Streaks stay alive as OKC withstands Pistons bench rally to win 7th straight
DETROIT – Hold off on engraving Golden State’s invitation to the NBA Finals. It appears the stars amassed in Oklahoma City have figured things out.
When the Pistons visited Oklahoma over Thanksgiving, the Thunder were bumping along with an 8-9 record and the NBA’s 19th-ranked offense. Since the calendar flipped to January, OKC is No. 2 in offense – to Golden State – and they blew into Little Caesars Arena like a hurricane through the Oklahoma plains Saturday, scoring a 121-108 victory.
The signature stretches of the game came at the start of each half with Oklahoma City establishing the superiority of its starting lineup with extreme prejudice. A 15-0 run over the first four minutes of the second half stretched the Thunder’s lead to 27.
“Of course,” Tobias Harris said to the question of whether Oklahoma City is a legitimate threat to Golden State’s three-year reign in the Western Conference. “Their top three guys got it going. They were just rolling from there.”
Oklahoma City’s win was its seventh straight, the NBA’s longest winning streak, and the Pistons lost their seven straight, also a league high.
The Thunder don’t figure to lose any time soon as long as they continue to play with the force and harmony they put on display against the Pistons. Their three stars – Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony – combined for 78 points, all of them with more than 20 after three quarters, by which time OKC had matched the 98 points it scored in losing to the Pistons by a point in November.
“They’re a more up-tempo team,” Luke Kennard said. “All of them together, they have a lot better pace, a lot more energy. When they’re connected together like that, they’re tough to defend and tonight we tied to do the little things and they kind of worked around it and we just fell short.”
“They’ve got more chemistry,” Harris said. “They’re playing with more confidence and they’re just playing off of each other and to their strengths. They’re just rolling.”
Westbrook, the reigning MVP, put on an MVP-worthy performance against the Pistons, finishing with a tidy triple-double: 31 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. George scored 16 points as Oklahoma City built a 36-24 lead after a quarter; he finished with 26. Anthony scored 21.
And for all of the attention the OKC offense deservedly generates, it’s the Thunder defense that makes them a threat to Golden State and Houston in the West. They lead the NBA in turnovers forced and in big man Steven Adams they won’t be overpowered, either.
The Pistons committed six turnovers in the first quarter and five more in the third quarter, finishing with 16 that OKC turned into 24 points. The Thunder added another 24 points after offensive rebounds.
Van Gundy feared Oklahoma City’s transition offense, rebounding and turnover-inducing havoc before the game and the Pistons got burned in all three areas.
“They’re a very, very big, long team,” Kennard said. “It can be tough as an offensive player to try to attack. They’re waiting on you so, yeah, they’re a good defensive team and that helps them on the offensive end, as well.”
The sour note for the Thunder – and a significant blow to their defense – came late in the third quarter when their best perimeter defender, Andre Roberson, appeared to slip as he planted to go up for a lob pass, crashing hard to the floor and suffering an apparent serious leg injury. It was put into an air cast and Roberson left the floor on a stretcher.
That might force GM Sam Presti to look for reinforcements at the trade deadline, but the identity of the team has been established after moments of transition while folding George and Anthony into the mix in the opening weeks.
“Those guys all played really well, particularly Westbrook,” Van Gundy said. “He was unbelievable. Their starting lineup just dominated us.”
The Pistons bench made it interesting, cutting the 27-point deficit to 16 after three quarters and pulling within nine midway through the fourth quarter. That’s when Billy Donovan called timeout and rushed his starters back into the game.
Reggie Bullock scored 16 points, Ish Smith 15 with nine assists, Boban Marjanovic 14 with eight rebounds and Kennard 11 as Van Gundy’s bench combined for 68 of the team’s 108 points.
“Our bench outplayed their bench, but it didn’t matter because their starters dominated us so badly.”