These Oklahoma City Thunder know better than to celebrate a regular-season win. That policy even extends to a blowout of the Eastern Conference leaders, and especially when those leaders are missing the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.
Still, the Thunder’s 92-78 victory was their second straight nationally televised statement. Fans know these games have little significance in a vacuum, but this one was full of encouraging signs.
Those Who Can’t Do, Coach: Scott Brooks is used to second-guessing or outright potshots from this blog, but this was the second consecutive showcase where he put his best foot forward. The Thunder have worn an aura of preparedness against the Heat and Bulls these past Sundays.
Last week, they shredded Miami’s ball-hawking defenders with quick, precision passes. Today, they targeted Chicago’s few defensive weaknesses, skillfully using pick-and-roll attacks that forced Carlos Boozer to switch out on Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant.
Pick Your Poison: Durant hit all eight of his outside attempts today, many of which could serve as instructional diagrams for aspiring young shooters.
He has more openings than ever thanks to the devastating left-hand drive he’s developed. The Bulls’ smart defenders had read their scouting reports and knew to back off a step in preparation. They managed to limit his drives, but allowed too many open perimeter looks.
No defender exists who could plausibly deny Durant on offense, or even make him work for his points. If any team could do so, one would expect Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls. Durant’s 26 points on 16 field goal attempts indicate that Chicago failed that test today.
Between Your Man and the Basket: Mentioning “failed tests” brings to mind this blog’s most polarizing subplot: the necessary catalogue of Russell Westbrook’s gradual maturation as a player, and the setbacks along the way.
Today he persisted in two bad habits. The first is his tendency toward matador defense. Most NBA players have trouble staying in front of Derrick Rose; Westbrook had just as hard a time denying C.J. Watson in the early going today.
The second problem, directly related to the first, is Russell’s insistence on going right at the man who just scored on him. Each of Watson’s baskets precipitated a possession in which nobody but Westbrook touched the ball. Regular Thunder observers can reliably predict Westbrook’s attempts at vengeance. Even when it works, the team doesn’t grow in the long run.
The good news is that Westbrook played with noticeably greater maturity than in his miserable outing against the Heat last week. He seems to have absorbed some of Durant’s improved court vision by osmosis, and made several highlight-worthy passes; he also pulled off the defensive play of the year with his full-court sprint-stolen-pass-no-look-save combination.
Almost no other NBA player can make plays like that, or his dunk over Omer Asik that punctuated a decisive third quarter. As long as Westbrook can master some of the simple things that almost everyone can do, he will continue his growth into a truly top-flight point guard.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.