Thunder Looking to Close Out Road Trip Strong
Back-to-back road games in the NBA are always tough, but the two Eastern Conference foes that the Thunder played on Wednesday and Thursday nights were two potential playoff teams, in addition to teams with opposite styles. It was a challenge for a Thunder team that was coming off the All-Star Weekend in which two of its players and its coaching staff didn't have the opportunity to relax like many other players throughout the league, but Head Coach Scott Brooks' team passed the tests. Both the 92-88 and 105-102 victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic were hard-fought, come-from-behind victories that required exceptional defense in the fourth quarter, despite the two different styles in which the games were played.
"One of the things that I know about our team is that we're a tough team," Brooks said. "We play hard on both ends of the floor and that gave us a chance to win the game. We're not going to always make shots, nobody does. But defensively, if we play as hard as we've done, you get a chance to win in the fourth quarter. That's all we go for every game, give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Those are two tough places to play, at Orlando and at Philly. Two good teams, two playoff teams, it was a lot of good effort on our part.
The Thunder had a day off the court in Atlanta on Friday, which gave the team time to regroup and learn from the two victories. It's always better to watch film to find ways to get better after a victory, and the Thunder was able to do so on Friday and in it's preparation Saturday morning before it takes on the Atlanta Hawks tonight. Forward James Harden, who scored seven points and had three rebounds in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia and had eight points, three rebounds and two assists in the fourth quarter against Orlando, said the team was proud of the two victories to open up the second half of the season, but still found ways to improve coming out of those games.
"We can always get better, but we played against two really good teams on the road," Harden said. "They were both tough games. Philly is very defensive-minded team, and Orlando has a lot of shooters and great big men. They were two different games, but I think our style of play, our transition and our defense really locked in, especially in the fourth quarter of those games.
Harden has continued to be a player that Brooks can rely upon to bring the same level of effort and seemingly, the same amount of production on a nightly basis. Over the last ten games, Harden has averaged 16.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in addition to 1.1 steals while shooting 49% from the floor. He continues to have stat lines that have solid numbers in numerous different categories, and it was no more evident in the past two games when he averaged 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists against Philadelphia and Orlando, while shooting 9-for-17 in those games.
"I try to be (consistent)," Harden said. "Filling it up, whether it's steals, blocks, rebounds, just doing whatever it takes to help the team. If the team needs me to score, that's something that I'm willing to do as well. It just depends on how the game is going, the flow of the game and just taking it from there."
It's been over a week since the Thunder last played at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but it will have the chance to play five straight home games there starting Monday night. Brooks and his crew, however, are focused and intent on finishing out this three game road trip on a positive note by playing hard against the Hawks tonight. From guards Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson to forward Josh Smith, the Hawks are athletic and can be a problem for opponents, which is why the Thunder want nothing more than to lock in and execute to the best of its ability so everyone can head back to Oklahoma City happy.
"It's dangerous if you think about what is coming up," Brooks said. "You have to take care of your business tonight. Atlanta is a good team. They present a lot of problems, matchups. They switch a lot on defense and they have a lot of good 3-point shooters, and Teague is playing very well. We'll just focus on tonight, our team has done a great job of doing that all year, focusing on the game tonight."