VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook power Thunder past Hawks
ATLANTA – All of the wonder that used to accompany the Oklahoma City Thunder has been replaced with furrowed brows, shoulder shrugs and a wicked focus from the previously precious Western Conference party crashers.
They still dance after dunks and holster their shooting hands after a 3-pointer every now and then. But the mood is much different. The fun and games are over for the Thunder. Last season’s playoff failures, piggybacked on the failure to capitalize on home-court advantage in The Finals in 2011, have hardened this group.
“They’re playing for respect,” is the way one keen observer put it to me in a hallway at Philips Arena late Tuesday night after the Thunder finished thumping a game Atlanta Hawks team. “They went from No. 1 [in the Western Conference] to the backburner after Russell [Westbrook] got hurt last year against Houston. They didn’t forget how that felt. And they are taking it out on people now.”
It shows, particularly in Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the catalysts for this Thunder team. They carry an edge that few teams in the league can match right now. It’s the same edge they played with on their way up, when they took their lumps in successive years trying to reach the top of the Western Conference.
There is a physical edge to this group that was not there previously, one that was on full display against a Hawks team that hasn’t been pushed around much by anyone this season.
Westbrook chased a triple-double (14 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds) on a night when he couldn’t make a shot early and finished 6-for-21 from the floor. Durant shredded the Hawks for his usual 30 points, but was just as lethal on the other end, finishing with 10 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal.
A much-improved Serge Ibaka added 19 points, 10 rebounds (his 10th double-double this season) and two swats, serving as a roadblock around the basket and neutralizing the Hawks’ Al Horford for most of the night.
During a late Hawks run, while both Durant and Westbrook were on the bench watching the reserves try to hold the lead, they were summoned back into the game. Durant swatted away shots on back-to-back possessions to help end whatever threat that was brewing from a Hawks team that dismantled the Los Angeles Clippers in Atlanta last week.
What Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan couldn’t do against a steady and disciplined Hawks team the Thunder did at will. They controlled the action and their stars were able to outwork their Hawks counterparts when it mattered most. The Thunder held the Hawks to just 36 percent shooting, an impressive feat for a team noted more for their explosive offensive abilities than for the intense defensive pressure.
“Any time you hold an NBA team in the thirties in shooting percentage,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, “you’re doing a good job defensively.”
Anytime you have talented players like Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and that bunch locked in and focused on both ends the way they are now, you can do what you want against just about anybody. The Thunder’s 11 wins in their last 12 games, including a pasting of the Indiana Pacers over the weekend, is proof.
The way they finished off the Hawks was just a subtle reminder to the rest of the league that they will not let up, no matter the time, place or circumstance. Before the Hawks trimmed that lead to 95-92 late in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had cranked things up and led by 13 with just under seven minutes to play.
“(The Hawks) revved up their intensity on the defensive end and when we went on that [fourth quarter] run we matched their intensity. We were able to take that punch and give a bigger punch back,” Durant said. “We played well defensively and took some good shots. We had the game up to 14 or 15 twice, and we let them back in the game. They are tough to guard. They have shooters, and they have guys who roll to the rim and finish, but we did a good job of covering everything. We just always tell each other ‘weather the storm,’ no matter what. If they close the lead or if we’re down 20, just weather the storm and keep working and keep pressing. We took it a possession at a time, and when they cut it to three, we were able to just settle down and get stops and make shots as well.”
They did whatever needed to be done. And they did it with an edge. It makes you wonder — who will match that this season?