked off the Grizzlies this evening. The pundits say it’s the arrival of Nerlens Noel that’s making things look easy in Big D. Maybe so. Noel had 15 points and 17 rebounds tonight, and all the starters made double digits, though the Ancient God Dirk had to work hard for his 10. The Thunder aren’t about to fall out of a playoff berth just yet: six and a half games separate them from the eighth-place Nuggets. And really, you’d rather have Denver have to play Golden State, right?


Arena of Doom

It didn’t matter, really, that the Trail Blazers had been 11 games below .500; getting a win in Portland is always a little more difficult than you’d think, so you have to rely on things going Just Right. With 1:35 left in the first half, the Blazers had a solid nine-point lead. Russell Westbrook tossed up a trey. The Blazers could not score, and Westbrook tossed up another trey. The Blazers could not score, but they were damned if Westbrook would get another trey, so they fouled him. He hit all three free throws. And at the end of the half, just for the hell of it, Taj Gibson pulled off a steal, 70 feet or so from the bucket, and hoisted the shot. It went in. Thunder up 62-59 at the half. But OKC could not pull away from the pesky Blazers; they ran their lead to eight early in the fourth quarter, but by 3:43 Portland had tied it up again, and shortly thereafter the Blazers were up seven, then nine. At :32 the Thunder had pulled to within four again; 15 seconds later, Alex Abrines knocked down a trey from the corner, and suddenly it was 110-109. But that was the end of it; Damien Lillard came up with four free throws to put it out of reach. The Thunder hadn’t won in Portland since 2014, and they would not tonight; the Blazers finished them off, 114-109, and took a 2-1 lead in the season series.

One of the Blazers’ unsecret weapons is the Balanced Attack. Six of them made double figures, led by the sturdy Lillard with 33. Manning the middle was Jusuf Nurkić, who rang up an 18-point, 13-rebound double-double. Meanwhile, Thunder starters came up with 57 points, but 45 of them came from Westbrook. The bench did better, Enes Kanter with 18 and Taj Gibson with 15, but that’s an awful lot of points that weren’t gotten. (The newly arrived Norris Cole played 11 minutes and scored 7.)

No time to nurse their wounds, either; the Thunder are due in Phoenix Friday night. The Suns aren’t all that good, but they aren’t all that bad either.


Brinkmanship illustrated

Among the most unheard-of things you ever heard of: the Thunder, generally regarded as the worst 3-point shooters in the league, hit their first 12 treys tonight. This could not possibly last, and of course it didn’t; they wound up at 15-22. But that was hardly the worst thing that happened to OKC.

The Jazz, who trailed most of the night, came up with a 18-2 run in the fourth quarter, which got them a three-point lead inside the three-minute mark. “Crumbling at both ends of the floor,” observed radio guy Matt Pinto, and that describes the Thunder well enough during that protracted collapse. Once again, Russell Westbrook had to pull off something, well, Westbrookian to save the day. With 15 seconds left, the Thunder, pretty much all Westbrook at this point, went up 108-106, and the Jazz spent 13 of them trying to get off a shot. Jerami Grant took the ball away, was immediately fouled, and nailed one of two free throws. Utah had one possession left in the final 1.1 seconds, which they used to get off a buzzer-beater; unfortunately, it failed to reach the net. Oklahoma City 109, Utah 106, as the Thunder go up 2-1 in the season series and pulled to within two games of the Jazz.

Triple-double, you ask? But of course: Westbrook’s line was 43-11-10. And they needed every last one of those points, since Enes Kanter had a fairly prosaic night (15 points) and Victor Oladipo is still missing in action. Still, Bulls expat Doug McDermott was good for 16, and starting in place of the Big V was Alex Abrines, who took only four shots, three of then treys, and made them all.

As you might expect, Utah had six players in double figures, including four of five starters. Gordon Hayward had a team-high 19, and Rudy Gobert put together a 13-10 double-double. Telltale Statistic: The Jazz put up 93 shots, the Thunder only 76.

OKC is now even with Memphis at 35-25, but the Thunder, for now, own the tiebreaker for sixth. There now follows a three-game road trip, to Portland, Phoenix and Dallas. Norris Cole will be arriving shortly.


Somewhat angrier birds

Down 3-0 in the season series, the New Orleans Pelicans came to Oklahoma City with a chip on their collective shoulder and a new non-secret weapon: DeMarcus Cousins, recently arrived from Sacramento. Cousins is as surly as ever — the only NBA player so far this season to be suspended for too many technicals, he got T’d up once more tonight. Not that anyone noticed, there being six other techs tonight. And it was a close one, the Birds up three after the first quarter, a 59-all tie at the half, the Thunder up three after the third. Cousins proved to be as wily as ever, drawing double- and even triple-teams, leaving superstar forward Anthony Davis all alone to knock ’em down. And knock ’em down Davis did. Still, things were fierce going both ways, and both Cousins and Andre Roberson wound up getting broomed after six fouls, which didn’t make the windup any quieter; it took an even hairier than usual performance from Russell Westbrook — 41 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists — to finally put away the Pels, 118-110. Of those 41 points, 21 came in the fourth quarter.

Before Cousins fouled out — Westbrook, of course, drew that foul — he’d rung up 31 points, including 15 of 15 from the stripe. Davis went 15-28 for 38 points. Didn’t leave much for the other Pelicans, but such is the way of the team with two very strong players. (Like, for instance, the Thunder through last season.) Enes Kanter was much closer to form, with 20 points and 9 boards; Steven Adams did the double-double with 13-10. And there were a lot of free throws: 37 on either side, with New Orleans bagging 30, the Thunder 28.

Tuesday night, the Jazz, who lead the Northwest Division by three games, will come to OKC. Anything can happen in Thunder-Jazz, and more often than not, it will. Just you wait.


New look, sort of

The Thunder this week looked mostly like the Thunder last week, but there were some marked differences. For one, Enes Kanter was back in the lineup. For another, the most recent act of Prestidigitation brought the team Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (and a draft pick, but you won’t see that for a while), while Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow and Cameron Payne were dealt to the Bulls. And just to confound matters, Alex Abrines got the start at shooting guard, filling in for Victor Oladipo, who complained of back spams. (I don’t blame ya, VO; if I had ’em, I’d complain too.) Expected result: Sr. Abrines collects a career high, 19 points. Unexpected result: Andre Roberson collects a career high, also 19 points. And the Lakers, not privy to any of this maneuvering, did what they usually do these days: they lost on the road. Oklahoma City 110, Los Angeles 93, the season series is finished at 3-1, and perhaps we’ll have some happy pundits in town.

The two ex-Bulls acquitted themselves well, with Gibson picking up 12 points and McDermott eight. (Not so well: Kanter, a little rusty after a month off, with four.) Oh, and there was another Russell Westbrook triple-double: 17-18-17. The shocker, though, was Roberson, who hit eight of nine shots including all three 3-pointers. (Although, to remind you he’s still Dre, he missed both his free throws.) The Lakers had some offense to fling, much of it supplied by D’Angelo Russell, with a game-high 29, albeit on 26 shots. Jordan Clarkson came off the bench for 14 more. L.A. did not shoot well overall, landing just short of 40 percent and nailing only seven 3-pointers out of 35 tries. They did, however, pull off 15 steals (four by Russell), and they blocked eight shots. (OKC: nine steals, seven blocks.)

For the first game after the All-Star break, “not horrible” is satisfactory. The Pelicans, who arrive Sunday, will likely put up more of a fight.


New York regrooved

So the Knickerbockers came to town, and they proceeded to beat the living snot out of the Thunder — for the first quarter, anyway, in which New York rolled up a 39-27 lead. It turned out that OKC took rather a lot of time to figure out how to defend against the Knicks’ mostly half-court offense, and once they did, they ran off 61 points in the next two quarters, against a mere 41 for the Knicks. New York stiffened, as New York will, in the last twelve minutes, but so did OKC, rolling to a 15-point lead just outside the four-minute mark and dispatching the New Yorkers, 116-105, sweeping the two-game season series.

Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine running at the Peake:

Still, the work got done when it had to be. Carmelo Anthony rolled up the majority of his 30 points before Andre Roberson put the squeeze on him; Derrick Rose knocked down 25; but the four Knick reserves who saw playing time managed a mere 15 points. (The Thunder bench produced 30, 13 from Jerami Grant.) There was, yet again, a Russell Westbrook triple-double (38-14-12), another big outing for Victor Oladipo (21 points), and there was something of an anomaly: both sides shot better from the three-point line than they did overall. Really. The Knicks were 41-86 overall (48 percent) and 11-21 from downtown (52 percent); the Thunder went 41-88 (47 percent) and 12-23 from way out there (52 percent). If your job is to make the dullest highlight reel possible, this is your game.

And that concludes the first half, so to speak, of the season. (Actually, about two-thirds of the season is done, but there’s that whole All-Star weekend thing.) The Thunder are 32-25, which projects to 46-36 for the season. Might be enough for seventh or eighth. It doesn’t hurt that six of the next nine games are against lottery likelies; on the other hand, one’s against the Spurs and two are against the Jazz. Where this one ends up, nobody knows.

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No sorcery required

You have to figure that any night Russell Westbrook finished with a -36 is a night that did not go well, and indeed it didn’t; the Wizards hit their first eight shots, and about five minutes in, they had an absurd 22-6 lead. The Thunder stabilized a bit, and were down a workable 67-54 at the half; however, coming out of the locker room, they missed a dozen shots in a row, and by then the Wizards had sailed. In a game notable mostly for its extensive garbage minutes, Washington, coached by Thunder castoff Scott Brooks, thoroughly trounced OKC, 120-98, in a game that wasn’t even that close: the Wizards, at one point in the third, were up 34.

Mainly, the Thunder couldn’t shoot. We’re talking 34-96, which is barely 35 percent. (The Wizards took only 73 shots, but made 42.) Westbrook managed only 17 points on 5-19 shooting. Andre Roberson got two early fouls and basically was never heard from again. On the upside, Kyle Singler came up with six points in 16 minutes. OKC won the battle of the boards, 47-40, but was otherwise eclipsed. Meanwhile, all five D.C. starters managed double figures, Marcin Gortat getting the least with 12, and two double-doubles to show: John Wall with 15 points and 14 assists, Otto Porter with 18 points and 11 boards. Game-high? That would be Markieff Morris, with 23, and right behind, Bradley Beal with 22.

One to go before the All-Star break: the Knicks come to OKC on Wednesday. New York has been inconsistent, and has been rewarded for its inconsistency with a sub-.500 record; they’d dearly love to trip up the Thunder, and if the Thunder play like this, it won’t get the Knicks out of eleventh place, but it will make OKC’s playoff chances that much dimmer.


Grudge match

First, to get Crowd Response out of the way:

Subtle, Mr. Mayor, sir.

Anyway, were there collars on NBA uniforms, they would have been hot under; late in the third, KD and Andre Roberson nearly came to blows, and trash talk was the rule rather than the exception. Down 23 at the half — the Warriors had a picture-perfect 43 points in the second quarter — the Thunder managed to pull within 12 in the fourth. But that was as close as they would get; a 27-footer by Yonder Cupcake (I have no idea where KD picked up that pejorative) put Golden State up 19 with three and a half minutes left, and with all the air sucked out of the room at 1:52, both benches were emptied. Warriors 130, Thunder 114, the season series goes to 3-0, and if nothing else, Houston’s James Harden probably went up a couple of points in local regard.

In the Battle of the Superstars, Russell Westbrook, 47-11-8, edged KD, 34-9-3, though both committed five fouls. Only four Warriors scored in double figures, but the Thunder had only three. The scary aspect was that JaVale McGee came within one point of a season high, with 16; it’s never a good sign when the more marginal players come up big. This wasn’t a great night for either bench — Golden State’s scored 22, OKC’s 19 — but note should be taken of Andre Iguodala’s +30 for the night, far and away the greatest plusser.

There will be one face-saver in March in OKC. Maybe Kanter will be back. Maybe one of the Warriors will develop flu-like symptoms. But definitely, things will be loud.

Two games before the All-Star break: at Washington on Monday, followed by a visit from the Knicks on Wednesday. I expect little snarling in either case.

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Tyronn Lue was trolling, evidently; all that pre-game talk about possibly sitting his stars on the second night of a back-to-back proved to be nothing more than talk. Lue’s Cavaliers, minus the walking-wounded Iman Shumpert, were close to full strength, and they pretty much played like it, with Kyrie Irving running the point to perfection and LeBron James being LeBron James. Add a Kevin Love double-double, and you have to wonder how the Thunder were going to respond. Answer: Strongly, and late. After plenty of time on the teeter-totter in the fourth quarter, the Thunder found themselves up 111-101 with two minutes left, still led by 10 after one minute more, and had thoroughly stymied the Cavs’ big three. Lue knew he was licked, the aforementioned big three withdrew, and OKC won it 118-109, their first win over Cleveland in over a year.

Lots of good numbers: Russell Westbrook was 29-12-11, Steven Adams scored 20 and retrieved 13 boards, Victor Oladipo knocked down 23. Perhaps the most remarkable was this: despite losing the shooting percentage battle by something like 0.9, the Thunder made tons of shots: 50 out of 106. (The Cavs were 38-79.) Cleveland made more trips to the stripe — the Cavs never, ever foul — but King James, who had a healthy 16-point first half, finished with, um, 18. Andre Roberson can so guard LeBron. Irving was the default sharpshooter, and he wound up with a respectable 28. The Cavs’ bench, however, was held to 20, or about what Enes Kanter gets on a good night. Despite Kanter’s absence, the Thunder reserves popped up 30, half of them from Cameron Payne.

Once you’ve beaten the champs — well, the runners-up are showing up Saturday night. Heaven knows how the Loud City crowd will respond to the appearance of Kevin Iscariot, and you can be absolutely certain Heaven will hear it. We won’t think about that for a while.