On a wild night in downtown Oklahoma City, with events going on all around Bricktown and beyond, the best show to be seen was in the Ford Center. Granted, I'm not really a Flaming Lips fan, but still. The Thunder really looked like a basketball team. A team that wasn't scrambling and searching for a way to just hang close. They looked like a team that knew what it was doing.
The offense executed in crucial situations. The defense stepped up and got stops when they needed it. They actually rebounded when they got said stop (45-35 advantage). They hit free throws (22-27). They played with intelligence and took care of the ball. It was really something.
Tonight's 107-100 win over Golden State makes Oklahoma City 4-29. There's been a lot of talk about the 1972-73 Sixers and the whole worst team ever thing. When that Philly team got its fourth win, it was 4-58. Hey, 4-29 ain't looking so bad.
Really three key moments stick out in tonight's win:
A. Jeff Green's buzzer beater at the end of the third quarter to make it 78-70 heading into the fourth with all the momentum in OKC's favor. That capped off a 27-15 quarter in favor of the Thunder in which they took control of the game. Green was unstoppable in the frame and his jumper carried much need mo into the fourth. With OKC up four with about a minute left in the third, I told my wife that the Thunder needed to be up eight to have a chance to win. And Green found my magic number. Then OKC kicked off the fourth with back-to-back buckets to take a 12 point advantage.
B. Russell Westbrook checking back in with 7:00 minutes to go. The Thunder had a nice lead, but it was being whittled away by the Warriors. Golden State was getting to the line and had a 12 point OKC lead down to three at 87-84. The defense was struggling, there was no intensity and it seemed everything was slipping away. But Westbrook checked back in, taking Damien Wilkins empty spot and immediately made a defensive impact grabbing a couple boards, deflecting some passes and picking up a steal. He got the offense moving again but more importantly, helped the defense regain itself.
C. Or the wildcard, when Dick Bavetta grabbed fellow ref Sean Wright and kissed him on the cheek when put on "Kiss Cam". Weird to everyone? Yes. Potentially rattling for the Warriors? Absolutely. But those type of things are expected when Bavetta is in play.
OKC dominated the paint, outscoring the Warriors 60-36 in the lane. A lot of that had to do with Chris Wilcox's biggest game of the year. In 36 minutes off the pine, Wilcox had 23 and nine and was solid defensively. His block on Marco Belinelli snuffed out a potential bucket and game changing play. Earl Watson finally played a nice game, scoring 11 and dishing six assists. (For the most part) he took smart shots and managed the offense well. Just eight players played, but other than the non-existent ghost that plays shooting guard, everybody was productive.
One troubling thing I've been noticing about Kevin Durant is his poor entry passes. He holds the ball too long, pumps it too much and throws it away too often. Against the Warriors, he turned it over four times and three of those were on terrible post entry passes. But other than that, he was really good. This was probably the best he's taken the ball to the rim this season. He handled the ball well, controlled it and got in the lane and finished. He was selective again on three pointers and took what was given to him. A Kevin Durant that uses tonight's repertoire along with his deadly smooth jumper could be a Kevin Durant that is a perennial All-Star and unstoppable scorer. And with Green playing well beside him, there's really something exciting brewing. The two combined for 51 points and if that can become a nightly trend, there's reason to be excited about the future.
Got to give it up to Oklahoma native Kelenna Azubuike though. He had 24 (23 in the second half) off the Warriors bench and hit back-to-back treys that tightened things up. I've always liked him.
Unlike the first game between these two squads, the Thunder wasn't playing from behind all night. The Warriors held the lead for most of the first half, but OKC was right there. There was incredible balance offensively with three Thunder players scoring over 20. As mentioned, Green was very awesome, Durant was excellent and Wilcox played his best game of the year. OKC was dominant on the glass and gave itself second chances with 14 offensive boards. The Thunder turned 20 Warrior giveaways into 24 points.
Two sequences can kind of sum up the effort of the two teams. On one possession early in the third, Stephen Jackson went to the rim and thought he was hacked. He sat on his butt at his own end with his elbows on his knees as OKC took off and had a full possession 5 on 4. The Thunder scored and Jackson finally got up. Late in the fourth, Wilcox didn't give up on a play after feeling he was fouled and streaked into the lane and tossed Belinelli's runner into Loud City. As Tom Ziller said, you can't accuse the Thunder of quitting. They played hard. They're trying to win. And maybe they're figuring out how.
The best part about tonight's win is that it wasn't against a team that was quitting. This was a team riding a two game winning streak with one of those against maybe the best team in the league. They were playing with confidence and most likely were focused to get a third straight win against the consensus worst team. But OKC stepped up. This game ended just a five game losing steak. That's an improvement from the previous two wins ending 14 and eight game losing streaks. So maybe next it will just be three in a row before a win. Then two. Then one. And then maybe a winning streak.
The Thunder will get an (unlikely) chance for two in a row Friday night against the very tough Nuggets. But after a good night like this, I think the page is turning a bit. Wins like this can help you to start shaking the "We're going to lose every game" feeling. OKC is no pushover. Winning is a long shot, but it's becoming a more realistic possibility on a night-to-night basis.
A nice way to kick off the Ron Adams/Nenad Krstic era. And an even nicer way to put 2008 in the books and head to 2009 (let's just ignore the fact that the team won only four times in 2008). Maybe this is a good sign for the team heading into the new year. New year, new coach, new player and a win to boot. Hopefully, this is a symbolic way to turn the page and make 2009 better than 2008.