Thunder Intent on Closing Quarters Strong

Seeing a season-long point of emphasis become such an obvious aspect of winning a playoff game must have been a rewarding feeling for Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks, as his team heeded his message about closing out quarters. Throughout the year, Brooks has talked about the need to play strong defense and execute proper offense at the end of quarters, because the momentum can carry over into the beginning of the next quarter and it builds good habits for end of game situations. On Monday night against Dallas, the Thunder was a combined plus-21 scoring in the final two minutes of quarters.

“It’s always good to close out quarters,” Brooks said. “It’s one of the things that we’ve talked about. It’s not just closing out the fourth quarter. That’s always the quarter that everybody thinks is the most important, but there are a lot of times in NBA games that the first quarter, the end of the second quarter is just as big because you can get on a nice little run.”

The Thunder finished the final 1:34 of the first quarter on a 9-0 run thanks to a James Harden three-pointer, a Nick Collison reverse layup, a Daequan Cook pump fake jumper and Derek Fisher jumper as the quarter buzzer sounded. During that stretch, all four baskets were assisted and the Thunder forced two turnovers and a missed three-pointer. That 9-0 burst led to an overall 23-6 spurt for the Thunder that spanned the first and second quarters.

“I thought that kind of jump started our second quarter run,” Brooks said. “Good ball movement and good defensive stops in that first quarter, and Derek hit some big shots.”

In the second quarter, the Thunder turned a three-point lead with 2:12 remaining into a seven-point halftime margin by getting to the free throw line and forcing two missed shots and a turnover. The end of the third quarter saw stifling Thunder defense, as it turned a 75-73 deficit with 2:22 remaining into a 79-77 lead heading into the fourth quarter. During that 6-2 run, the Thunder forced two missed shots and three turnovers on the Mavericks’ final six possessions and Russell Westbrook knocked down two pull-up jumpers.

“It was good, we did a great job of not letting them go on little runs to end quarters and halves,” Westbrook said. “That helps us out towards the end of the game.”

That pervasive attitude of having the requisite mental energy late in quarters certainly did spill over to the final quarter, as the Thunder ended the game on a 6-2 run. Trailing 97-96 with 2:18 remaining, the Thunder forced four missed shots and a turnover on the Mavericks’ final six possessions. Still, as Thunder fans know, the team doesn’t rest on any success. Forward Nick Collison discussed the importance of closing out quarters, but noted that holding leads like the one his team built midway through the second quarter is the next challenge the Thunder wants to take on.

“We were up 16 and they called timeout and went on a 7-0 run,” Collison said. “That really changed the game. If we were able to go into halftime with a 15-point lead or build it, it’s a totally different ball game. So those are the things that would be great if we could avoid. But Dallas has a lot to do with that. They’re a good team, they settle down and get good shots. If we could build leads in this series, finish quarters strong, it would be huge for us.”

One way for the Thunder to continue to build and keep growing as a unit is to work on trying not only to hold, but extend leads once it makes runs. Between Monday night’s game and Game Three in Dallas on Thursday, the Thunder will have two practice sessions and a shoot-around, so there will be some good time for Brooks and his players to analyze how it can improve moving forward.

“(Practice) helps a lot,” Westbrook said. “It’s going to be a tough Game Three, a real physical game and we had an opportunity to watch film and see what do to get ourselves ready for Game Three.”