Semi-solar flares

Freeze-frame: two and a half minutes, give or take, left in the first half. It’s Thunder 52, Suns 49, and both sides are shooting about 57 percent from the floor. Difference: OKC has made eight of 14 treys, Phoenix none of five. But the Suns have 16 of 20 free throws, and the Thunder haven’t even been to the line yet.

That’s the kind of night it was. The Suns, with a new interim coach (Earl Watson) and four bodies lost to injuries, rang up 38 points in the second quarter to wipe out the nine-point deficit they faced after the first: it was 57-all at the half. Phoenix cranked it up in the third, but the Thunder settled that — temporarily — with a 15-0 run. But the Suns kept coming back, and OKC wasn’t really out of the woods until a patented Kevin Durant mug shot with 90 seconds left put the Thunder up by fourteen. 122-106 was the final, 3-0 is the season series, and 1-1 is the road trip.

The Suns may have faded at the end, but they put up a heck of a fight. P. J. Tucker logged a remarkable 45:58: he played the entire game with no rest until he fouled out with 2:02 left. Short on personnel, interim Phoenix coach Earl Watson ran through nine players, and got seven of them to score, five in double figures. The ever-feisty Markieff Morris, who always seems to come to life against OKC, knocked down a team-high 23. But only one three-point ball would fall for the Suns tonight, while the Thunder somehow dropped 15 of them, which doesn’t quite explain KD’s 32 points or Russell Westbrook’s 29. And that free-throw disparity gradually diminished: the Suns finished 31-39 from the stripe, the Thunder 23-30.

The Pelicans will be in OKC Thursday, followed by the All-Star break. Will this be the Thunder’s 40th win? Who is knowing? Not I, you may be sure.

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Buzzsawed

The Thunder scored the first nine points of the evening, and I thought: Don’t do that. You’ll make them angry. You won’t like them when they’re angry. The Warriors did a slow burn, caught up before the end of the first quarter, rolled up 73 points in the first half, and ran to leads as big as twenty. Still, OKC hung in there, and with 3:36 left, finally tied it up at 104, only to see Golden State go on a 6-0 run, and the Thunder would be no threat thereafter. Final score: Warriors 116, Thunder 108, and I suspect it could have been much worse than that.

One problem with OKC tonight was getting points out of the bench. They played defense tolerably well, but they were positively immune to the lure of the net: in the first 34 minutes, the Thunder reserves had scored a total of four points, all from Enes Kanter. Cameron Payne hit a trey late in the third, but in the fourth, Kanter knocked down ten and the rest of the bench had zilch. The Warriors’ three-point prowess was probably at a pre-Super Bowl party; it certainly didn’t show up tonight (7-26, even worse than the Thunder’s 7-22). Fortunately, the Golden State system lets everybody score, and while Stephen Curry posted a modest 26 points and Klay Thompson an okay 18, there were plenty of others to take up whatever slack existed. (Harrison Barnes had 19, something he hadn’t had in the 49 previous games this year.)

The dismal showing by the bench meant that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had to crank up their scoring. KD turned in 40 on 12-25; Westbrook 27 on 8-22. At least they made all their free throws, 22 between them — though the rest of the team went 7-15 from the stripe. The Warriors weren’t any better, making only 13 of 20. Then again, this was a case where they didn’t have to be.

This brief road trip ends Monday at Phoenix, followed by a single home game against the Pelicans and then the All-Star break. If OKC takes both, they’ll be at 40-14, and will most likely still be third in the West, the Golden State and San Antonio juggernauts showing no sign of faltering.

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Warlocked and loaded

Several hours before the game, Alex Roig predicted the Thunder killer: Victor Oladipo. Not the most difficult prediction, perhaps, but Oladipo pretty much had his way with any deployment of Thunder defense — rather the way he did the last Thunder-Magic clash, in which he knocked down a triple-double. Into the final minute of the game, Oladipo had 37 points, one short of his career high, and the Magic were up two. “Killer,” for the moment, looked literal. Then at :30, Russell Westbrook came up with a layup to tie, and with half a second left, Kevin Durant splashed a 28-footer. Oladipo’s desperation shot at the horn did not go, and it was Oklahoma City 117, Orlando 114, wild and woolly, though only one actual W word counts for anything in the grand scheme of things.

Still, it took some serious heroics to get past those shots of V.O. That last trey gave KD 37 points, and Westbrook, who’d worked up a triple-double in a mere 22 minutes, had 19 rebounds, a career high, in the middle of it. (Otherwise: 22 points, 14 assists.) And the Magic were shooting 50 percent or better almost all night, finishing at 49.5. Serge Ibaka wasn’t scoring much, but he did block six shots, one more than the entire Orlando squad. Still, the guy who scared me as much as Oladipo did was Mario Hezonja, the #5 draft pick in 2015, who scored 16, one short of his career high, and who beat two buzzers. (There are only four buzzers to beat in regulation.)

All eyes, inevitably, now turn to Saturday night’s clash with the mighty Golden State Warriors, who have yet to lose one at home this season. (Then again, neither have the Spurs, who have played more home games.) I’d like to be hopeful, really I would. But then the Thunder just beat a team that had lost nine of its last ten by three points. The Warriors haven’t lost nine since the French and Indian War.

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Nearly spellbound

One thing about the Washington Wizards: they’ll shoot if there’s an opportunity, and sometimes if there isn’t. This works about half the time, or at least it did earlier in the game; the Wizards dropped to 47 percent shooting, and second-chance points were few and far between. (One set of numbers screams this at you: the Thunder outrebounded the Wiz, 53-27, and only two of those Washington retrievals were off the offensive glass.) Still, a high-velocity offense will not save you against one that’s running at an even higher speed, and tonight Oklahoma City was cranking it up, at least when they weren’t coughing it up, hitting 52 percent on the way to a 114-98 win and a 2-0 season sweep of the Pirates of the Potomac.

As usual, the big-number grabbers grabbed big numbers: Kevin Durant glided to 28 points, Serge Ibaka pounded home 19 with ten rebounds, and there’s Yet Another Russell Westbrook triple-double, 17-13-11. And everyone was delighted to see the return of Cameron Payne, sidelined for a couple of games due to concussion-like symptoms; he sprang for eight points in 12 minutes. Wizards sixth man Bradley Beal, from Florida in the Billy Donovan days, paced Washington with 18, mostly in the second half; John Wall, who played all but seven minutes, followed with 17.

The homestand ends Wednesday, with the arrival of the Magic from Orlando. (Well, actually, they’re arriving from San Antonio, where the Spurs at the writing are drubbing them.) Then comes Saturday, and the first visit to the Golden Gate. The Warriors, who have won like a bazillion in a row, haven’t lost on their home floor all year, and Steph Curry has already guaranteed a Warriors win. (He later did the Ha Ha Only Kidding backpedal, but he meant it. Steph always means it.) If the Thunder can pull that one out — but that’s a pretty fair-sized if, even for a team with the fourth-best record in the league.

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High ferocity

It is a measure of the sort of game this was — “chippy,” said radio guy Matt Pinto — that when Dwight Howard was thumbed for his second technical foul, the first thought that came to mind was “Aw, crap, who do we get to foul now?” Howard’s lack of prowess from the stripe is legendary: he was 4-15 tonight. But the man can defend, and without him, the Rockets’ 12-point lead totally evaporated and an endless barrage of three-point shots failed to yield many points. Not that the Thunder minded: they hadn’t beaten the Rockets in almost two years, and when Houston called timeout with 3:25 left, OKC was up by 14 and the Thunder were actively mocking them. Seriously. After old nemesis Patrick Beverley bounced one off the backboard at the shot-clock buzzer, Russell Westbrook gave him a side-eye you would not believe; said Royce Young, “That needs to be GIF’d into eternity.” The Rockets rallied, as the Rockets will, but the Thunder prevailed, 116-108, evening the season series at 1-1 with two to play.

Houston did not help itself with lousy shooting from the floor: 38 percent overall, and nine of 39 (!) treys, 23 percent. James Harden was, of course, James Harden-like when possible; his 33 points came from 8-22 shooting and 15 of 17 free throws, including four of five in the last two minutes. And generally, the Rockets’ defense was at least plausible. But this was a night for the home team: Kevin Durant logged another double-double (33 points, 12 rebounds) and Westbrook picked up yet another triple-double, 26-10-14. What’s more, two other Thunder players had 10 rebounds — Steven Adams and Enes Kanter — and Kanter, who’d scored only two points in the first half, bagged 20 in the second.

There were, of course, too many turnovers, particularly late when that 14-point Thunder lead started to erode. There will be time, though, to discuss that: the Wizards won’t be here until Monday, and the Magic two days afterwards.

Addendum: No GIF yet, but Bleacher Report captured it on Vine.

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You again, again

The third Thunder-Timberwolves game of the month — they previously met on the 12th and the 15th, and it means absolutely nothing that 12 + 15 = 27 — offered not-even-slightly-mute testimony to the value of a strong bench, something the Thunder didn’t have last night in New York. OKC, trailing much of the night, came up with a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, which the Wolves promptly gnawed down to two. But OKC did not quite yield, and when Zack LaVine, who’d made 12 of 14 at that point, put up a ball from two feet beyond the arc that fell three feet short of the rim, that was it for the Wolves: the roller-coaster continued for a bit over a minute, which took about 10 minutes to complete, and when things finally ground to a halt, it was Oklahoma City 126, Minnesota 123, 3-0 in the season series (the fourth game will be on the 11th of March), and 3-1 on this road trip.

Strong benches. That’s where you find LaVine, who finished with 35 points, a season high and two points his career high, on 14-17 shooting, 5-8 from outside. The Minnesota reserves cranked out 57 points. The Thunder managed 45, and might have had more had not Cameron Payne taken a head shot that wound up looking awfully concussion-y; he, of course, did not return. Enes Kanter delivered 23 of those 45. Among the starting Wolves, Gorgui Djeng led with 21, with super-rooks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns claiming 20 and 19. Meanwhile, it’s another Russell Westbrook double-double (24 points, 15 dimes) and 27 from Kevin Durant. Still, towards the end I got to wondering how anyone was still standing after all these shots. The Wolves hit 50 of 90, the Thunder 48 of 91, both comfortably above 50 percent.

Back at home, albeit presumably without Payne and definitely without Roberson, the next foe will be the usually-deadly Houston Rockets, who at this writing are being spanked by the Spurs. Of course, that won’t matter the day after tomorrow.

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Start spreading the floor

It is said of New York, New York, that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. The Thunder had to have been wondering if they could make it anywhere; after being drubbed by the Nets on Sunday, they were, I suspect, hoping for an easier time with the Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks. But there were obstacles. In the first place, the Knicks had Kristaps Porzingis, described by Kevin Durant as a “unicorn.” In the second place, to quote Royce Young, “The Thunder have been a trainwreck defensively in these two New York games.” After trailing through most of the middle quarters, OKC tied it up on a Kevin Durant jumper with 16 seconds left; a last-second Arron Afflalo turnaround jumper went halfway down and came back up, forcing overtime. And it took a series of free throws, four by Durant, two by Serge Ibaka, to subdue the Knickerbockers, 128-122, to earn a split of the season series.

What’s more, it took a season-high 44 points by Durant and a solid 30 from Russell Westbrook to make this work, because the bench fell apart: the OKC reserves came up with all of 19 points. Derrick Williams bagged that many himself for New York, and Langston Galloway hit 21, a season high, to lead all the Knicks. Porzingis the Unicorn played almost like a normal person, with 15 points but -16 for the night. The Thunder got most of the rebounds (59-42), but the Knicks got most of the blocks (7-2). In the absence of a good explanation, I’m going to suggest that the guys weren’t prepared for both Brook and Robin Lopez in the same week.

Upside: Cameron Payne hit four treys in five tries; the Thunder actually shot better from outside the arc (11-20, 55 percent) than from inside (46-99, 47 percent). Downside: all the starters (Andre Roberson is out for at least three weeks, so Dion Waiters got to play shooting guard) except Steven Adams played at least 40 minutes, and there’s a game tomorrow night in Minneapolis. Further upside: Well, at least it’s not in New York. Those guys are lethal.

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Bruised in Brooklyn

The Nets, everyone said, were terrible. Eleven wins in 44 games would certainly sound terrible. But tonight, in a game postponed by four hours, Brooklyn looked almost unbeatable, and the Thunder contributed to that appearance by not beating them. The Nets led by two after the first quarter, eight at the half, eight after three quarters, and never once had to look back: as close as OKC would come would be five, halfway through the fourth. “Just not firing on all cylinders,” said radio guy Matt Pinto, and fortunately, we can’t much extend automotive metaphor in this context, though it would be fair to question the brakes: when they needed stops, the Thunder couldn’t get them. Brook Lopez, in fact, worked his way to a season-high 31 points as the Nets walloped the Thunder, 116-106, to tie the season series at one each.

It wasn’t just Lopez, either. All the starting Nets scored in double figures except Wayne Ellington, and he missed by only one. Bojan Bogdanović paced the bench with 18. Points in the paint were pretty even (OKC 60, Brooklyn 58), but in every other statistical category, the Nets were dominant. It did not help that Steven Adams, who might have been able to hold back Lopez, was out for the second time with his elbow ailment, and in the second quarter, Andre Roberson plowed into Russell Westbrook, leaving Westbrook unharmed but messing up Dre’s knee. Westbrook did come up with 27 points, and Kevin Durant 30, but the support troops were conspicuous by their absence.

Fortunately, there’s no travel time to the next game, against the Knicks at the Garden. New York is playing around .500 ball, and they’d like nothing better than to thrash Oklahoma City. Watch this space, if you can.

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Working it at both ends

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was not all that keen on having an opposing team this close by. But Cuban, if you press him, will allow that Mavs-Thunder games are generally more than satisfactorily watchable, and tonight’s, played in Dallas, was pretty fierce, particularly in the second half: OKC, down eight at intermission, laid a 37-18 beatdown on the Mavs in the third, and then watched uncomfortably — they had to be watching, judging by some of the defensive lapses — as Dallas shaved that double-digit lead down to a single point with 1:06 left. Kevin Durant jumped up with a bucket, and the Mavs bombarded the rim, to no avail. “Everybody got good looks,” noted Dion Waiters, “but they missed.” Oklahoma City 109, Dallas 106, 3-0 in the season series.

Waiters did his part, with 13 points and four of OKC’s 47 rebounds (the Mavs had 33). Steven Adams somehow messed up his elbow during the warmup, and Nick Collison got his first start of the season: six points, 11 boards, a very Adamsesque line. Durant had a team-high 24. But the real point-gatherers were from the home team: Chandler Parsons (26) and Deron Williams (22) were responsible for much of the last-quarter heroics for Dallas, and both Parsons and Dirk Nowitzki (14) contributed to that last Maverick fusillade.

I note the following for reference: (1) Billy Donovan seems to have shortened the rotation to nine, and Kyle Singler (10 points tonight) is definitely back in it; (2) according to Forbes, this Thunder team is worth $950 million, a fair chunk of change for a small-market squad, ranking 17th among 30 NBA teams despite that smallness. (First season, back in 2008-09: $300 million, less than the $350 million paid to acquire the team.) The Mavs, in a much bigger market, are worth $1.4 billion, ranked ninth, and you might guess — correctly — that the Knicks are at the top of the financial ladder. The Thunder will play those Knicks on Tuesday, weather permitting. (The Brooklyn Nets come first, on Sunday afternoon, with the same caution.)

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Battered Bees

A rather banged-up version of the Charlotte Hornets showed up in Oklahoma City tonight: Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and OKC expat Jeremy Lamb were all injured, and Nicolas Batum was running at less than 100 percent. (Batum exited early with a foot problem and no points.) This put a lot of pressure on Kemba Walker, who fortunately for Charlotte took it well: he finished with 21 points, though only four in the second half. And the remaining Hornets reserves were game, with three (Frank Kaminsky, Troy Daniels and Jeremy Lin) racking up double figures and others coming close. None of this mattered, though, on a night when the Thunder got three-fifths of all the available rebounds, six OKC players made double figures and two (Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook) had double-doubles. And most especially, it didn’t matter on a night when Kyle Singler was 4-4 from the floor and 3-3 from beyond the arc: clearly the stars were aligned the Thunder’s way tonight, and the score, 109-95, eerily echoed the last Thunder-Hornets game, a 109-90 OKC win in Charlotte on the second of January.

Oh, I meant it about the rebounds: 51-34. And while the Thunder shot blockers were not much in evidence — only three, though Enes Kanter got one of them, an indication that he’s playing some defense these days — there were nine steals, five by Westbrook, who’s in “Screw the shots, let’s make some plays” mode of late. (Seriously. 5-14, but 15 assists.) The Hornets drifted in and out of contention all night, but being on the wrong end of a 36-25 third quarter made things very difficult for them. Let’s hope Al Jefferson gets better, especially since this is the last Thunder-Hornets game of the season.

Now come four road games in less than a week: Dallas, Brooklyn, New York, Minnesota. (No surprise here: through 44 games, the Thunder have played 26 at home, only 18 on the road, and it’s got to come out to 41/41 at the end.) We’re getting to the point where things are starting to get serious.

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Lots of heavy breathing

Despite their lowly place in the standings — eleventh in the West — the Nuggets have been pretty decent of late, winning four of six and knocking off the likes of Indiana (!) and Golden State (!!) during that stretch. And there were plenty of moments when it looked like they’d do the same to Oklahoma City tonight. Billy Donovan, still experimenting with the rotation, at one point in the fourth was playing one starter — Serge Ibaka — and four reserves: Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Cameron Payne and Kyle Singler. Kanter was making shots, Payne was stealing balls, Singler was retrieving rebounds, and Waiters, well, he has nights like this. As the big guns drifted back in, Denver whittled an 11-point OKC lead down to five; as time wore down, the Thunder got foul-happy, or something, and the Nuggets crept to within four with a minute left. And it was Kanter who saved the day, swishing two free throws just inside the 30-second mark. Kenneth Faried came up with a layup and an and-one, but failed to make the one. Kevin Durant put up two more freebies, making it a six-point game; rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay failed to inbound the ball, and that was the end, Oklahoma City 110, Denver 104, 3-0 in the season series with one to go.

Shooting percentage was almost identical for both teams (42 and a fraction), but OKC put up 14 more shots. Denver did a better job on the long ball, though, making seven of 20. (Thunder: 6-28. Payne missed six of those by himself, along with three shorter shots. Still, Cam had four steals and six assists, so it’s not like he was gasping for breath.) Not too shockingly, Danilo Gallinari had a team-high 27 for the Nuggets on 10-21. Contrast: Russell Westbrook, 27 points on 10-22; KD, 30 on 10-23. Nobody was going to get that eleventh shot. (Kanter was 10-14 for 25, just to kill the symmetry of the example.)

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that this is the first game of a back-to-back, and all the starters except Andre Roberson played over 30 minutes. Asked about that beforehand, Donovan said: “I play for today.” Tomorrow he gets to play for tomorrow, at home against the Charlotte Hornets.

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Playing them cool

One expects, in these post-LeBron days, games with the Heat to be titanic defensive struggles, and the first half of this game was exactly that: a low-scoring (44-42), high-friction contest. Miami pulled to within one early in the third quarter, but someone somewhere turned on a switch, and the Thunder pounded down 31 points in those 12 minutes to go up 18. Radio guy Matt Pinto pointed out that the Heat were playing the last game of a six-game road trip, and maybe Miami was tired; but I’m thinking the Thunder finally figured out how to break the turgid pace and play its own game — and, purely incidentally I’m sure, ruin Dwyane Wade’s birthday. (Wade had 18 points by halftime, but was held to four thereafter.) The final was Oklahoma City 99, Miami 74, the 30th win for OKC out of 42.

There was a brief incident of specsmanship in the fourth quarter. Kevin Durant (24 points) had already retired for the night; Russell Westbrook stayed in long enough to finish up his second consecutive triple-double (13-10-15). Dion Waiters is still on a hot streak: 6-11 for 18 points. But the man with the Big Plus was +20 Andre Roberson, who bothered Wade as much as Wade could possibly be bothered.

Miami was missing a couple of warm bodies: neither Goran Dragić nor Beno Udrih was available. Still, Tyler Johnson competently filled in for Dragić and Hassan Whiteside was good for a double-double (14 points/11 boards). If there’s a Telltale Statistic, it’s this one: Miami got their 42 percent from the floor on 30 made shots out of 72. The Thunder, at 46 percent, hit 40-88. Sixteen more made shots. This is the benefit of playing at Thunder speed, and tonight Miami wasn’t dialed into it — at least, not in the second half.

Weird schedule next week: at Denver Tuesday, at home against Charlotte on Wednesday, then out to Dallas (Friday), Brooklyn (Sunday afternoon), New York (Tuesday), and Minnesota (again!) on Wednesday. Doable, but lots of potential for trappage.

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You again

Halfway through the season, and the dreaded word “pace” appears: the Thunder, now 29-12, are on pace, as they say, to win 58 games, which would probably get them third place in the West, what with the 35-6 Spurs on track for 70 and the Warriors headed for possible hoop history. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10; Golden State (now 37-3) could conceivably make it to 75 or 76 wins. There is, alas, history at the opposite end as well: the 76ers are 4-37, which doubles to 8-74, one game worse than the futility of 9-73, set by the 1972-73, um, Sixers.

With that minor detail out of the way, let it be noted that the second Timberwolves-Thunder game in three days — there will be a third before the end of the month — was much more one-sided than the first: the Wolves didn’t even score until almost four minutes in. The Wolves, however, throw in no towels, and after their last rally, an 8-5 run at the beginning of the fourth quarter, was thwarted, they kept on banging. The biggest difference from that previous game: the Oklahoma City bench did much better this time, with Dion Waiters coming up with 20 points, only one short of the mighty Kevin Durant himself. And Russell Westbrook posted yet another triple-double, 12-11-10 in a mere 27 minutes. The 113-93 win was, as the sports dudes say, wire to wire.

Still, the game-high scorer was Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, who calmly nailed 25 points, and not so calmly tried to rip an arm off Steven Adams, for which he got a Flagrant One. And the Wolves were way better at the foul line, making 20 of 23, and outrebounded the Thunder by five. Plus there’s that no-towels thing, and the formidable presence of Damjan Rudež, who played 12 years in Europe before coming to the NBA last season. Rudež was on the floor for only the last couple of minutes, and he took one shot, which he made — which gave him a +5 for the night, best of any of the Wolves.

One last game on this homestand: the Miami Heat will be here Sunday. (Miami won the last outing, in South Beach.)

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It’s a madhouse down there

Surprise number one: Rick Carlisle decided to sit four starters tonight, including, yes, Dirk, after a tough overtime game last night against Cleveland. Surprise number two: The Mavericks came out in a 2-3 zone, and mostly stuck with it. Surprise number three: All hell broke loose in the second quarter, starting with a J. J. Barea/Russell Westbrook tiff which ended with five technical fouls assessed. Charlie Villanueva got two of them and was escorted to the locker room. Before the half ended, Barea and Westbrook were at it again, and Westbrook was thumbed. Surprise number three and a half: Westbrook had been fouled before being tossed, and Carlisle, under the rules, got to pick any active player to make those free throws. He chose Mitch McGary, who made one of them.

After all that, the game itself was almost anticlimactic. Oklahoma City led Dallas 65-43 at the half; the Mavs crept to within a dozen or so several times, but the high point in Loud City seemed to be the opportunity to boo Barea, the Mavs’ leading scorer with 18, who committed four personal fouls. Most interesting to Mavs watchers, perhaps, was an extended look at Salah Mejri, the 29-year-old rookie center from Tunisia, who collected 17 points and nine rebounds in just under 25 minutes. Without Mejri’s 7-8 shooting, the Mavs’ dismal 39-percent shooting would have been about five points worse.

Westbrook’s unscheduled departure left him with a very odd line: no points — he missed three shots from the floor and four from the stripe — but seven rebounds and eight assists. This left scoring opportunities for Serge Ibaka (20), Dion Waiters (18) and Cameron Payne (10). (Kevin Durant had a modest, for Kevin Durant, 29 points.) Billy Donovan even saw fit to bring out D. J. Augustin, who’d been epoxied to the bench all month; he went scoreless in eight minutes. Still, this game, askew as it was, answered no questions, and managed to propose yet another:

And either of them, I think, more than James Harden.

What? Oh, yes. The score. Oklahoma City 108, Dallas 89. OKC leads the season series two-zip.

Addendum: On the front page of the Oklahoman the next day:

Thunder tops Mavs in fiesty game

So, like a fiesta, then?

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Wolves being fed

The wrong thing to say at the end of a road trip is “Well, at least it’s only the Timberwolves.” Granted, Minnesota trailed by 11 after the first quarter. But from then on, the Wolves played the Thunder better than even up, largely on the strength of their bench. Yes, really. Oft-injured Shabazz Muhammad played like he’d never had so much as the sniffles, bagging 20 points on 8-15 shooting. Slumping Zack LaVine suddenly came out of his slump, going 7-10 for 21 points and retrieving eight rebounds. And while Gorgui Dieng didn’t score, he blocked six Thunder shots. Oklahoma City didn’t help itself by going nearly five minutes in the fourth quarter without a field goal. Royce Young said it best: “The Thunder have been trying to just coast to this win since the first quarter ended.” With three minutes left, the Wolves, who had been down as many as 18, pulled within three at 89-86. (Telltale Statistic: it was 60-48 at the half, which should tell you how feeble OKC’s offense really was.) Finally Kevin Durant called a halt to this sort of thing and connected on four consecutive shots plus four free throws, giving the Thunder a 101-96 win that they very nearly pissed away.

Maybe I’m wondering why Sam Mitchell started the five he did, scoring 41, more than half of which came from Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, when he got 56 out of his bench. Maybe he’s no better a prognosticator than the rest of us. But his frontcourt is older than God: Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett, who knocked down one shot between them. (Prince got it.) On the upside, everyone got a chance to look at Karl-Anthony Towns, who posted a double-double (14 points/10 boards) in the middle. He’s got some potential.

Durant, doing that Durant thing at last, finished with 30 points, though it took him 25 shots to get there. Russell Westbrook double-doubled again: 22 points, 11 dimes. But the only other Thunder player in double figures was Enes Kanter, whose 18 points was 62 percent of the bench total. And you have to figure that Billy Donovan was hoping not to play any of the starters more than 30 minutes tonight, what with a game against the Mavericks tomorrow night. File that hope under “dashed.”

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There can be no victory

Portland’s Moda Center isn’t exactly Mordor, but just the same, one does not simply walk into it; the Thunder has a history of going to pieces in Portlandia, and at halftime it looked like the fragmentation had already begun. A 39-point Thunder burst in the third quarter sent OKC up five, and they gradually stretched out that lead to eight — until the Blazers, with about three and a half minutes left, connected on five consecutive three-pointers and tied it up; a sixth gave Portland a three-point lead, which grew to five at the horn, 115-110.

A lot of credit for turning this game around must go to Damien Lillard, who got 15 of his game-high 31 points by knocking down five treys in the fourth; he’d already hit three of them. Next to him in the backcourt, C. J. McCollum put up ten long balls, hitting four; the Blazers actually sent up forty-four attempts, cashing in 19 of them. That’s 57 points out of 115, as close to half as you can get. The key to this, perhaps: 20 offensive rebounds (versus 8), enabling the Blazers to put up 100 shots, 24 more than OKC. And while Oklahoma City actually outshot Portland, the Blazers ruled the boards, and the Portland reserves ginned up 35 points, while the OKC bench was held to a mere 16. Still, some individual performances stood out: Russell Westbrook had 25 points and 15 assists, Steven Adams 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Kevin Durant had rolled up 28 through three quarters, to finish with, um, 28. The season series stands at 1-1, with two yet to play.

So 1-1 on the West Coast trip, and then off to frigid Minnesota on Tuesday, followed by three home games: the Mavs on Wednesday, the Timberwolves (again!) on Friday, and the Heat on Sunday. Somewhere in all that activity, there’s got to be some perimeter defense.

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That’s some fine hoops work there, Lou

“When the Thunder defend,” began radio guy Matt Pinto — but never mind, there were times they didn’t do a whole lot of that, especially in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers went on a 19-4 run, 16 of which came from Lou Williams, who had what you’d call a Career Night, especially considering he’d had 21 points before that fourth quarter began. Inside the two-minute mark, Williams put the Lakers up 110-107 with a string of three free throws — his second such string in the quarter. Finally OKC put up seven in a row, a Russell Westbrook three-point play, a Steven Adams dunk, and two free throws from Adams, to go up 114-110. Jordan Clarkson came back with a trey to bring the Lakers to within one; Westbrook picked up one more freebie. Kobe Bryant then made a valiant try at the bucket, but it was not to be: Kevin Durant got in his face, Westbrook picked up two more freebies to ice it, 117-113.

And Kobe was having a pretty good night, too: 19 points and six assists. But Williams made the Staples Center crowd forget about Kobe, almost. We’re talking 44 points (12-25) including five treys, and 15 out of 15 free throws. OKC should consider itself fortunate that Williams missed nine treys. Then again, you know Westbrook had fans in the crowd, and he put on a 36-point show for them. Durant tacked on 24 more. The statistic that might matter most, though: Cameron Payne, now the de facto second-unit point guard, played almost 25 minutes, scoring 11. The rookie is making some noise.

And if you’re on the Left Coast, it helps to start with a win. Next game is Sunday at Portland, and the Fail Blazers have lost three straight. (Dare we say “rebuilding year”? Then again, the Blazers got beaten up by free agency in the offseason, as LaMarcus Aldridge could tell you from his new San Antonio digs.) But one should always be wary entering the Rose Garden Moda Center.

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Do not feed the Grizzlies

The first clue that this wouldn’t be a classic Grizzlies/Thunder grindout came before the game, when Memphis point guard Mike Conley was scratched: something about his Achilles’ tendon. Dave Joerger, ever-resourceful, moved Courtney Lee from shooting guard to the point, and installed Tony Allen at the two. At about the same time came the second clue: Kevin Durant would be back after missing only a single game with Peripheral Toe Jam. (I’m not up on all this injury lingo.) The Griz were able to set their preferred pace, which may be characterized as “slow and deliberate,” for about half the first quarter, whereupon the Thunder started trying to speed things up. It was 25-16 after the first, 56-36 at the half, and Courtney Lee was lost in the third. With the Thunder up 18 at the end of the third, Billy Donovan decided to let the reserves fight the rest of the way; he recanted six minutes later as the Griz started to make some headway. Three minutes later, order was restored, and the Grizzlies were ultimately dispatched, 112-94.

It wasn’t that the Griz were terrible, exactly, but the matchups didn’t match so well, and, well, they have the likes of Vince Carter, who fought in the French and Indian War, a good soldier gradually fading away. Still, sixth man Mario Chalmers, who always plays OKC tough, did it again, coming up with 23 points, though he wound up playing over 38 minutes. Meanwhile, “Is Kevin really back?” Yes, he was; KD had a slowish start, but he wound up with 26 points and a startling 17 rebounds, one short of a career high. Russell Westbrook added 20, because that’s what he does, and the bench came up with 50 points, something they’d love to do more often.

This is the last meeting with Memphis this season. (Playoffs? Who can tell at this point?) OKC wins that series 2-1. The Thunder will be on the road Friday through Tuesday, taking on the Lakers, the Trail Blazers, and the Timberwolves; Wednesday they’re back at the ‘Peake, where the Mavs will be waiting.

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Sacramentally sound

Said Royce Young at halftime: “Hard to believe it was 31-14 Thunder eight minutes in to this one.” And at halftime, it was Kings 68, Thunder 66. It’s almost painful to do the math: Sacramento rolled up 54 points in 16 minutes. This isn’t the most unheard-of thing you ever heard of: they wore out the Phoenix Suns Saturday to the tune of 142-119, and they did it in 48 minutes. But this is where it gets scary: the Kings had scored only 59 points in the first half of that game, meaning they rang up 83 in the second.

This wasn’t going to happen tonight: both offenses were bogged down in the third quarter. The Kings, however, recovered more quickly, and while they managed only 22 points in that frame, Oklahoma City was held to a pitiful 16. In the fourth, desperation — what else could it be? — led Billy Donovan to try to hack Rajon Rondo, a relatively crummy foul shooter. But in every other aspect, Rondo outplayed Russell Westbrook, who had One Of Those Nights: 17 points, 15 assists, and a woeful 6-23 from the floor. And the Kings, who had never, ever won in OKC, finally nailed down a W, 116-104.

The absence of Kevin Durant (sprained big toe) was keenly felt: both Serge Ibaka (25 points) and Anthony Morrow (20) logged season highs, and Ibaka blocked five shots, but the Kings still had their way. Part of this was Rondo’s doing: okay, he was 3-8 from the stripe, but 13 points and 19 assists should tell you who was making things happen. And where Rondo wasn’t, DeMarcus Cousins was: 33 points, 19 rebounds. Blame the zebras? I don’t think so, even though OKC was 16-23 on free throws, Sacramento 29-39. There’s 13 points right there.

The Grizzlies are coming to town late (8:30) Wednesday. Will KD be back? If not, how bad can things get?

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Insufficient sting

West-centric sports pages persist in wondering how it is that, for instance, the Thunder, which has dominated its conference rivals, can barely break even against the East. Charlotte, tenth place in the East, was supposed to be a patsy, especially with Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sidelined for the duration, and Nicolas Batum a late scratch. But the Hornets were 17-15 coming in, half a game out of a playoff slot; this is not the stuff of which patsies are made. So I wasn’t at all surprised when the Bees, down twelve at halftime, rattled off ten points in a row to start the third quarter. But the Thunder deployed some serious defense, including 15 blocks — three from Enes Kanter, no less — and eventually walked away from the Hornets, 109-90.

Lineup adjustments by the Hornets were a mixed bag. Kemba Walker, not unexpectedly, led all scorers with 32, and Jeremy Lin, pressed into starting at the two, added 15; but the rest of the starters were held to 21, and the depleted bench managed only 22. Charlotte shot a woeful 34.5 percent. Oklahoma City, in the meantime, hit 45 percent, and Kevin Durant showed flashes of Durantitude with 29 points and 11 rebounds; five other Thundermen hit double figures. And if you like free throws, this was the game for you: 54 fouls were committed, 27 by each side (not counting two technicals), and the Hornets made 26 out of 34, the Thunder 30 of 37. I was wondering how well Charlotte native Anthony Morrow would do against a hometown crowd. (He did fine: 4-9 for 12 points, all of them on treys.) And the only question, toward the end, was this: would Russell Westbrook get a steal, extending his league-leading streak to 37 games? He would.

The Thunder are back home Monday against the Kings, and Wednesday against the Grizzlies; there follows a three-game road trip, visiting Portland, the Lakers (again!) and Minnesota.

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