The Thunder have won in all kinds of ways this season, but Sunday’s 91-79 victory over the Celtics was a new one.
Blame it on the rare noon starting time, paired brilliantly with Daylight Savings, and Sunday’s tip time felt more suitable for brunch than cocktails. That, plus typical Boston defense, made the usually explosive Oklahoma City offense look a bit slower than usual.
“It always comes down to defense,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “And overall our defense was good tonight.”
Overall, the Thunder haven’t had a defensive stretch like this one in a long while, but Sunday marked the first time they couldn’t lean on their offense to bail them out.
“Every night, we cant go out and expect to score 120 points,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. “Some nights it’s going to be like this.”
Or some days.
We’ve gotten to the point where, yes, we kind of do think the Thunder can go out and score 120 points regularly. They lead the league in scoring at 107 points per game and have natural lethal scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is first in the league at 28.5 points per game. Westbrook is sixth at 23.4.
But Sunday’s win was more than a defensive gem against a playoff team. It marked an important evolutionary step to improvement for a team that made the NBA Finals a season ago.
In the NBA, or any sport for that matter, it’s rare for any team to win a championship without excellent defense. Perhaps Sunday’s victory is a move in that direction.
“There’s definitely going to be nights where the offense isn’t clicking,” Brooks said. “I thought this was a lot like a playoff game.”
Sure, the Thunder still put up 91 points, but no one is sending this game tape to the Hall of Fame. Westbrook managed just 11 shots, maybe because of a sore ankle he suffered Thursday in New York. Other than these past two games, the last time Westbrook had fewer than 11 shots was November.
Durant, meanwhile, wend 6 of 16, getting 11 of his 23 points from the line. Kevin Martin’s shot continues to be off (4 of 12) and the team shot 44 percent and committed 14 turnovers.
So, while Reggie Jackson provided a fourth-quarter spark in an 11-2 run to start the quarter, it was clear the Thunder were going to have to figure out how to play a different kind of style.
“We can play many different ways,” Brooks said. “I like the fact our guys played hard, aggressive basketball.”
The Celtics make you grind while the Thunder would rather run. Sunday, the Thunder won playing Boston’s style.
“They forced us out of our comfort zone and made us stagnant,” said Boston guard Jason Terry. “They took us out of our game plan offensively. That’s the kind of thing they have to do if they want to win a championship.”
In the past five games, all wins, the Thunder defense has been excellent with impressive fourth quarters against the Lakers, Clippers and Knicks. But in all of those games, the Thunder scored and scored and scored, with four of the five going for better than 100 points.
And maybe it coincides with the trade deadline deals which have brought Derek Fisher and Ronnie Brewer to Oklahoma City, but neither is seeing that much action and neither has been in late-game, pivotal situations.
Yet here was the Thunder holding Boston to 10-of-40 shooting (25 percent) in the second half and 37.7 percent for the game. Paul Pierce had 20 points, but just 12 shots and Kevin Garnett was a miserable 5 of 19 for 10 points. Boston had 18 turnovers.
A week ago, the Thunder had their biggest road win of the season at the Clippers, but Sunday they made their biggest step against the Celtics.