Imagine my lack of surprise

Last Thunder/Warriors clash, OKC went to pieces in the second quarter. It took a bit longer this time: after a 56-all tie at halftime, Golden State methodically rolled up 37 points in the third to go up 15 on the undermanned Thunder. In the absence of Steven Adams, Jerami Grant drew the Guard Number Thirty-Five assignment, and he was game, but, precisely as happened the first game in this series, Kevin Durant had an unusually good night, with 33 points and ten rebounds through three quarters. It didn’t even seem necessary to drag KD onto the court in the fourth, though Steve Kerr wasn’t taking any chances, and within a few seconds of Durant’s return, he’d already bagged another shot. KD’s previous season high was 39, against, um, guess who? Bench-emptying didn’t take too awfully long, Durant finished with 40 points and 12 rebounds, and yet another Russell Westbrook triple-double — 27-15-13, not to mention ten turnovers — will be overlooked in the wake of the giant-size L, 121-100.

Victor Oladipo scored 20 again, Enes Kanter scored 22 again, but no one else in Thunder blue was able to hit double digits. OKC shot a blah 42 percent, versus 54 for the Warriors. Treys, you ask? Golden State 10 of 21, OKC 8 of 28. And the Steph Curry/Klay Thompson axis of splashers produced 24 and 14 respectively.

Fortunately, there will be four days of wound-licking before the next game, at Utah, the current Northwest standard-bearers, and then the road trip ends at New Orleans. Nobody expected much from January, or at least that’s what punditry assembled will assert. But nobody also expected two consecutive blowouts. (If they did, they didn’t say so.)


Shorn of dignity, among other things

The Clippers, as radio guy Matt Pinto is always reminding us, are kind of irritating to watch: the very idea that one of them might be charged with a foul is utterly unthinkable. Still, one should not let one’s irritation interfere with the fact that this is a very gifted team that works diligently to thrash its opponents. They certainly seem to have enjoyed having thrashed the Steven Adams-less Thunder tonight; L.A. shot well over 50 percent most of the night and dominated in all the ways a team can dominate. Admittedly, the Thunder were on the second night of a back-to-back, but the problem didn’t seem to be fatigue so much as simple discombobulation: OKC couldn’t do anything about dribble penetration, and once again they tossed up three-point shots instead of actually going for the rim now and then. The reserves finished up the demolition job, 120-98.

Jerami Grant, starting in the place of Adams, did yeoman work — nine points, eight rebounds — but Adams’ scoring touch was missed. So was Victor Oladipo’s, and he was there; the best he could manage was six points on 3-11. Russell Westbrook did bring 24 points to the arena, but he went 7-19. Surely it means something that the Clippers’ leading scorer was reserve Mareese Speights, who posted a season-high 23 with 10 rebounds. J. J. Redick, largely undefended, rang up 20. Blake Griffin wasn’t even missed, and Chris Paul, who sprained his wrist in the second quarter, didn’t create a big hole in the L. A. attack. The only oddity was the continuing futility of Jamal Crawford, who missed all five of his shots.

So the road trip starts 1-3 before it gets to Oakland and the Warriors. This can’t be good.


Jacking the Kings

The Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento cost something like $550 million to build, with 17,608 seats available for roundball. The place was quite full tonight, but the Kings weren’t quite at their best: they put together some stirring runs, but the Thunder were always able to swat them back, even without Steven Adams, who retired to the locker room with the dreaded Concussion-Like Symptoms, which means he may have to go through the standard NBA concussion protocol and perhaps won’t be available for tomorrow night’s game in Los Angeles. With time called at 5:32 left, the Thunder had just finished an 11-2 run to claim a 15-point lead over the Kings; within a minute, the Kings had (stirringly) scored six in a row. The OKC swat team promptly took hold of the situation, only to see Sacramento come alive in the last minute. With 47 seconds left, the Kings pulled to within seven; a Russell Westbrook dunk stanched that bleeding, DeMarcus Cousins dropped in a pair of free throws, and after a steal, Cousins nailed another one; at 26.5, Rudy Gay tossed up a trey to make it a three-point game. Alex Abrines delivered two free throws of his own, the Thunder fouled Cousins again, and this time he got three of ’em. The Kings promptly fouled Victor Oladipo, who swished two freebies to make it 120-116, and Westbrook, who apparently had had enough, swiped the ball from the Kings and stuffed it into the net. There would be a jumper from Darren Collison at the buzzer, but too late: Oklahoma City 122, Sacramento 118.

Four Kings starters rolled up double figures, and Garrett Temple just missed with eight; both Cousins and Gay made double-doubles, with Cousins knocking down a stirring (there it is again) 31. Sacramento actually outshot OKC, 46 to 44 percent, and tied them for rebounds at 44. The Kings also had the advantage in assists, 24-20. But what they didn’t have was, as radio guy Matt Pinto says, The Force. Westbrook’s 20th triple-double (36-11-10) was nearly matched by Enes Kanter’s 29-12 showing. For what it’s worth, Westbrook was -1 for the night despite all those digits.

Tomorrow night — late tomorrow night — it’s the Clippers at the Staples Center. I hope everyone’s Sort of Rested, because the Clips have won six in a row.


Hungrier in the wintertime

“Sometimes you get the Wolf,” Judge Radar noted, “and sometimes the Wolf gets you.” It was cold in the Twin Cities tonight — single digits at gametime — and the young Wolves were hungry. During most of their recent history, that hunger would go unsated. But not tonight. Down five at halftime, Minnesota flattened the Thunder 29-18 in the third quarter, Russell Westbrook failing to score so much as a single point, and in the fourth quarter, the Wolves gradually pulled away, and His Zeroness was pulled with two minutes left, having managed only a single additional bucket. Minnesota 96, Oklahoma City 86, as this six-game road trip starts off on the wrong foot.

Lots of weak points for the Thunder tonight. For one, they gave up 33 points on 19 turnovers. (Does this count as a quadruple-double? Westbrook finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists — and 10 turnovers.) The Thunder shot just under 39 percent, dismal by any standard, and factoring out Westbrook’s dire 7-23 still leaves only 42 percent. OKC put up 20 treys; exactly three fell. (Minnesota made five of 18.) Enes Kanter did contribute 21 points to the cause, and Victor Oladipo managed 19, but nobody else made it to double digits.

Meanwhile, Karl-Anthony Towns cranked it up to the tune of 29 points and 17 rebounds, Andrew Wiggins added 19 points, and Ricky Rubio, having discovered he can handle the ball, produced 14 points and 14 assists. The Wolves shot a decent 45 percent and missed only one of 14 free throws.

And now it’s off to relatively balmier California, where over four days the Thunder will visit the Kings, the Clippers and the Warriors. It will take at least two wins for anyone to declare a moral victory.

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Contentious to the last

The Memphis Grizzlies came to town, and they came to be as Grizzly as they possibly could, because that’s what they do; you have to wonder sometimes if maybe Quentin Tarantino is drawing up the plays. “An absolute grind,” muttered radio guy Matt Pinto during a fourth-quarter timeout, and he wasn’t kidding: to the extent possible, the Griz will simply wear you down. The Thunder know; they have to play these guys three or four times every season, and it almost always happens this way: up eleven at the half, they couldn’t find any way to create any serious distance between themselves and Memphis. (Last time they played was the exception that proves the rule: the Griz simply ground them into sausage and claimed an easy win.) OKC finally got a break with just over a minute left: Steven Adams delivered a fearsome swat, and Victor Oladipo turned it into three points, opening the Thunder lead to seven. Shortly thereafter, Jerami Grant saved a Russell Westbrook fumble and came up with an and-one, providing some breathing room, and the last 15 seconds took about 15 minutes to play, the Griz fighting on every single possession, because that’s what they do. Oklahoma City 103, Memphis 95 at the horn, evening up the season series at 1-1.

If anything stands out here, it was the Thunder’s ability to contain Marc Gasol, who was held to a mere nine points, around half his average. Then again, they couldn’t stop Mike Conley (22 points) or Chandler Parsons (14 points in 18 minutes). And Enes Kanter was Kanterlike in his insistence, conjuring up 19 points and retrieving 13 rebounds. For the “Did Westbrook get a triple-double?” fans, the answer is Yes: 24-13-12 despite shooting a sub-meh 6-19 from the floor. The Thunder shot only 45 percent overall, but the Griz were under 40 most of the night and finished at 41.

That long six-game road trip begins in Minnesota on Friday; I bet the Twin Cities have better weather than we do.


Butler didn’t

Chicago forward Jimmy Butler has not been well of late, but the Bulls organization decided he was probably good to go tonight. Well, maybe partially: he led the team with assists, with seven, but missed all six of his shots and one of two free throws, retiring for the night after 29 minutes and one point. If Butler, or for that matter Robin Lopez, had been up to speed, the Bulls might have made a game of it. As it stands, the Thunder’s 109-94 victory was nowhere near as close as it sounds: through three quarters, OKC was up 89-67, but they loosened up their grip in those final 12 minutes. Still, it’s a road win, something OKC has not had a lot of recently, enough to climb back into a tie with the Jazz for Northwest Division dominance.

The Chicago guards did what they could, with Michael Carter-Williams posting a season-high 15 points and Dwyane Wade looking something like the Dwyane Wade of old while picking up 22. The Bulls did gather rebounds, with reserve center Cristiano Felicio collecting 11 to go with 11 points, but a reasonably alert Thunder defense kept the Bulls from scoring much: Chicago shot a mere 41 percent from the field, while OKC was blithely pumping in 57. (Statistical oddity: both teams took 83 shots, but the Thunder hit 13 more.) Top scorer for the Thunder: Steven Adams, with 22. (Enes Kanter, your Sixth Man of the Year candidate, dropped in 20.) Russell Westbrook just barely missed another triple-double, recording 21-9-14. And in the Battle of the Grant Brothers, Jerian (CHI) scored 11, Jerami (OKC) seven.

Good news: the Thunder play next at home. Bad news: it’s against the Memphis Grizzlies, who have already walloped them once this year, albeit at the Fed Up Forum. Then on the road again, where the marquee game is the fourth of the trip: at Golden State, new home of some guy we used to mention a lot here.

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Friendlier skies

The low this morning in Oklahoma City was -3° F (-19° C), but no matter: the Thunder knew they’d get a warm reception at the ‘Peake, and hey, it’s not like Denver is particularly warm this time of year. The Nuggets do one thing exceptionally well, and that’s the retrieval of rebounds; their sheer prowess on the boards kept them more or less dead even during the first two quarters, after which the Thunder began to wear them down. Denver tried to buy some time by fouling Andre Roberson and/or Steven Adams, but that didn’t last long, and OKC, having lost three in a row on the road, get back home with a W over the Nuggets, 121-106, their second of the season with two games to go.

Denver did gather the majority of rebounds, 53-49, and they were less inept than the Thunder from the three-point line (9-24 versus 12-36), but OKC dominated the rest of the statistics, including this startler: eleven blocks, with Adams and Jerami Grant swatting four each. It must be conceded that Wilson Chandler is downright scary coming off the bench: tonight he nailed 24 points on 10-18 from the floor. Will Barton, in place of Gary Harris, led the starters with 22, and four other Nuggets scored in double figures. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook, chastised a few times this season for jacking up a dozen treys and missing most of them, this time jacked up a dozen treys and made seven on his way to yet another triple-double, 32-17-11. Four other Thundermen did the double-digit thing, with Enes Kanter, as usual, leading with 14.

This is the first Thunder home game of January. There will be only two more. First comes a trip to Chicago on Monday; home game #2, on Wednesday, is against the scary Memphis Grizzlies; and then there are six in a row on the road: Minnesota, Sacramento, Los Angeles (the Clippers), Golden State, Utah, and New Orleans. It’s going to be a long, long month.


Cramped quarters again

The last two meetings of Rockets/Thunder, OKC spotted Houston a big lead after three quarters and then defensed the living, um, tissue out of them in the fourth. And it looked like the same thing would happen tonight: the Rockets, down five after the first quarter, led 67-56 at the half and 97-83 after three, and sure enough, the Thunder bore down. With 5:30 left, the Rocket lead was down to three. At the 2:30 mark, it was one. Just inside the 2:00 mark, a Victor Oladipo trey put the Thunder up two; James Harden responded with two free throws to tie it up at 116. Then followed a possibly controversial call in which Patrick Beverley wasn’t as out of bounds as he looked. Harden to the rescue, right? Well, he put up a straight-ahead trey, which Andre Roberson waved off in his own inimitable fashion, and with 25 seconds left, Russell Westbrook wound up with the ball and worked some clock. Then Westbrook backrimmed a trey, Beverley retrieved the rock, and Houston burned up the last of its timeouts trying to inbound. Nené went for the dunk; Jerami Grant blocked it, but also fouled him in the process. Nené hit both free throws, and with 0.7 left, the Thunder was definitely in a hole, and burned up the last of their timeouts trying to inbound. Enes Kanter took the last shot from a position we may describe as “unfavorable,” and the Rockets won it, 118-116, taking a 2-1 lead in the season series.

Inexplicably, the Rockets deployed a nearly balanced attack: Harden was good for 26 and 12 assists, but all five Houston starters reached double figures, and so did Eric Gordon, with 22 off the bench. The Thunder had more rebounds, 54-43, but the Rockets moved the ball better: 27-15 on assists. Kanter recorded the Thunder’s only double-double — 15 points, 13 boards — while Westbrook posted a lopsided 49-8-5 line. (King Zero was 16-34 from the line, 8-15 for three-pointers.) If Billy Donovan is looking at anything right now, it’s that gap between Oladipo’s trey, the last points scored by OKC, and the horn.

Next outing: at home, against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

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Where’s the buzz?

I remember when Nicolas Batum caused massive grief for the Thunder as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers; when he was dealt to Charlotte, well, we’d have to see him only twice a year instead of four times. Turns out that Batum, at least in this game, was just about twice as much of a pest as he was in the Rose Garden/Moda Center: with the game tied at 101 late in the fourth, the Hornets went on a 13-3 run, and much of that running was done by Batum, who finished with a season-high 28 points and dribbled it out for a 123-112 win.

No one — well, no one not named Russell Westbrook — was complaining about the officiating, but damn, those Hornets know how to draw fouls; Charlotte took forty-nine free throws, making 40 of them. (OKC was 19-23 from the stripe, a better percentage; but still, 21 points handed to the opposition.) Alongside Batum in the Hornets backcourt, Kemba Walker rang up 20 points, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist drew a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds).

Two double-doubles among the Thundermen: Westbrook (of course), 33 points and 15 rebounds, Steven Adams, 18 points and 12 boards. As per usual, Enes Kanter led the bench with 22. The Thunder did manage to control the backboards, kinda sorta, 51-46; but the Hornets served up more assists and shot about 2.5 percent better. You gotta wonder if maybe the Thunder were looking ahead to an even tougher road opponent: the Rockets, who will be waiting in Houston tomorrow night. But Westbrook, who played 35 minutes and drew yet another technical (two previous Ts were rescinded, so he has ten), probably isn’t worried about playing time.


No Bucks given

Milwaukee, despite getting trodden upon in the first quarter — the Thunder hit their first eleven shots and took a 30-22 lead — gradually fought their way back, and in the third quarter they took the lead from a disorganized bunch in Thunder blue. With a minute and a half left, it was a 94-94 tie; the Bucks’ John Henson scored an easy layup, the Thunder went nowhere, and with the Bucks seeking to run some clock, Russell Westbrook, who’d missed an incredible number of shots in the second half, came up with a steal. Tony Snell pushed the ball out of bounds, apparently bouncing it off Westbrook, and Westbrook ended up fouling Malcolm Brogdon, who calmly sank two free throws to put it out of reach. Bucks 98, Thunder 94, Milwaukee climbs one game above .500, and Billy Donovan is looking through his notebooks for the one that says “Shot Selection.”

And that, ultimately, was OKC’s undoing. Yeah, Westbrook had 30 points; but he was 9-28, 2-10 from distance. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a man so fast he can compress his last name to four syllables, was picking up 26 points on 10-19 shooting. And you have to figure that whatever the Bucks did to hold Enes Kanter to two points was pretty remarkable in itself. (Semaj Christon, whose first name runs three syllables, led the Thunder bench with 11.) It’s a darn good thing that Victor Oladipo was back. And you could perhaps forgive all those three-point shots — 27 were attempted, but only nine actually went through — were the Thunder a good three-point team. Twenty-ninth out of 30 is not good.

The road trip continues: Charlotte on Wednesday, Houston on Thursday, back home to play Denver Saturday, then up to Chicago on Monday. It’s not getting any easier, folks.


Clippings scattered across the floor

The word came in early: Victor Oladipo would be back, and Blake Griffin would be out. “Hmmm,” I hmmmed. And when the “questionable” Chris Paul was no longer a question — he was out — the only question left would be when the Judge delivered a Blowout Warning. It might be as early as 8 pm, I decided.

Just a hair earlier. Of course, His Honor had seen that first quarter, after which the Thunder were up by a ridiculous 33-12. It was 69-40 at the half, Russell Westbrook already had a triple-double in hand — he finished with 17-12-14 and would not play in the fourth quarter — and the depleted Clippers would not present a threat in the second half anyway. Then again, this week has been a comedy of errors for the Angelenos, who last night at Houston saw Austin Rivers thumbed, and sixty seconds later saw Doc Rivers, Clippers coach and Austin’s dad, similarly broomed. Then again, the Clips did put up 116 points against the Rockets while losing by 24; tonight, against the Thunder, they lost by 26 in a 114-88 game, putting OKC up 2-1 in the season series. And weirdly, Westbrook managed to draw his 11th technical foul of the season without even being on the court; he and L.A.’s Mareese Speights apparently got into a spate of mutual trash talk, and Speights was similarly rung up.

The Clipper reserves, really, kept things from being even worse than they were; both Speights and Brandon Bass came up with 18 points to lead the team. Only one starter — Rivers, who went 3-11 for 14 points — scored in double figures, and I’m damned if I can figure out how J. J. Redick would finish with a mere five and Jamal Crawford with a goose egg. For the home team, Oladipo wasn’t even rusty after being off; he went 4-9 for 15 points. However, his place on the injured list was taken by Alex Abrines, who collected 12 points, 4-5 on treys, and then went down under the basket while being fouled; he’s been thrown into the NBA’s concussion protocol. The big point man once again was a big: Enes Kanter, with 23, including 11 of 12 free throws. And here’s your Telltale Statistic: Thunder 33, Clippers 0 (yes, zero) in fast-break points.

And now, it’s back on the road, starting Monday night at Milwaukee.


Thoroughly skinned

Under the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to beat the Grizzlies in Memphis, and tonight’s circumstances were hardly the best: Oklahoma City managed a one-point lead briefly in the first quarter, but the Griz dominated to an extent you seldom see in this day and age, as though the Thunder had been replaced for 48 minutes — okay, 47 minutes — by the Washington Generals. OKC managed to keep it fairly close until late in the second quarter, when the Griz went on a 15-2 tear, and thereafter Memphis didn’t even bother to look back. It didn’t help that Russell Westbrook managed to get himself thumbed halfway through the third quarter. But maybe it didn’t matter so much, since Westbrook wasn’t moving the ball at all: he finished the night with zero assists, and the rest of the team in aggregate managed only eight. Meanwhile, the Memphis reserves made a laugher of it, the punchline being 114-80; the Thunder shot just under 33 percent, the Griz nearly 53 percent, and when’s the last time you heard that story? Troy Daniels, often glued to the bench, let his soul arise and his three-ball fall, hitting six of eight for 22 points — one more than Westbrook, five minutes faster. OKC managed to tie the Griz in rebounds, with 39 each, but otherwise, it was the sort of whipping one gives to a disobedient puppy, assuming one’s still living in the 19th century.

There’s really not a lot to say here. Chandler Parsons, often injured, played sparingly, but he didn’t have to bring a whole lot tonight. Mike Conley was out already. And had Alex Abrines not made that 24-footer from the corner with half a minute left, things would have looked even worse. (Double A scored 10 points in all, one of exactly three Thundermen in double figures.) Perhaps it’s better just to let this one fade into distant memory. Besides, when the Thunder get back home, they have to play the Clippers, who previously administered the second-worst thrashing OKC has received this season.


Win chill

The Miami Heat have had problems this season, winning only ten of their first 31 games, and Goran Dragic is sidelined, which doesn’t help them. Still, it would not have been wise for the Thunder to take them too lightly: guard Josh Richardson is a legitimate threat, and the Heat have two Johnsons on the bench. And then there’s Hassan Whiteside, who can kill you if he’s given the opportunity. OKC, accordingly, worked on not giving Whiteside the opportunity, holding him to 12 points and seven rebounds. Richardson was as good as his reputation suggests, rolling up 22 points, and the Johnson twins (James and Tyler, who are not related) combined for 33 of Miami’s 39 bench points. Still, they couldn’t fend off a Russell Westbrook triple-double — 28-17-11 — and the Thunder reserves continue their transformation into a viable second unit, picking up 46 points, led by Enes Kanter (natch) with 19. That’s 2-0 against the Heat for the season, with the Thunder winning 106-94, starting this road trip on the right foot. Then again, I was kind of hoping to see Dion Waiters, dealt to the Heat this past summer, but he drew a DNP-CD.

There was one statistical area where Miami proved superior: the steal, ten of which they pulled off against the Thunder. (OKC executed only four.) And there was one amusing tidbit to be found among the Thunder numbers: Alex Abrines went 4-7 from the three-point line. The rest of the team: 1-12. This is not to say that Double A will be inheriting the mantle of reserve sharpshooter while Anthony Morrow is starting. Then again, A-Mo was 1-5 from downtown.

Next up, on Thursday: the Grizzlies. Memphis is right behind OKC in the Western Conference standings, and they’re 12-7 at the FedEx Forum. Not untouchable, but not a patsy, either, and they failed to subdue the Celtics in Boston tonight, losing 113-103, though that was the second night of a back-to-back. Then again, they also lost the first night, 112-102 to the Magic. Can the Thunder beat them by ten? We shall see.

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Home for the snarly days

This is the sixth year in a row that the Thunder have been featured on a Christmas Day game. And this year they drew a proper opponent: the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are eminently capable of being a pest for extended periods yet still have a sub-.500 record. The Wolves, in fact, were up 27-23 after the first quarter, though they were in a four-point hole at halftime and Thunder defense and offense both went up a couple of notches in ferocity in the second half. Just inside the four-minute mark, OKC held a 20-point lead, despite all three of Minnesota’s scoring threats having performed within screaming distance of their season averages, and shortly thereafter the benches were cleared. When it was all over, the Thunder had won their 19th game of the year against 12 losses, 112-100, their second against the Wolves with two to play.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins both eased through the 20-point barrier, and Zach LaVine was right behind at 16, but almost all their bench production came from Shabazz Muhammad (15 points out of 26). This couldn’t reasonably be expected to hold the line against the OKC run-and-gun attack, led by (of course) Russell Westbrook with a 31-15-7, both Enes Kanter and Steven Adams scoring 20-plus, and Alex Abrines’ on-again, off-again three-point prowess on again. (Weirdly, both teams hit exactly one-third of their treys, though the Wolves put up only 12 and the Thunder tossed up 24.) So the only thing really in doubt might have been “Will Westbrook get another technical?” Answer: yes.

Five of the next six games are on the road, the sole exception being a New Year’s Eve matchup with the Clippers. Before that, it’s Miami (Tuesday) and Memphis (Thursday), followed by Milwaukee, Charlotte and Houston. After that, things get more complicated.


Baggage in Boston

This year’s Celtics are pretty formidable, and you have to figure they’re more so at home at the TD Garden; coming in, both Boston and Oklahoma City had 17-12 records. And the Greenies led early on, though the Thunder caught up and passed them in the second quarter and remained ahead halfway through the fourth. What happened, of course, was Isaiah Thomas, the five-foot-nine fireplug who scored 15 of the Celtics’ 17 points in those six minutes, enough to put Boston back in the lead. The Thunder crawled back despite three fouls on Andre Roberson, who managed only one of six free throws; what Roberson did accomplish was to put the brakes on Thomas long enough to regain that lead. Thomas, of course, wouldn’t stay down forever, and an and-one just before the one-minute mark brought the Celtics back to within three, but Russell Westbrook wasn’t having any of that. At :30, OKC was up eight; Al Horford delivered a timely trey, but Westbrook put it away at the foul line. The final was 117-112, and while radio guy Matt Pinto will tell you it wasn’t the Thunder’s finest hour defensively, there’s a lot to be said for neutralizing Thomas, even if it made Dre’s free-throw record look even worse than it was.

Then again, can someone with 34 points and 10 assists, as Thomas was, be legitimately described as “neutralized”? Maybe not. Horford kicked in 23 more. However, the Boston reserves came up with only 19 points, one less than Thunder bench leader Enes Kanter. And if it wasn’t Anthony Morrow’s night (1-5, two points), Domantas Sabonis came up with a career-high 20, including three treys. And then there’s Westbrook, who seems to operate on another plane of existence, turning in a 45-11-11 line, including 20 points in the fourth quarter. (Slight offset: the rest of the team scored 9.)

The Thunder is at home for Christmas, to play the Timberwolves, before going back on the road to take on the Heat and the Grizzlies.

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Second string to the rescue

If your starters are just barely keeping ahead of things, what do you do? Tonight, Billy Donovan tried “Turn loose the reserves,” and the Thunder bench came up big, opening the fourth quarter with an 18-5 run and seemingly leaving the Pelicans in the dust. If so, it was kind of wet dust; New Orleans still had weaponry, including reliable Anthony Davis, and OKC’s double-digit lead began to evaporate. Still, with 3:30 left, the Thunder were up 110-101, and Donovan deployed three starters plus Enas Kanter and Alex Abrines, both of whom had scored in double figures; Russell Westbrook contributed his usual fourth-quarter magic, and the Pelicans were put away, 121-110.

The Birds of Prey were clicking pretty well. New Orleans shot 48 percent, won the assists battle 25-22, and three Pelicans scored twenty-plus: Davis, of course, with 34 (and 15 rebounds), Jrue Holiday with 23 (and 10 assists), and Terrence Jones, who led the bench with 21. The Thunder were making just enough more noise to drown them, with Westbrook coming up with 42-10-7, Abrines with a career-high 18 (6-12, including 5-11 on the long ball), and Kanter with 14 points and 14 boards. But here’s your Telltale Statistic: the plus/minus winner for the night was Joffrey Lauvergne, with 10 points, 6 rebounds, and a +20. In fact, all five OKC reserves were on the plus side of the ledger, while Westbrook, despite his wizardry, was -4.

There are only two home games in the next two weeks: Christmas Day against the Timberwolves, and New Year’s Eve against the Clippers. Everything else is on the road: Boston, Miami, Memphis, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Houston. (The Nuggets come to Oklahoma City on the 7th of January.) Things could, and probably will, get hairy.


Reduced altitude

With Dwight Howard ailing, the Atlanta Hawks tried something new: small ball. Really small ball. And for much of the night, it utterly befuddled the Thunder, who couldn’t get inside and who still can’t shoot 3-pointers. In the second quarter, OKC stabilized a bit, and rolled up 37 points, more than twice what they’d garnered in the first and enough to take a five-point lead into the locker room. The Hawks stiffened further in the third, going up three; but then the Thunder caught fire, and not just Russell Westbrook either. Unfortunately, the Hawks were still doing land-office business, and with 1:20 to play, it was tied at 106. Atlanta struck first with a Dennis Schröder pull-up jumper; Westbrook came back with a jumper of his own. Paul Millsap then swished one through, Westbrook put up a trey that missed, Steven Adams stuck it back, but it was just a hair too late. Atlanta 110, Oklahoma City 108, and the season series ends 1-1.

And really, how could the Hawks lose, after shooting nearly 55 percent? With the small lineup, they didn’t get the rebounds — OKC dominated the boards to the tune of 43-35 — but they whipped the ball around like nobody’s business, 24 assists to only 13 for the Thunder. (It wasn’t that long ago that Westbrook alone could serve up 13 dimes.) With four of five starters in double figures, and Kyle Korver close behind, Atlanta had some serious offense, at least some of the time. Schröder knocked down 31 points, Millsap 30. What the Hawks didn’t have was bench scoring: only 14 points for the four reserves playing. Jerami Grant had more than that all by himself. But Westbrook’s 46-11-7 and Andre Roberson’s jewel-like 14 points weren’t quite enough, and Anthony Morrow, starting again in place of the wounded Victor Oladipo, had an off night (1-5, four points).

The Pelicans will be waiting in New Orleans on Wednesday; after that, it’s off to Boston. (The Sunday — Christmas — game will be against Minnesota at the ‘Peake.)


Deep in the dark

The Phoenix Suns, a team that theoretically can erupt at any moment, didn’t produce a whole lot of lava this afternoon in Oklahoma City, despite stirring performances by twin guards Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe; it was just their bad luck that OKC would remember how to shoot free throws, and that Russell Westbrook’s triple-double, his 50th overall and his 13th this season, would include a career-high 22 assists. Not even Booker’s game-high 31 points, 27 of them in the second half, could save the Suns, who fell 114-101 to the Thunder and who now trail the season series 0-2.

To be fair, Phoenix wasn’t at all awful; they actually grabbed one more rebound than OKC did — 43-42 — and sixteen of those boards came off the offensive glass, a neat trick for a team that shot a fairly respectable 43 percent. But Westbrook, all by himself, beat the Suns in assists, 22-16, and the Thunder pulled off 12 steals, the Suns only five. And while Phoenix managed a pretty impressive 62 points in the second half, they were held to a mere 39 in the first. Worse yet, the Suns garnered exactly zero fast-break points.

That Westbrook line, for you completists: 26-11-22. In the continued absence of Victor Oladipo, Billy Donovan opted this time to give Anthony Morrow the start at the two; Morrow responded with an 11-point performance on only six shots. Steven Adams knocked down 19 points; he’s shooting 58 percent this season. (The Thunder overall managed 50 percent this game.)

The Atlanta Hawks will be here Monday, after which it’s on the road again, to New Orleans and to Boston, before the Thunder are back home for Christmas Day against the Minnesota Timberwolves. I’d just as soon we didn’t have a white Christmas; it’s sleety enough today.


Sadly out of tune

Second night of a back-to-back? Check. Opponent with a winning record? Check. Game on the road? Check. Shooting under 40 percent? [sigh] Check. The Jazz were all over the Thunder tonight, and the occasional flash of Oklahoma City brilliance was snuffed out every time. In desperation, Russell Westbrook, after missing a four-foot jumper inside the three-minute mark, apparently fouled the nearest Jazzman just to get out of there; a timeout was called, and the benches were emptied. Utah really thrashed the Thunder, 109-89, and moved one game ahead of OKC in the Northwest Division standings. (Portland, to whom the Thunder lost last night, remains in third.)

Exactly one Thunder player showed up more plus than minus: Nick Collison, +9 in 16 minutes. (Weirdly, Collison and Kyle Singler played exactly 16:18 and scored two points each, but Singler was -12. Timing is everything.) Westbrook had a fairly blah night, 27-6-5 on 7-25 shooting; OKC overall was 30-82, 36 percent. As usual, Enes Kanter led the bench with 19; not as usual, he drew a technical, and there was a brief furor when it looked like he might get a second one and an all-expense-paid trip to the locker room. Since the Jazz feel about Kanter about the way the Thunder feels about Reggie Jackson — well, never mind.

Both Alec Burks and George Hill were out for Utah, but the Jazz didn’t need them; Rodney Hood was, if not on fire, certainly close to kindling temperature, scoring 25 points in 31 minutes. Rudy Gobert had the night’s only double-double, with 12 points and 12 rebounds. The Jazz shot 58 percent, high enough that seeing Shelvin Mack lead the reserves with 15 points didn’t seem all that amazing.

After a dispiriting road trip, the Thunder are back home Saturday afternoon with the threat of snow and the arrival of the Phoenix Suns, followed by the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.


For all you debacle fans

Before this game was even half over, a dispirited Judge Radar grumbled:

It didn’t start out that way. Late in the first quarter, OKC was up nine. But things went straight to the hot nether regions after that. The Trail Blazers had a stiff 16-point lead at halftime, and after the third quarter Portland had run it to 21. Part of the problem was the absence of Victor Oladipo, who messed up his wrist last time out; but the real issue was the Thunder’s sudden inability to make shots, coupled with some recurring defensive lapses. The towel was thrown in halfway through the fourth, and both benches did the mopping up, with the Blazers claiming a surprisingly easy 114-95 win. The only redeeming feature of the evening, so far as I was concerned, was getting a half-price pizza from Papa John’s.

How bad was it? Not even a double-double from Russell Westbrook (20-6-6). Only two other Thunder players in double figures. Then again, one of them was Jerami Grant. Meanwhile, six Blazers scored in double figures, led by Mason Plumlee with 18. Portland shot around 60 percent of the night, finishing with a highly decent 54; the Thunder, once they dropped below 40 percent, stayed there, ending up at 38. OKC did collect the bulk of the rebounds, 44-36, but they also turned over the ball twenty times, versus a mere 13 for the Blazers.

Tomorrow night: it’s all that Jazz in Salt Lake City.