Streaks stay alive as OKC withstands Pistons bench rally to win 7th straight

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

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.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Sunday night’s 121-104 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena

1-FOURTH-QUARTER FIZZLE – Against the NBA’s worst defensive team – yup, that’s what Cleveland is overall this season and by an even more pronounced margin over the past month – the Pistons, ranked 28th on offense since Reggie Jackson’s injury, didn’t have much trouble generating points for three quarters. They’d amassed 87 points to that point, scoring 28, 33 and 26 points by quarter. But the Cavs showed they can still turn it up when they need to, holding the Pistons to 17 fourth-quarter points. It was tied at 95 four minutes into the quarter when Cleveland went on a 9-2 run to take a seven-point lead that the Pistons couldn’t get below four. It was a 26-9 run to close the game for the Cavs, who hit 15 of 35 from the 3-point line. Cleveland put little pressure on the ball and the Pistons only committed six turnovers, a season low, while racking up 31 assists, one off their season high. Cleveland, though struggling on the road, had won 15 of its last 17 at home almost exclusively on the strength of one of the league’s top offenses. That was also on display as the Cavs generated points in transition and did their usual damage from the 3-point arc with seven different players making at least one triple. Anthony Tolliver hit five first-half triples and finished with a season-high 20 points, one of five Pistons in double figures. Tolliver also added five assists, one of seven Pistons with at least three assists.

2-LINEUP SHUFFLE – With Avery Bradley unavailable after aggravating the groin injury that forced him to miss seven games last month and receive an injection 10 days ago, Stan Van Gundy rejiggered the lineup. Some of it likely would have happened anyway, largely the decision to start Anthony Tolliver and Tobias Harris at forward. Tolliver is the best matchup for Kevin Love, who has given the Pistons trouble dating to the 2015-16 season when the teams met in the playoffs. Ish Smith, after two games coming off the bench for Langston Galloway, was back in the starting lineup. Reggie Bullock replaced Bradley. The changes to the starting lineup triggered a few corresponding changes with the bench unit. Dwight Buycks again assumed backup duties, pushing Galloway out of the rotation, and Eric Moreland played over Boban Marjanovic as Andre Drummond’s backup.

3-A LITTLE BETTER – Tobias Harris has been in a deep 3-point shooting slump over the seven-game losing streak the Pistons carried into tipoff with Cleveland, shooting just 23 percent (8 of 35) over the seven games. He missed his first two at Cleveland before hitting an open corner three to put the Pistons ahead 40-37 about four minutes into the second quarter. On the next possession, though, Harris – in hustling after a loose ball that was already going to result in a Cleveland over-and-back turnover – was whistled for his third foul for apparently jostling Jeff Green in pursuit of the ball and also came up limping. Harris went to the locker room momentarily, then returned to the bench and received treatment for the injury. Harris came back to start the second half and missed two quick 3-pointers before making two in the third quarter and finishing 4 of 11 from the arc.

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