Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Defending champs show the young Thunder a thing or two

As actual thunder rolled outside the Ford Center tonight, the Thunder did little of the same in a 96-83 loss to the defending champion Boston Celtics.

Oklahoma City (1-3) got off to the hot start that was needed, scoring the first six points of the contest and held a nice 29-21 lead after one frame.

But it all started to change in the second quarter.

Poor shooting and poor defense began to doom OKC. In the second, the Thunder shot something like 3-21 in the quarter and scored only 15 points. The terrible offense carried over to the third as OKC scored only 11 in that quarter and overall the team shot only 36 percent from the field.

As color man Grant Long said, the Thunder played well as evidenced by the Celtics (4-1) still having Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in at the end of the game, even after playing the night before. So that means the team played relatively well. But as the clock ran out, all I could think was, "Dang. That was a missed opportunity." I can forgive a poor shooting quarter. It happens. In the second, the looks were there. They just didn't drop.

But the third was a pull-you-hair-out, scream-into-a-pillow, take-a-shot-of-whiskey kind if quarter. Every possession, I thought, "Ok, here we go." And every possession the Thunder would come out empty handed. The Celtics scored only 19 in the frame and turned the ball over a number of times. So many chances to be right in it heading into the fourth. But instead, OKC trailed by 15. And as the offense went unbelievably stagnant, I just stared at the Thunder bench waiting for Russell Westbrook to get up. Waiting. Waiting. Earl Watson's offense was stale and there was a ton of standing around. OKC wasn't scoring but neither was Boston. The door was open. Inject some life into the game with your spark plug and maybe you can make up some ground. Waiting. But Coach Peej never pulled the trigger. He left the same lineup on the floor and watched them helplessly struggle through six solid minutes of totally offensive inept basketball. It was frustrating.

Then the fourth starts. Westbrook comes in but now the entire second five is on the floor. And the situation totally flip-flopped. The Celtics were turning it over, missing shots, committing dumb mistakes and the Thunder couldn't score still. Wasn't this the time your superstar, Kevin Durant, should be in the game trying to take it over? Not Desmond Mason and Damien Wilkins (no disrespect to either, because Dez played pretty well, but come on). Finally with about four minutes left, Westbrook starts putting good attacks together and ends up with 13 on the night, including 3-5 from downtown (yes, that's one more three than the entire team had made all all year). But it was way too little, too late.

The Thunder hung around and was down 10 to 13 for most of the fourth. And the thing was, the Celtics kept missing shots and never could pull away. A bucket here or there and the Thunder cuts it to single digits. But then there were the possessions where OKC could not secure a life-or-death rebound. Boston got two, three and once four chances at the bucket. To which you give any team four cracks in one possesion and I don't care if they're Hickory High, they'll likely put one through.

Overall, there are positives to take out of it. Your superstar (Durant) scores only 17 and you "only" lose by 13. That's sort of encouraging. That means the Thunder played solid defense. Also encouraging is that I nailed Boston's scoring total for the evening. Discouraging is that I missed OKC's total by eight.

The game got sloppy in the second half. At halftime time, both teams had four turnovers. The Celtics finished with 12 (for you math wizards, that means they had eight in the second half) and OKC with 15 (11 in the second).

Some people are hell-bent on saying the team "sucks" and claiming it won't be good at all for the whole season. But I'm not really feeling that way anymore. I truly think they are close. They are just a good six minutes away from being competitive with anyone. If they can take those awful stretches of six terrible minutes of bad rebounding and embarrassing offense and either cut them in half or eliminate them completely, they can actually be good.

The commitment to defense is obvious, but I fear that because of it, the offensive side has suffered. Durant really hasn't had a chance to take over a game. It just doesn't seem like he's able to get totally immersed in the game and sink into a solid offensive rhythm. Once that happens and he starts finding that game we know he has, and consistently puts up 20-25 a night, this team will be right in these games - even against the NBA elite. Stay the course fans. It's going to come. Plus, they were playing maybe the best team in the entire league. So that kind of makes it tough to, you know, win.

The Thunder gets a day off before traveling to Salt Lake City to play Deron Williams (he is supposed to play Friday) and the Jazz.

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