Not Quite Enough in New Orleans– OKC 122, NOP 131
NEW ORLEANS – It was a tall task over the past week, to continue this hot streak going during this sprint to the All-Star Break. The Thunder almost pulled it off. After winning 11 of 12 games over the past 3 weeks, the Thunder had one more task on Thursday night. In the final NBA game before the NBA’s big break, the Thunder faced off with the New Orleans Pelicans in an emotional contest for the home squad.
After weeks of turmoil and an embarrassing home loss on Tuesday, the Pelicans played the Thunder with a sense of forgotten pride in front of a national television audience. Relentless paint scoring, hounding perimeter defense and some dead eye shooting were the weapons and the Thunder didn’t have enough in its own arsenal to combat it.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. They came out, they got comfortable. It was just one of them nights for us,” said forward Paul George.
Ultimately the Thunder dropped this one 131-122 to the Pelicans, falling to 37-20 on the season, still good for third place in the Western Conference, just four games out of first place and two out of second place with 25 games left after the break.
The Thunder’s defense didn’t have that “pop” as Head Coach Billy Donovan described it right out of the gates in this one against the fourth-most prolific offense in the league. After the Pelicans ripped off an 11-0 run thanks in part to 4 Oklahoma City turnovers, but the Thunder stabilized and hit right back with a 14-4 burst of its own, but New Orleans still maintained a steady scoring flow throughout the first half. The Pelicans jumped out to a 10-2 advantage in points in the paint, but the Thunder returned the favor by outscoring the Pelicans 14-4 in the paint the rest of the period.
The second quarter followed a similar formula, with the Pelicans ripping off a 13-4 run after Anthony Davis checked back into the game, only to have Russell Westbrook score 8-straight points to get the Thunder back into it.
A funky third quarter began with two oddities. Davis was a surprising scratch from the lineup to begin the second half, even as Donovan had opted to start Nerlens Noel instead of Patrick Patterson to match New Orleans’ size. Noel had it going for the Thunder off the bench right away, racking up a double-double in the first half on his way to a season-high 22 points to go with 13 rebounds. During a handful of stretches, the Thunder played Noel and Adams in tandem, and it seemed to go pretty well.
Meanwhile, however, Pelicans’ point guard Jrue Holiday manipulated the tempo of the game all night, attacking the paint, finishing around the bucket and then getting the Thunder’s defense moving to open up kick-out three-pointers. For the game, the Pelicans shot 54.3 percent, including 12-for-26 from the three-point line, while racking up 70 points in the paint. In a very uncharacteristic performance, the Thunder gave up at least 30 points in every quarter.
“We kind of just gave them what they wanted,” said Westbrook.
Offensively the Thunder was just fine outside of a 10-for-44 (22.7 percent) mark from the three-point line. Paul George went just 3-of-17 from behind the arc, and after the game noted that he wished he had spent more effort posting up on the block and at the elbows against the smaller Holiday, who checked him for large swaths of the game.
“I should have got to my spots and made the game a lot easier than what I did tonight,” George explained. “I should have made the game easier with post ups, knocking him off balance and just getting to my shots in closer, tighter areas.”
Carrying the Thunder offensively was Westbrook, whose headlong attacks downhill kept the pace high and the pressure consistent on the Pelicans defense. For the 11th-straight game, Westbrook put together a triple-double and this one came with an explosive scoring night as well. The Thunder point guard scored 44 points on 18-of-30 shooting while knocking down 4 three-pointers and added 14 rebounds and 11 assists in the ball game.
“(Westbrook) is always special,” said George.
“I’m feeling a lot better, one day at a time,” said Westbrook. “I have so much room for improvement, for me personally, because I know how good I can be and how much I can bring to the game to help this team be successful. I’m very, very optimistic.”
In the fourth quarter the Thunder made some late pushes but could never chip the lead down below three points. It was a tough loss, and not how the Thunder wanted to end this chapter of the season, but all things considered this squad is in a good place and only has room to improve. With what should be a healthy roster (aside from Andre Roberson) after the break, the Thunder believes it has a chance to accomplish something spectacular this spring.
“We have a lot of room for improvement. It’s just being able to do the same thing every single night to be an elite team,” said Westbrook. “We understand that our main goal is to win a championship.”
“We’re a good group,” said George. “We’re going to be ready for this second half after this break.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 15, 2019