Thunderstruck

Thunder’s 3 high lottery picks power OKC past Pistons

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Before Oklahoma City was recognized as one of the most talented teams in the NBA, before the Thunder became considered perhaps the team to beat in the Western Conference, they suffered through miserable seasons that landed them in the top four of draft lottery for three straight seasons. They made those trips pay off, though, landing Kevin Duran in 2007, Russell Westbrook in 2008 and James Harden in 2009. Those three are now the core of the Thunder and they combined for 46 points in the first half Monday night as Oklahoma City took a 27-point lead to the locker room and cruised to a 99-79 win over the Pistons. Harden came off the bench to score 18 in the first half, 24 for the game, and made his first four 3-pointers. Durant scored 20 and Westbrook finished with 24 though nobody played more than 30 minutes.

BLUE COLLAR – Greg Monroe missed his first seven shots, many of them tough-luck misses near the basket including a few tip attempts, and his final numbers weren’t up to his usual standards. But Monroe didn’t let the early frustrations inhibit his effort. With the Pistons down by more than 20 points in the third quarter, he dived to save a loose ball and stole a possession for the Pistons and he kept battling under the basket. With the game out of hand by the fourth quarter, Monroe played just 27 minutes but finished with 12 points, seven boards, two steals and two assists.

RED FLAG – Transition defense – and the missed shots that fueled Oklahoma City’s running game – dug a big hole for the Pistons early. The Thunder scored almost exclusively in the early seconds of the shot clock for much of the first quarter, putting the Pistons back on their heels. The Pistons trailed 11-8 early, but the Thunder went on an 18-2 run as Russell Westbrook spearheaded OKC’s running game. Oklahoma City scored 12 quick points in transition before the Pistons got a handle on its running game. But the tone of the game had been set by then, and the Thunder’s early 20-plus-point lead was never in any danger of dwindling.

The Pistons are 2-for-2 on nailing it in the lottery, taking Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight in the last two drafts. Oklahoma City showed them the possibilities when you go 3-for-3.

With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbook and James Harden – the fruits of Oklahoma City’s suffering through lousy seasons, plucked in the 2007, ’08 and ’09 drafts, all among the top four picks – scoring 68 points despite turning the game over to the bench for the fourth quarter, the Thunder coasted to a 99-79 win after building a 32-point lead in the first half. The win gives the Thunder a 14-3 record; only Chicago, at 16-3, has a better NBA mark. The Pistons, coming off a rousing win over Portland two nights earlier, fell to 4-14.

“They just took it from us,” Lawrence Frank said. “I think our guys wanted to win, but things didn’t go our way, which happens against a high-level team in their building. Once they went on that surge, our spirits were impacted.”

It wasn’t long ago, of course, that the plights of these franchises were reversed. The Pistons went to six straight Eastern Conference finals from 2003-08, while the Thunder – and the Seattle Sonics, before them – were sinking to the bottom of the Western Conference and accumulating all those lottery picks that enabled their turnaround. The last two seasons, while Oklahoma City was winning 50-plus games, the Pistons went somewhere they hadn’t been in a very long while, the lottery.

It’s worth remembering that even after the Thunder had gathered Durant and Westbrook, they struggled to win 23 games in 2008-09. It remains to be seen if Monroe and Knight can reach the heights Durant and Westbrook have scaled, but Durant and Westbrook alone weren’t enough. It took the emergence of Serge Ibaka inside and a third trip to the lottery, where Thunder GM Sam Presti took Harden No. 3 after Memphis had made what appears a colossal mistake in taking Hasheem Thabeet with the second pick.

Westbrook’s size, strength and explosive athleticism was a tough matchup for Knight, as it is for everybody else in the league. He got to the rim with great effectiveness, making 11 of 17 shots, and finished with 24 points, six assists and five rebounds. Durant, third-leading scorer in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, scored 20 points on 9 of 13 shooting. And Harden, who still comes off of OKC’s bench, scored 24 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 5 of 6 from the 3-point line. They combined for 46 points in the first half alone.

“When we go on the road, especially against a good team like OKC, we’ve got to come out with more energy than them,” Jonas Jerebko said. “They hit us first and we just went down. We’ve got to get back up. We’ve got no excuse for not coming in with energy. We didn’t play yesterday and so we’ve just got to be better than this. We’ve got to learn to play together. OKC is a good team, so you can never let them come out like they did in the beginning.”

The Thunder got in a comfort zone early by taking advantage of cold Pistons shooting – they were a frigid 17 percent for the first quarter – and converting rebounds into fast breaks and easy transition points. From 11-8, Oklahoma City went on a devastating 18-2 run to take a 29-12 lead late in the first quarter. The rest was just filling in the blanks.

“Their transition (game) and all of a sudden, we’re operating against the shot clock because we’re taking the ball out of the net,” Frank said. “They’ve got a whole lot more energy because they’re getting easy baskets. Very disappointing, just to put forth that type of effort.”

Frank said that no matter what the official stat sheet said, he had Oklahoma City scoring 21 first-quarter points in transition.

“We had nine shots within 3 feet; we missed them all,” he said. “You have to give credit to their defense, but you’ve got to get back. We didn’t get back. When you look at the film, there are times, literally, we have two blue jerseys, then have four white jerseys under the basket and they still beat us down the floor. They have great speed and quickness, but we just didn’t do enough to make them play against a set defense.”

It doesn’t get much easier for them this week. Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia are on tap. Those three teams plus Oklahoma City went into Monday night’s games with a cumulative 47-18 record.

“Like I said after the Portland game,” said Greg Monroe, who had a handful of tough-luck misses around the rim early in the game that fed into Oklahoma City’s running game, “we have to find a way to play like that every night and tonight we didn’t do that from jump. I take a lot of blame for that. I missed a lot of easy bunnies around the rim. We have to come with more fire.”