The Oklahoma City Thunder are really, really good. As much as the Miami Heat exposed some of the Thunder’s weaknesses on national television last Thursday night, there are not very many teams that can beat Oklahoma City soundly. On Friday night, the Wolves reminded us that they are indeed not one of those select teams.
The first quarter actually felt closer than the story that the scoreboard told. The Wolves came out of the gate with decent intensity on the offensive end, but the prolific Thunder offense was simply too much. The impossible match-ups of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are where the defensive difficulties started for the Wolves. Rick Adelman’s game plan called for a late double-team on pretty much any Oklahoma City player that received the ball in the mid-post, and for some match-ups, this is a no-brainer.
For instance, neither Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea can guard the hyper-athletic Westbrook, either at the top of the key or in the post. Unfortunately for the Wolves, Nikola Pekovic is not the fleetest of foot in helping on double-teams, and too often the Thunder were able to swing the ball to the weak side for open jump shots. The other big issue that the Wolves had on defense was getting around down-screens to contest wide-open three pointers. Part of this is the size and relative lack of speed of Ridnour in particular, but the Wolves’ bigs must do a better job of showing on jump shooters, which is another one of Pekovic’s main deficiencies.
The Wolves’ offense moved the ball well in the first quarter, but the defense was so poor and the rebounding inconsistent enough that the Thunder managed to take a 33-23 lead into the second frame. After picking up two fouls before the six minute-mark in the first quarter, Rubio returned quickly in the second quarter and led a charge to bring the Wolves within eight points at halftime. Despite their poor defense, the Wolves only turned the ball over three times in the first half, which saved them from being down by a larger margin.
Even though Rubio cannot stay in front of Westbrook (nobody can), he has enough athleticism and sufficient length to challenge the mid-range shot and make what otherwise would be easy passes more difficult. Rubio also has enough tenacity to frustrate Westbrook, and it certainly does not hurt to get under his skin to try and coax him to hoist up as many shots as possible.
Trailing 66-58 at the start of the second half, the Thunder predictably came out of the locker room with more intensity than they showed for much of the first half, and slowly pulled away from the undermanned Timberwolves. The Wolves’ defensive issues continued to be exploited by Oklahoma City, and the offense could not find a consistent rhythm. After the Thunder opened up an 87-70 lead midway through the frame, the Wolves went on a 9-0 run and had the ball down eight with just over three minutes to play before kicking away a number of opportunities.
Minnesota was not able to get Pekovic involved on offense throughout the game, due in part to the surprisingly effective Kendrick Perkins, who was returning from injury (and really is not all that good in the first place). Despite the overall defensive deficiencies that Oklahoma City clearly has, they were able to slow down the previously-hot Pekovic and keep the Wolves from doing much damage on the offensive glass. Adelman pulled Pekovic out during the third quarter and he never saw the floor again, instead electing to ride his new favorite three-guard lineup down the stretch of a mostly lopsided affair.
Heading to the fourth quarter, the Wolves had already given up triple digits in points and trailed 100-83. The Wolves actually pulled within eleven or twelve points a number of times in the fourth period, but the outcome was never in doubt, with the Thunder eventually pulling away in the waning moments and winning by the final score of 127-111.
- Pekovic had a horrible game, scoring just 5 points on 1 of 4 shooting with 2 rebounds in just 22 minutes of play. For the Wolves to have had a prayer in this particular tilt, they would have needed a more typical Pek-like game from the big Montenegrin.
- Derrick Williams shot an unsightly 3 of 14 from the field, and had upwards of five or six shots go in-and-out of the basket, jump shots and layups alike. The refereeing was indeed shoddy around the basket, and Adelman was near-apoplectic at times near the end of the first half and throughout the third quarter. As usual, however, Williams simply needs to do a better job finishing plays.
- Rubio played well overall, despite shooting just 5 of 12 from the field. He played solid-enough defense on Westbrook when he had the chance, but after getting into foul trouble early he was not matched-up directly with him much for the rest of the game. Rubio’s final line of 13, points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals was made that much more impressive by the only 1 turnover he committed in 23 minutes.
- The Wolves only committed 10 turnovers to the Thunder’s 17. Turns out that turnovers matter less if you score on basically every other possession. The lack of turnovers on the Wolves’ end of the floor should be encouraging for Wolves fans, though. The offense was humming along quite nicely for most of the night.
- What a difference having shot-makers on a team makes. It might seem obvious, but after watching the Timberwolves clank long-distance shots left and right over the past six or seven years, seeing finely-tuned offensive machines such as San Antonio and Oklahoma City is just so….different. The Thunder’s athleticism and overall solid long range shooting is a recipe for disaster for any defense, and caused the Wolves’ usually dependent defense to crumble.
- The Wolves will take on Golden State on Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis. Tip-off is at 2:30 p.m.