Sunday’s 109-86 loss to the Mavericks marked the first loss in 12 games for the Thunder in “The Battle Of I-35”. But when you’re playing without 60% of your starting lineup, wins are not very easy to come by. Just ask the Lakers. Even Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle made mention of Russell Westbrook’s absence by saying,
“They were down a great player so we caught a break there. You still gotta go out and play. They’ve had a great record with and without Westbrook. It’s a game we needed, so it’s a plus for us.”
I noticed what Carlisle failed to mention was the fact that the great record amassed without Westbrook was in large part due to the suffocating defense provided by Thabo Sefolosha on the perimeter and Kendrick Perkins in the paint. It has been a struggle to win consistently without these two defenders. The Thunder are 5-3 this March, playing the entire month without them. And the Thunder are expected to be without both defenders for essentially the remainder of the season. The Thunder have been unable to string together three wins in a row without them, and may now have serious trouble reclaiming the Western Conference’s #1 seed from the Spurs, as Sunday’s loss puts them two full games behind. Not only are the Thunder struggling to win consistently, but the Spurs are doing exactly that, currently riding an 11-game winning streak. The Mavs jumped to 40-27 with their victory while dropping the Thunder to 47-18. The Mavs have gone 1-1 since Sunday’s night’s win, currently putting them at 41-28.
The fact that the Mavericks had five players in double figures illustrates the struggle for the Thunder defense, as sadly, the Mavs had the game pretty much sealed by the end of the 1st quarter. Not that they had the game out of reach, but the Thunder D just couldn’t get stops to save their lives. Shawn Marion led the Mavs’ scoring surge with 19 points, followed by Dirk Nowitzki’s 17, Jose Calderon’s 16, and Samuel Dalembert’s 10. Vince Carter also added 18 points off of the Mavs bench, making him the 27th player in NBA history to reach the 27,000-point plateau. He currently has 27,010 for his career.
Kevin Durant’s 30 may have led all scorers, but it simply wasn’t enough to seal the deal. Serge Ibaka added 19, while Reggie Jackson dropped 13. The problem for the Thunder was that they only got 22 points out of 6 bench players, meaning more-known-for-his-defense Ibaka nearly outscored the entire Thunder bench.
Westbrook returns for the road game against the Bulls at United Center, and the Thunder respond with a tremendous defensive effort against the Bulls. Make no mistake, the Bulls made them work for it. Clinging to a 1-point lead (76-75) with 10:01 to play, the Thunder hit on a 13-0 run that gave them an 89-75 lead with a mere 3:45 left on the clock. That run sealed the deal for the Thunder, as they went on to win 97-85. This win has the Thunder currently sitting at 48-18, while dropping the Bulls to 37-30, although last night’s victory over the 76ers has the Bulls currently sitting at 38-30.
NBA.com’s Kent McDill said it best about the Thunder’s decision to rest Westbrook during back-to-backs,
“If resting Westbrook for one game on a back-to-back allows him to provide a 17-9-9 game, then the plan makes sense.”
Westbrook’s near-triple-double, including 17 points, wasn’t even the night’s standout performance. Durant posted a 35-point, 12-rebound double-double, extending his streak of 25+-point games to 32. This has him 8 short of Micheal Jordan’s record of 40 straight. Ibaka was good for 15 points of his own, and unlike the Mavs contest, two bench scorers alone were good for 23 points (Jackson: 11, Caron Butler: 12).
The Bulls gave good effort, as evidenced by Carlos Boozer’s 12-point, 11-rebound double-double. Joakim Noah added 12 boards, but only 9 total points. Jimmy Butler dropped 13 points, and Mike Dunleavy dropped 11. Oddly enough, the lead scorer came off of the bench, as Taj Gibson was good for 16 points. Another bench player, D.J. Augustin, was good for 10.
Another back-to-back looms starting tonight. 6pm CST will denote tip-off for the Thunder-Cavaliers game, emanating from Quicken Loans Arena. The Thunder look to even the score, as the Cavs took Round 1 by a score of 114-104 at The Peake on Feb. 26th. The Cavs, on the other hand, are looking for the series sweep. Tomorrow night will have the Thunder traveling to Air Canada Centre for another revenge game, this one against the Raptors, who claimed the first match-up 104-98 at The Peake. Therefore, the Thunder are looking to avoid two potential series sweeps in road games to “lesser teams” on back-to-back nights. Not only do both games feature the same 6pm CST tip-off time, but you can also catch both games via the usual suspects: Fox Sports Oklahoma, WWLS The Sports Animal, and NBA League Pass.