Kevin Durant was ruled out before tip-off and some may have thought the game would be an easy win. Surely the Thunder, with Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and a healthy set of role players (including former Pelican Anthony Morrow) is a pushover? On the second night of a back-to-back after the Pelicans had the doors blown off them? In Oklahoma City?
You must be new to this basketball thing.
The Thunder, especially Russell Westbrook, showed the fire and competitive spirit expected from a long time contending team even without last year's MVP. Westbrook constantly attacked the rim throughout the night and got himself to the foul line 11 times, converting nine. As a team, New Orleans attempted just ten free throws all night.
Similar to his last match-up with Jrue Holiday, the UCLA product had a filling box score but inefficient night. Westbrook's final line: 29 points on 10-27 shooting, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 6 turnovers. In the two games against the Pelicans, Westbrook is averaging 24 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds against the Pelicans. He's also shooting 34% from the field and averaging 6.5 turnovers.
Oklahoma City's role players chipped in nicely, led by Reggie Jackson's 19 points. Steven Adams was his usual ornery self in the paint and tallied 12 points and 10 rebounds. Kenderick Perkins even looked competent in the post tonight, scoring on two pretty hook shots. This game, against this quality of an opponent, was no gimme from the outset.
The last points of the game, an Anthony Davis dunk assisted by Jrue Holiday (after simply taking the ball from Westbrook), occurred with 2:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. The last nine possessions were hideous. The Pelicans did create two relative quality shots; Jrue and Ryan Anderson both failed to convert open three pointers on back-to-back possessions. The others had the hallmark qualities Pelican fans rue; lots of dribbling, no passing, and low percentage heaves as the shot clock ran out. One such possession ended in a shot clock violation as the Tyreke Evans long two did not draw iron. Zach Lowe said it best.
Master class in bad late-game offense right now in OKC— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
Meanwhile, the Thunder did what they always do in these situations: run terrible offense right back at the Pelicans. Omer Asik and Jrue Holiday were both huge in the final moments. Asik turned back a Westbrook layup attempt while Holiday stifled another on the final possession, poking the ball away on a drive.
I really wish, especially when Tyreke Evans is guarded by a smaller man in Reggie Jackson, that Monty Williams would go back to Evans on the left block. It has treated the Pels well whenever they have lead on that set. Electing to instead dribble out the clock as they did is a lower percentage play.
Anthony Davis Back At It
AD had a rough go on Saturday night. He finished 3-14 from the field as LaMarcus Aldridge ate him alive making contested shots repeatedly. Would that be a trend?
Of course not.
Davis came out firing, scoring 12 points in the first six minutes. He finished the first half with 21 points on 9-14 shooting. In the second half, he turned it up an notch, scoring 17 points on 7-8 shooting while not committing a single turnover. Davis had the jumper going early, canning four of six jump shots beyond 16 feet.
In the second half, that success opened up the lane, where he made six of his seven attempts. For the night Davis scored 38 points, going 16-22 from the field and 6-7 from the line. He also tallied 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal.
The MVP chants are growing louder.
Sharing the Wealth
The Pelicans did not pass the ball more tonight than a typical game. According to NBA Stats they passed just 241 times. However, the passes they did choose to make were productive passes. New Orleans racked up 33 assists and three secondary assists. Jrue Holiday led the way with 15 assists, trailed by Evans (7) and Rivers (5). Altogether the three ball handlers had 27 assists against just six turnovers.
As a team, the Pels coughed it up nine times. When compared to those 33 assists, that's an excellent night. The Thunder countered with 17 assists and 16 turnovers. Yet, still the game came down to the final possession.
Tonight the Pelicans attempted 53 "open" shots according to the SportVU cameras. The Thunder attempted just 37. Ryan Anderson somehow went 3-12 on uncontested shots and yet New Orleans found a way to gut out the win. I can assure you that Anderson and Davis attempting 24 open shots was not part of the plan for Oklahoma City. The constant penetration from Pelican guards forced OKC big men to make tough choices. Like most defenses, they chose to protect the rim. That created opportunities elsewhere.
This game remained close due in most part to the free throw disparity. The Thunder attempted 24 free throws to the Pelicans 10. On two occasions in the third quarter, picture perfect execution of the "verticality rule" by Omer Asik went unrewarded, and instead, the referees sent Westbrook to the free throw line. Meanwhile, Tyreke Evans, who attempted 12 shots within eight feet, did not attempt a free throw tonight. If not for the win, this portion would have been longer.
The Pelicans travel to Indiana for a game on Tuesday night. The Pacers gritted out a 100-96 win over the Timberwolves in Minnesota tonight. New Orleans is currently tied with the Suns for 8th in the Western Conference and sit a game and a half ahead of the Thunder. Those two wins this month over OKC have contributed greatly to this current lead.
Don't look now, but the Pels are also just two and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio will face the Clippers on Monday then the Thunder on Christmas Day before coming to New Orleans the following day. So far this month the Pelicans are 7-5 with big wins over OKC (twice), Cleveland (without AD), and Houston. They've also tossed up three stinkers in losses to Golden State, the Clippers, and Portland. This young team still has a ways to grow. The schedule has been exceedingly difficult.
Pelicans are 14-13 despite playing the second most difficult schedule in the league. East portion coming soon. pic.twitter.com/BewcnHHwzO— David Fisher (@usnfish) December 22, 2014
-I cannot glow enough about Jrue's performance, despite the relatively lackluster 11 point, 15 assist, 4 steal, 4 turnover stat line. His defense was tremendous throughout.
-Omer Asik's 3 point, 12 rebound, 3 block line doesn't jump off the page, but he was great and his impact goes well beyond the confines of the box score.
-Alexis Ajinca was the fulcrum of the second unit offense. In 12 minutes he also committed just two fouls while scoring 10 points on 5-7 shooting. Jeff Withey is capable of a lot of things, what Ajinca accomplished tonight is beyond Withey's reach.
-When Ryan Anderson is off, his ability to create shots in the post helps keep things afloat. I still cannot explain his shooting struggles but I expect every single stepback to fall.
-Dante Cunningham did exactly what is asked of him in 30 minutes tonight. Long twos are near automatic for him. He's shooting a preposterous 21-36 (58.3%) from 16 to 24 feet on the season and went 3-4 tonight.
-Austin Rivers has been good lately. In his last eight games he's averaging 9.9 points and 3.1 assists per game while posting a 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratios. He's also shooting 66.7% in the restricted area and 91.7% from the free throw line. I expect some of those to come down, but he continues to improve. Oleh's signature is still relevant.
-If Tyreke only got to the line at an average rate, his numbers would be much better. In his career, his FT rate is 0.330; this season it is 0.231. So far this season, Tyreke has attempted 34 fewer free throws than his career rates would suggest. As his drives per game indicate, it isn't because he doesn't attack the rim. His lack of free throw attempts is lopping a full point per game off his average this season even though 16.4 PPG, 5.7 APG, and 5.3 RPG is nothing to shake a stick at.
-Luke Babbitt and John Salmons played tonight. Babbitt hit a three, pushing his three point percentage over 50%. Salmons did not attempt a shot.