Well, it looks like Oklahoma City has its mojo back. After blowout losses to the Jazz and the Clippers, the Thunder fell way behind to the Blazers in the first half of last night's game. The Blazers were shooting 60 percent from the field, getting whatever they wanted on offense. LaMarcus Aldridge was killing Jeff Green, and Kevin Durant just wasn't giving good enough effort.
Then, coach Scott Brooks did the thing he should be doing regularly. He called on Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka is a cult hero of sorts in the NBA blogosphere, due to his spectacular dunks, his athleticism and the fact that he came out of nowhere last season. The Thunder have kept him in a part-time role, probably because they're worried about messing with the chemistry that made them so successful last season. But after seeing the way he impacted tonight's game, the Thunder really have no choice but to give him more minutes.
Ibaka's length allowed the Thunder to go back to their aggressive defensive style. He locked up Aldridge, holding him to just two points in the final quarter and overtime. No longer could Portland overwhelm the Thunder with their size and length up front. In turn, that got the Thunder in the open floor more and allowed them to outscore the Blazers by nine points from the fourth quarter on. Portland wasn't doing anything worse in their offensive sets. They tried to get guys free. But because of Ibaka's presence, the Thunder were able to get through screens, prevent the backdoor lob and contest shots more effectively.
It makes you wonder why Ibaka only played 25 minutes in regulation. In his first-half stint, he played only 4:58 as the Blazers carved up Oklahoma City's defense. That defense has also been a major issue all season, as they ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency coming into the game. Under those circumstances, it's about time Ibaka got regular minutes. Now, he needs to play for 35 minutes and relegate Nenad Kristic to the bench, chemistry be dammed.
Russell Westbrook was spectacular, with 28 points and 11 rebounds, including a crucial tip on a rebound on the game-tying possession in regulation that led to Ibaka's game-tying tip-in. Kevin Durant had 28, but needed 24 shots to get there thanks to Nicolas Batum's outstanding defense. Green ended up with 19 and 9, playing much better when Ibaka was in there than when Kristic was. Portland got a pretty balanced effort, but I thought their best player was Marcus Camby, who dominated the glass with 12 rebounds and many other tipped ones.
Oklahoma City needs to figure out how to use James Harden (3-5, seven points) better. He's too good to only be a spot-up shooter. I'd try running some baseline screens for him that fold into pick-and-rolls if he's not open.
All in all, a spectacular game. I'm glad I stayed up to see it.
Play of the Game: This won't be on Kevin Harlan's mixtape of best calls.
From the blogs: Via Blazers Edge, Nate McMillan said the Blazers settled for jumpers too much down the stretch.
New York Knicks 120, Chicago Bulls 112
Look, the Knicks were on fire Thursday night. At one point, they were 14-for-19 from three-point range, while the Bulls were 14-for-21 from the free-throw line. It would be easy for the Bulls to throw their hands up in the air and say there isn't much they could have done.
But that's not exactly true. The Bulls' defense was really bad, which is surprising considering this is a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. The effort level wasn't acceptable, and that falls on the players. However, watching the game, I honestly think Thibodeau's scheme didn't make sense. The Bulls decided to defend pick and rolls by laying their big man back close enough to contest the jumper, but far enough back to protect the rim. The point guard defender trailed the point guard on the pick, and the rest of the team cheated off their men to provide extra help. This is the kind of coverage you use on elite point guards like Chris Paul and Steve Nash, because you don't want to risk them beating your trap and getting to the rim or getting an easy pass for a dunk. You'll live with someone else beating you from the perimeter.
But this is not the kind of coverage you want on a team whose point guards are Toney Douglas and Raymond Felton. Douglas and Felton aren't capable of making plays on their own like the elite point guards. They'll happily get to the elbow and swing the ball to open three-point shooters. Sure enough, they did that all night, and the Bulls' defenders added to the problem by closing out poorly when they should have been overly aggressive to run Knicks shooters off the three-point line. Thibodeau schemed to guard the Knicks like the old Phoenix Suns, and I think that was a big mistake.
Douglas was really a revelation. He had 30 points on 9-14 shooting, and through four games, he's outplayed Felton (though Felton had 20 points and 10 assists tonight). He's a good enough shooter to keep the defense honest, and he has a nice floater he can go to off the dribble. I'm guessing he falls off once teams learn how to scout him, but he's also versatile enough to play off the ball, so maybe he becomes tough to scheme against.
The Bulls' offense scored plenty, but they committed way too many turnovers, coughing up the ball on one of every five possessions. The Knicks will let you get easy shots, but they'll pressure you and go for shot-blocks. You have to be smart and strong with the ball, and the Bulls weren't. That triggered New York's transition game, and that's all they needed to win.
Danilo Gallinari got the Knicks going early on, and while he tailed off late, his production (24 points on 11 shots) was key. About the only Knicks player to play poorly was Amare Stoudemire (14 points on 21 shots with eight turnovers). Taj Gibson deserves a ton of credit for defending him well. You have to wonder what happens to Taj once Carlos Boozer comes back from injury.
Play of the game: Derrick Rose channels former Knick Latrell Sprewell as Gallinari makes sure not to be on a poster. Dunk of the year?
From the blogs: Blog a Bull questions Thibodeau's decision to keep the all-reserve unit in the entire fourth quarter instead of going back to the starters (a curious decision for sure), while Posting and Toasting marveled at the Knicks' hot shooting.