GAME IN REVIEWBy Nick Gallo, Thunder Basketball Writer
Returning to Chesapeake Energy Arena is always comforting for the Thunder. On Friday night, Head Coach Scott Brooks' club got the offense rolling and pushed the intensity on defense in the Thunder's 106-92 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the team's home opener.
The Thunder took the lead mid-way through the second quarter after a Kevin Martin three pointer and a Nick Collison baseline jumper, but Brooks' squad really took control with an 11-2 spurt midway through the fourth quarter that turned an 84-79 advantage into a 95-81 lead with 3:27 remaining. Throughout the night, the Thunder was spearheaded by Russell Westbrook, who knocked home 32 points while racking up six assists and only one turnover.
"I thought Russell was really good controlling the game," Brooks said. "He did a great job of just setting us up when we needed scores and when we needed stops. But our defense is what we do, what we talk about and work on, and I thought tonight we were very stingy in not giving any easy looks."
The starters combined for 64 points, but it was the Thunder's second unit that was supremely impressive on the night. Between Martin, Collison, Hasheem Thabeet, Eric Maynor and rookies Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb, the Thunder bench outscored the Blazers' unit by a count of 42-15. Martin led the way with a steady hand, scoring 19 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including a 3-for-3 mark behind the three point line.
"They're making it easy for me," Martin said. "Coach Brooks and his staff just gave me a playbook and told me to study it and the guys are finding me in my spots…You have to have a punch coming off the bench. I think that's one of our biggest strengths right now with Nick, Eric, myself and Thabeet coming off (the bench). We just have to keep on gelling as a group and help the first unit when they need a little rest."
Collison continually slid to the dunker spot along the baseline by the low block to create easy catch-and-finish opportunities for himself off of drives from Kevin Durant, Westbrook and others, while Jones and Lamb both scored their first NBA points in their first minutes of action in their careers. Jones made a pretty move just outside the lane on the left block with a drop step to finish over his man. In the closing minutes, Lamb coolly walked into a 25-foot three-pointer from the top of the key to the delight of the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd.
"It felt good, a lot of people welcomed me and they keep saying it's Loud City," Lamb said. "For them to get loud for me was a good feeling."
Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the second unit came from the play of Hasheem Thabeet, who played a physical, solid 18 minutes, going 2-for-2 from the floor, reeling in four rebounds, blocking two shots and altering many more. The Tanzanian big man had a nice five-minute stretch in the third quarter when he finished strongly at the cup on a drive and dish from Martin before he stuffed rookie Damian Lillard at the rim in a play that brought the crowd to its feet and put back an offensive board minutes later.
"Hash played extremely well rebounding the ball, keeping some balls alive for us and contesting at the rim," Durant. "K-Mart came off and did what he's supposed to do, score the basketball, make right passes and play defense. Nick and Eric, they play solid. Everybody plays solid down the line. That's what we're going to need."
The hustle plays from the second unit came from everyone on the floor, but the one the crowd savored the most came from the likeliest source – Collison. After a staunch defensive possession, Westbrook tipped a rebound to himself and tried to haul it in, but it took a funny bounce and skipped towards the baseline. Inches before it hopped out of bounds, Collison dove on the floor and slapped the ball back into play, causing the crowd to erupt and swinging the momentum of the game for good.
"It was great," Westbrook said. "I was about to be mad that I lost the rebound, but then Nick saved it and saved me, so it was great."
A complete team effort was on display Friday night, but perhaps the Thunder's best all-around effort came from none other than the team's leader, Durant. The three-time All-NBA selection shot 7-for-14 from the floor for 23 points, but his seven assists and 17 rebounds were critical also. In fact, Durant was one rebound short of tying a career high, but now has 31 rebounds in two games, which has been an area the three-time NBA scoring champ focused on this offseason.
"I talk about that all the time, I think he can be our leading rebounder," Brooks said. "He has a nose for the basketball… He can do that, we have to continue to really stress that. That's what we talked about going into this season. We have to improve on our finishing the defense with a rebound. Kevin is a big part of what we do defensively, he rebounds as well as anyone we have."