State of the Thunder: Every game matters

December 20, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY – Got to talk with Gregg Popovich the other day when San Antonio came to town for a game against the Thunder.

Got me thinking, too, on how drastically different these teams approach the regular season.

In Oklahoma City, the company line is, "We're just trying to get better." In San Antonio, the lines, the reasoning and the direction from Popovich, the Spurs coach, hasn't changed over the years. It's always about getting ready for the playoffs.

Even in December.

So, while the Thunder are playing their best basketball of the season and the best basketball they have played since moving to Oklahoma City, winning 12 in a row before Thursday's loss at Minnesota, the Spurs were busy not playing their starters in a close game Monday in Oklahoma City.

Hard to argue with Popovich and his way of seeing things. The Spurs have been a model franchise. They lost to the Thunder in the Western finals last season, but let's look at what the Thunder are doing instead.

Is it important the Thunder try to get better every game? Despite Thursday's loss, Oklahoma City (21-5) has the best record in the league. Now, the top seed is definitely important as it gets you home-court advantage, but that's not something the Spurs have been particularly worried about. They did win home-court advantage the past two years but they didn't seem to angle for it.

Yet, here we are in December with Brooks grinding out the regular season, putting his starters back in late to preserve a home win against Sacramento last Friday.

Brooks is big on saying the team has 82 big games a year. The Spurs clearly feel differently. Remember, Popovich didn't even bring his "A" team to a game at Miami earlier this year and when his team fell behind by 18 in the third quarter Monday against the Thunder, we didn't see Tim Duncan and Tony Parker at all in the fourth quarter. When the lead shrunk to nine with less than six minutes to go, Popovich still didn't put his starters back in.

Now, Brooks didn't say Monday's win was significant, and it did come against a Spurs team that was short of full strength, but you get the feeling that having the best record in the league is important to Brooks and that beating Charlotte in November means as much as any other game.

"Every game is important to us," Brooks said. "We play every game and they're all important."

That's dangerous thinking for a team that was good enough to make the Finals last year. Dropping a game or two now, saving starters minutes and saving some energy might not be the worst approach. Yes, the Thunder are a younger team, but no reason not to keep them that way.

Who's hot: Can I just be vague and say the entire team? Well, it's true. The Thunder's 12-game win streak included two wins over teams they lost to earlier this year: San Antonio and Atlanta. OKC is 20-3 since losing to Atlanta back on Nov. 4. 

Who's not:
Kinda feel like I've been picking on Eric Maynor this year, but the backup point guard has been mostly a non-factor. He has five turnovers and four assists in the past three games and that came after a seven-assist, no-turnover game last Friday against Sacramento. Maybe it's due to the fact he plays about 12 minutes per game on average and maybe it's because Kevin Durant has been bringing the ball up the court more or Kevin Martin has transitioned well into the mix, but Maynor has been underwhelming.

Three Thoughts

1. It's not too soon to be talking about Kevin Durant as the league MVP. He finished second to LeBron James last season and has improved on a number of areas this year.

Durant has improved on his career numbers in scoring, rebounding and assists, but to me what makes him more valuable is his ability to contribute in other ways. For example, take this past week. Against San Antonio on Monday, Durant had fewer shots than Kendrick Perkins until six minutes were left in the game. In fact, at the end of the third quarter, every starter as well as Kevin Martin had as many or more shots taken than Durant's seven. Durant finished with 19 points on 13 shots. He's had only two games this season with fewer points.

Then came Wednesday against Atlanta. Durant had 41 points, but he waited and waited and waited. He never pressed. He had just seven shots in the first half, but when the Thunder needed him in the second half, he hit big shot after big shot, including a 3-pointer from way out in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 28 points in the second half, making 10-of-16 shots. He had 13 rebounds and a pair of blocks.

That's the kind of game that wins you the MVP.

2. What makes the Thunder so impressive is the ability of either Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant to win games by themselves. No other team has a duo like that, outside of the Miami Heat, though it seems like Dwyane Wade isn't the same as he used to be.

My point was on pretty good display Wednesday against Atlanta. Westbrook was great in the first half and quiet in the second half. Durant was the opposite. Durant had a season-best 41 points, 28 in the second half. Westbrook had 27 points, all in the first half.

Both are good enough to take over games. Both did Wednesday in Atlanta. Can you imagine what happens when both go off during a game?

3. The Spurs are down just a bit. That was obvious Monday night in what was supposed to be the biggest test of the season for the Thunder. Instead, San Antonio came into the game having played four of five on the road and losing two of their previous three. Meanwhile, they didn't have Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Stephen Jackson was also injured, but played. The Spurs also rested their starters in the fourth quarter.

OK, so it wasn't much of a game as the Thunder wound up winning 107-93. Sure wish the game had been a better test.

* Anyone notice Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook getting upset during the fourth quarter of Friday's game against Sacramento? After the Thunder built a big lead, the starters came out of the game, but the bench let it slip and Durant and Westbrook had to go back in. Durant was visibly upset, slamming a towel down before peeling off his warmups.

* Russell Westbrook hurt his wrist in the second half of Monday's win against San Antonio. He said after the game he was fine, but was fitted with a soft, support cast. He started Wednesday in Atlanta and had 27 points in the first half.

* Loved hearing that Spurs' coach Greg Popovich is still thinking about last year's loss to the Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Remember, OKC was down 2-0 in the series.
"I'm still trying to figure it out," he said. "But we stopped trusting each other and we played in a crowd and we didn't hit the first open man and that's what they did for two games in a row. After that, they got it right."

* Everyone plays 41 at home and 41 on the road, but the Thunder have gotten off to a good start thanks to an abundance of home games and a fairly easy schedule. They have played 16 games at home and just nine on the road. Thursday was only the second time this season where they have played back-to-back road games. Fourteen of their next 21 games are on the road.

* Interesting note on Westbrook and his gun-holstering celebration. He told The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry he had no plans to change up the move he makes after made 3-pointers, even in light of the recent school shooting in Connecticut. "I have never related it to guns," Westbrook said.

* Maybe it was just to throw a new wrinkle in, but Scott Brooks played Jeremy Lamb Wednesday against Atlanta – when it counted, coming in at the 3:11 mark of the first quarter. He scored five points in five minutes. Lamb has split time this season between Oklahoma City and the D-League team in Tulsa where he is averaging a team-best 23 points per game.


"You have to give Oklahoma props. They gave us an old-fashioned butt whooping today." - Spurs guard Stephen Jackson after Monday's 107-93 loss to the Thunder.

"That's why he's the best scorer in the game. He does that on a nightly basis for us. He wins games for us, and he's the MVP right now." - Russell Westbrook to The Oklahoman after Kevin Durant scored 41 points against Atlanta.

Up Next

Just two games this week, but they come against the past two NBA champions – at Miami on Christmas and home against Dallas on Thursday. Obviously, the league likes the idea of Durant and his good friend LeBron James facing off against each other. It's the top-billed game of four on the day. Tipoff is 4:30 p.m.

Tower of Power?

You'd have to say so at this point, but the next few weeks will be an excellent opportunity to gauge exactly where this team is as it heads into the midpoint of the schedule.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman