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April 7, 2010

Notes from a Thriller

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:49 am

Because I went out to dinner this evening, I DVRed the Oklahoma City-Utah game in the third quarter when I left. That might have been my best decision of the year, because when I got back I got the chance to devour the fourth quarter and overtime of one of the more entertaining regular-season NBA games you’ll ever see. It was so good that, at the risk of making Basketball Prospectus entirely too Thunder-heavy, I had to jot down a few thoughts.

– Despite the fact that Oklahoma City lost, Kevin Durant became even a little more frightening to Western Conference foes. The best way I can describe the experience of watching a replay is comparing Durant to a villain in a horror film. You want to tell the Jazz, “Don’t open that door!” but it’s too late. Durant has already struck. He hit a 40-foot three-pointer during the midst of the Thunder comeback he sparked and did so without any extraordinary effort. He is not human.

– As great as he was, Durant was overshadowed by Deron Williams, who not only dropped a career-high 42 points but hit the game-winner with 1.1 seconds remaining. Down the stretch, Thabo Sefolosha defended Williams. Sefolosha is one of the league’s top stoppers in my opinion (more on this topic later this week), but he didn’t have a prayer against Williams, who left him swiping at air time and again.

– Really strong play call by Jerry Sloan on Williams’ shot. There was so much going on in a small area–Carlos Boozer catching the inbound, Williams receiving a handoff and C.J. Miles cutting backdoor after initiating the play–that the Thunder’s defenders got a bit out of sorts. Williams’ shot wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but he had enough airspace to give him a good look for the situation.

Jeff Green is, at least this year, one of those guys who always looks much better to me when I watch him than he does in the stats. He made the three-pointer that sent the game to overtime and the go-ahead runner in regulation and was very solid as a second option for the Thunder when the defensive pressure on Durant was too great. Also credit Durant for his willingness to share the basketball in those situations.

Scott Brooks‘ decision to go with extreme smallball down the stretch (Green at center, Durant at power forward) paid huge dividends. After James Harden replaced Nenad Krstic, Oklahoma City scored 22 points in the final 3:33 of regulation to erase an 11-point deficit. Brooks stuck with the lineup in the extra session and it played the Jazz even despite being physically overmatched in the frontcourt.

– What took the game to the next level was what was at stake. Utah stood to drop to fifth in the Western Conference with a loss, but now sits second in the conference and atop the Northwest Division. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s hopes of stealing home-court advantage in the first round took a severe hit, and with a brutal schedule the rest of the way the eighth seed is not out of the question. That’s what makes the final no-call so painful for the Thunder, and the controversy over that call marred an otherwise fantastic game.

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