I had to let some time pass before I wrote this one. I was heated when the Thunder dropped their 3rd straight game for the first time since their inaugural season in OKC. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
This was the 22-36 Cavaliers on the road to “The ‘Peake” against one of the NBA’s scariest teams to be forced to visit. This was the beginning of the ramp-up in schedule that was supposed to shake off the remaining court rust, and see a return to form. In short, this was supposed to be the Thunder’s “bounceback game”.
Instead, what we saw was the Thunder’s love for jump shooting turn a 7-point lead in the opening seconds of the 4th into a 10-point loss (114-104) that gives the Cavs their 23rd win of the season, while dropping the Thunder to 43-15.
Their love for jump shooting wasn’t even the real killer. What ended their chances at a win on Wednesday night was another lackluster defensive performance that saw the Thunder’s opponent eclipse the 100-point mark for the 3rd straight game, which not coincidentally have all resulted in losses. And the defense was actually doing rather well until the 4th quarter. That last quarter saw the Thunder give up 42 points in a less-than-12-minute span. And this was against a team that not only has found the approach to 25 wins vastly difficult, but was forced to play Wednesday night’s game without 3 of their top performers.
Anderson Varejao understandably didn’t want to run the risk of further damaging his already sore back, C.J. Miles was nursing a left ankle sprain, and Dion Waiters was obviously going to miss some serious time after hyperextending his left knee. Although, to be fair, the Thunder were missing Kendrick Perkins, who suffered a left groin strain during the game against the Clippers. (Believe me when I say even a strain sucks when it comes to the groin. Any injury that’s to the groin will render the task of walking rather difficult.) Now a lot of Thunder fans hear “Perkins” and go, “Well, that’s not a big deal. He’s probably the one starter that we could actually afford to lose, so big rookie Steven Adams can get some experience.” I was of the same school of thought until a very interesting statistic from the game notes caught my eye.
The Thunder have played 4 games this season without Perkins in the lineup. They are officially winless in those 4 games. That stat, if anything, should prove the value of Perkins on the defensive end of the court. He’ll always be an offensive liability, as he is just a clumsy shooter. The thing is, Thunder fans tend to underrate Perkins’ value at the defensive end. He’s a lot like Nick Collison in the fact that he doesn’t do a lot of stuff that shows up on stat sheets, but he provides a big body in the paint that tends to be a very physical and disruptive force to opposing offenses. But unlike Collison, he also brings a trash-taking, you-are-my-sworn-enemy style of psychological defense that can really throw opposing big men off of their game when it’s at its most effective. Winning without Perkins is a puzzle the Thunder have not been able to successfully solve even once this season. They’re going to be forced to figure it out now if they don’t want the slide to continue, seeing as Perkins is more than likely going to remain sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Offensively, the Thunder are doing what they normally do, and even better in some areas. Kevin Durant posted a 28-point, 10-rebound double-double that was a mere 1 assist shy of being a triple-double. Serge Ibaka had a 16-point, 13-rebound double-double of his own, and Russell Westbrook added 24 points while being a mere 1 assist shy of a double-double himself. The problem for the Thunder was that they didn’t really get much outside of their big three, as not one bench player was able to manage double digits in any stat category.
The Cavs didn’t get much from their bench either. The thing is, when all 5 starters hit double digits in points, the bench production can be rendered unnecessary. Tristan Thompson only managed 11 points, but pulled off a double-double due to his 11 rebounds. Kyrie Irving led all scorers to take the floor with his 31 points, while being yet another player to end his night one assist shy of a double-double. Jarrett Jack contributed 21 points himself, while Spencer Hawes dropped 19. Luol Deng rounded out their starters’ productive night with 13 points.
The Thunder need to figure out how to play defense without Perkins. This is the second straight game that saw the Thunder give up a 40+-point quarter defensively. I don’t see how they expect to win any games if the defense is going to continue to go AWOL for such long stretches.
They will officially welcome the Grizzlies to town tonight, as they start the back-end of a 6-game home stretch that could really use a Thunder victory at this point. We’ve seen a back-and-forth season series between these two teams thus far. The Dec. 11th matchup saw the Thunder win 116-100 as they took advantage of Marc Gasol’s absence. The Jan. 14th contest saw the Grizzlies take advantage of a returning Gasol and an absent Westbrook as they took it 90-87. The Feb. 3rd affair saw the Thunder overcome the absence of Westbrook as they pulled off an 86-77 victory that gives them the current 2-1 season-series lead. The Grizzlies will be looking to end this series in a 2-2 split, while the Thunder hope to take the series outright by a 3-1 margin. Tip-off is scheduled for 7pm CST, and will be broadcast via Fox Sports Oklahoma, WWLS The Sports Animal, and NBA League Pass.