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Durant Throws On His Cape Just in Time

Posted By Steven Jones On Jan 7 2012 @ 11:31 pm In Oklahoma City Thunder | No Comments

For two and a half quarters, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed content to watch Goran Dragic and Luis Scola run a shooting drill. Playing the Houston Rockets for the second time in 24 hours appeared to bore the Thunder’s youngsters, who treated defense as something to hurry through in order to get the ball back.

This malaise was most evident in the third quarter, when Dragic scored 12 points without missing a shot, several times beating Russell Westbrook on coast-to-coast drives. Westbrook appeared to give up on guarding Dragic altogether, setting a new goal of outscoring him while hardly allowing his teammates to touch the ball in a 15-minute, 6-10 field goal stretch. Many of those shots were the same forced, pull-up long twos that derailed the Thunder offense repeatedly in last year’s Western Conference Finals.

Tonight, though, Kevin Durant asserted himself down the stretch, showing some growth in his ability to move without the ball. He scored Oklahoma City’s last 11 points, several off Westbrook’s passes as the point guard remembered that he plays with the league’s most potent scorer.

Durant’s heroics, while timely, helped mask some significant problems that continue to plague his young team. The ongoing struggle to balance Westbrook’s scoring and distribution needs no further elaboration here – after all, he did score 25 points on 50% shooting and add six assists.

Defensively, though, the Thunder display some troubling holes. Serge Ibaka, for all of his athleticism and hustle, remains a problematic one-on-one defender, shredded repeatedly tonight by Scola’s pick-and-pop savvy. Ibaka’s struggles against Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki last spring remain fresh in Thunder fans’ minds, and the question of how soon he will refine his technical approach to defense remains open.

Oklahoma City’s inside rotation in general seems a collection of ill-fitting pieces. The starting tandem of Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka is offensively impotent: they combined for four points on 2-6 shooting tonight, and average 14.5 on the season.

When Coach Scott Brooks goes to his bench, he can insert Nick Collison, who is a better one-on-one defender than Ibaka but even more challenged offensively; or Nazr Mohammed, who has the most offensive talent of the bunch (17 points in 18 minutes against Houston) but the least ability to compete defensively after enduring 14 pro seasons.

As if that confounding rotation wasn’t headache enough for Brooks, he now has to hope for the best regarding backup point guard Eric Maynor’s health. Maynor went down awkwardly on a fourth-quarter drive and was unable to walk back to the locker room. Brooks has been able to use Maynor to keep Westbrook’s minutes down; if he misses any sustained stretch, it will compromise the depth that should allow the Thunder to overcome the challenges of this season’s compressed schedule.

Finally, the team’s best players still have significant room for growth in their games. Westbrook’s foibles got extensive attention earlier, but Durant still has a hard time freeing himself from physical defenders for easy shots, depending on solid screens and struggling to get to the basket except in transition.

His game-ending run tonight was impressive, but it’s worth noting that all but one of his baskets were jump shots from at least 13 feet. It worked just well enough tonight, but with the season young and his workload piling up, how long can he sustain it?

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