Thunder Power Through Grief To Pound Pelicans

By Randy Renner

Veteran Thunder forward Nick Collison gave his teammates some good advice a few minutes they took the floor last night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“Nick said ‘we’ve got a couple hours to play basketball so let’s just do that,’ and that’s what we did,” Kevin Durant told reporters after the Thunder used a big second half to beat New Orleans 121-95.

“Forget everything around us and just play the game of basketball.”

Earlier in the day at Thunder shoot-around Anthony Morrow said, “I have no idea,” when asked if he and his teammates would be able to focus on the game just a few hours after learning of the death of Ingrid Williams, the beloved wife of popular Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams.

“It’s still tough, still fresh in our minds,” Durant said, “but with the love from the crowd and the coaches we all just leaned on each other and played.”

The minutes leading up to tipoff, with a moment of silence and a more somber tone during player introductions were the most difficult to deal with and for the first few minutes of the game players on both teams (Williams had been head coach in New Orleans for five years) seemed more lost in thoughts than focused on game plans.

But the Thunder, playing at home, were able to power through the distractions much better than the Pelicans who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

"I really appreciated all of our guys, the way they all have handled a really difficult situation these past 24 hours and being able to go out and play," said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan who wasn’t totally sure before the game how his team would respond.

The Thunder got off to a hot start offensively, scoring 29 points in the first quarter and 33 in the second but as we’ve seen lately the defense struggled at times in the first 24 minutes, allowing the Pelicans to shoot 53.5 percent and stay within range at 62-53 as the teams left the court at halftime.

Coming out in the second half, the Thunder managed to flip the switch and turn on the defensive effort holding the Pelicans to just 42 points in the entire second half on 33.3 percent shooting.

Durant and All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook each finished with 23 points and neither had to play in the fourth quarter. Westbrook came with a rebound of another triple-double finishing with 10 assists and nine boards. Serge Ibaka was solid with 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Backup center Enes Kanter continued his mastery of double-doubles scoring 11 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.

The Thunder now head off to the All-Star break having won 14 of their last 16 games and 40 on the season. Just two other teams, Golden State (48) and San Antonio (45), have won at least 40 games this NBA season.

Durant has been blistering hot over these last 16 games, averaging 30.0 points on 49 percent shooting. After the game he and Westbrook boarded a private jet, along with some other Thunder staffers, for a flight to Toronto and the NBA All-State Game. KD and Russ are the only teammates in the starting lineups for Sunday’s game.

The Thunder will resume practice on Wednesday and will return to action Friday night hosting the Indiana Pacers.

 

The Thunder grieve...but still roll big over NOLA

By Addam Francisco

In what everyone knew would be a pretty solemn game, Oklahoma City dominates New Orleans in a 121-95 victory. Seemingly everyone on the court was noticeably bothered, especially in the first half playing the first game since losing assistant coach Monty Williams' wife Ingrid Williams. However the second half really changed everything for Oklahoma CIty, as they increased both the offensive and defensive intensity led by of course Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant

It was clear this game wouldn't be the same from the player introductions, when Serge Ibaka didn't do his pre-game ritual we've all gotten used to, and in fact shook his head in what looked to be disgust following his introduction. As anyone would expect, even the coaches seemed down as well as everyone on the Pelican's bench, Monty Williams and his family really helped a lot of the guys on that New Orleans team when he was head coach there.

Both teams started the game slow, in what made for a very boring first half with no one seeming to play with much energy, for the exception of who else? Russell Westbrook, who ended the game with 23 points, 10 assists, and just one rebound shy of his ninth triple-double without even playing in the fourth quarter. Some of his passes tonight resembled passes from all-time great Steve Nash. Kevin Durant did a great job getting active in tonights game by also hitting 23 points, and dishing out a somewhat surprising 6 assists. He was really able to manipulate this depleted New Orleans team tonight with ease along with Serge Ibaka. Yes, something was clearly wrong with Serge tonight whether it was the loss of a big part of the Thunder family, trade speculations or a little of both, but he finished tonight's game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Enes Kanter was a huge spark off the bench, along with Anthony Morrow, combining for 21 points and Kanter's 12 rebounds to secure another double-double for him. Offensively, well scoring wise this was an off-game for young Cameron Payne but his tenacity wouldn't stop him from dishing out 8 assists in a game where he got increased playing time due to the blowout, playing 25 minutes. Oklahoma City shot 52.3 percent on the night and almost 40 percent from 3-point.

Dion Waiters. Torrey Purvey/ InsideThunder.com.

Dion Waiters.

Torrey Purvey/ InsideThunder.com.

Defensively this game appeared to be just like any other games, after the Pelicans put up 53 points. It really looked like they were in for at least 105 points for the night, but Oklahoma City's starters came out after halftime strong defensively and that didn't happen. The starters set the tone defensively in the second half and the second team did a great job maintaining and better yet, extending that 21 point lead at the end of the third quarter to a 26 point lead to finish out the game. Winning the rebounding battle 50-31 and getting 16 second chance points to NOLA's 4 probably had something to do wit that success as well. 

With all things considered, this was a great game offensively and defensively for OKC and the second team did some maturing, getting to play an entire quarter and executing like the media and fans love to see. This is the last game until after the All-Star breakFriday, Feb. 19 they will start their treacherous final third of the season against the (28-25) Indiana Pacers. Oklahoma City is now (40-14) on the season.   

In The Midst Of Tragedy Thunder And Pelicans Will Try To Focus On Tonight's Game

By Randy Renner

Shoot-Around Update

It was a very somber Thunder shoot-around this morning. Just the sounds of basketballs bouncing and sneakers squeaking on the court. No yelling, no laughing. Players and coaches just trying to get their work in and take some time to get lost in their thoughts.

Thunder superstar Kevin Durant wanted to speak to reporters about assistant coach Monty Williams and his wife Ingrid but he barely began when he had to stop.

"Tried to think about what I was gonna say, but I just love Coach Monty so much," he said as he became choked with emotion and tears started to flow again. "I feel for him man, somebody we all love, I just don't know what to say man, I'm sorry."

And KD had to walk away.

Thunder shooting guard Anthony Morrow, who played for Williams in New Orleans, managed to get through a brief session with reporters and so did head coach Billy Donovan but both were clearly having a difficult time coming to grips with Tuesday's tragedy.

The Oklahoma City Police Department says three of the Williams' children were in the SUV with Mrs. Williams when the vehicle was struck head-on by a speeding car on Western Avenue in south Oklahoma City. The driver of that car died at the scene. Mrs. Williams and all three children were hospitalized Tuesday night with serious to critical injuries. Mrs. Williams died Wednesday. One of the children has been released from the hospital, the other two are still being treated for non-life threatening injuries.

The Thunder will hold a moment of silence before tonight's game against, ironically, the team Williams used to coach. Fans are being encouraged to drop off flowers and cards at the west side main entrance to Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans have a lot on their minds right now and very little of it has to do with basketball.

Most of you know by now of the tragedy both teams are dealing with. Ingrid Williams, the wife of formerPelicans head coach and current Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams died yesterday from injuries sustained Tuesday evening in a head-on crash in south Oklahoma City.

"The Thunder organization has heavy hearts tonight with the news of Ingrid's passing," the Thunder said in a statement released Wednesday evening. "Words cannot adequately describe how deep our sorrow is for the loss of Monty's wife. Our thoughts and prayers are with Monty and his family, and we will support him in every way possible.

"We know the entire community of Oklahoma City has them in their prayers."

The same could be said of the Pelicans, who expressed their condolences following Wednesday's 100-96 win over Utah.

"It's just really, really tough when you know a guy like Monty and what he's all about," coach Alvin Gentry said. "Then you realize that it's just a basketball game. That's all it is."

Pelicans star Anthony Davis became close with Williams and his family during his first three NBA seasons and commented on Twitter:

"Completely devastated. Ingrid Williams was like a 2nd mother to me when I got to NOLA. My thoughts & prayers are with Monty & the family."

And so that’s the backdrop for this game tonight, both teams last before the All-Star break.

After practice yesterday and before most members of the media knew what was going on with the Williams’ family, Thunder forward Nick Collison was asked about the continuing troubles the Thunder have had on defense and Collison admitted most of the issues seem to be rooted in a lack of focus.

“We’re not as focused as we need to be and without the focus it will lead to a bunch of different kinds of mistakes,” he said. “If we’re not at our absolute best it’s hard to stop NBA teams consistently.”

Head coach Billy Donovan agrees for the most part about that lack of constant focus.

“The challenging part for our guys is when we get into some of what I call gray areas, where a guy runs into a screen and he slips out, you know communicating and working through that. Or sometimes in pick and roll coverage you gotta switch late and sometimes maybe we don’t switch late, that’s the kind of stuff we have trouble with.”

Still the Thunder have managed to win 13 of their last 15 games and are averaging 112.4 points over that stretch, with Kevin Durant averaging 30.5 points over those 15 games. The superstar forward is scoring 36.3 per game over the last three after going for 32 on 11-for-21 shooting in OKC’s 122-106 Monday night win in Phoenix.

Durant's 27.8 season average is third in the league. He's averaged 30.5 points in his last 11 home meetings with New Orleans, but a strained left hamstring forced him to miss the Thunder’s 110-103 win over the Pels back in November. Davis didn’t play that night either and the Pelicans were also missing point guard Jrue Holiday.

Russell Westbrook took over the scoring load that night for the Thunder with 43 points while also grabbing nine rebounds and dishing eight assists in another near triple-double. He's had some of the best games of his career recently against the Pelicans, scoring at least 40 in each of the past three meetings while averaging and absurd 45.3 points on 56.0 percent shooting.

The Pelicans are maybe getting their act together again by winning two in a row after dropping four straight. Davis has totaled 46 points in those victories, hitting a running left-handed hook and a 3-pointer in the final minute to key Wednesday's win over Utah.

"I feel like as a leader of the team that's my responsibility," Davis said. "At some point in time, you've got to take over a game." The Thunder remember last season when Davis hit a miracle 3-ball over the outstretched arms of Durant to give the Pelicans a win that would ultimately lead to New Orleans making the playoffs instead of the Thunder.

Holiday had 21 points and nine assists against the Jazz, two days after getting 27 and nine in a 116-102 win at Minnesota.

The veteran guard shared his thoughts on the Williams' tragedy.

"The players that were here with Monty and their family definitely felt it," said Holiday, who spent two seasons under Williams. "Obviously we're all blessed to play the game of basketball but family comes before that. And I know most of the guys were thinking about our families, thinking about his family."

And so you have to wonder with as much trouble as the Thunder have had with their focus in recent games, how in the world are they going to be able to clear their heads and zero in on this game tonight?

It is after all, like Coach Gentry said last night, ‘just a game.’

And both the Thunder and the Pelicans are caught up in thinking about and dealing with a real life tragedy on a personal level.

Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

Westbrook: "We Gotta Be Better"

By Randy Renner

The final score looked pretty good, Thunder 122, Suns 106.

If you didn’t see the game, just the final score, you might have thought OKC had been in control all the way, built a big lead, rested the starters in the fourth quarter and cruised.

That’s probably what should have happened but the Thunder have fallen into the defensive doldrums again and instead of an easy stroll in the Valley of the Sun the Thunder teetered at times on the brink of disaster.

“We gotta be better,” admitted Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. “If we want to be elite, we gotta do a better job of defending.”

The Thunder seemed to have things under control in the first quarter, leading 29-19 after the first 12 minutes but in the second quarter the Suns exploded for 38 points and almost unbelievably scored on 15 consecutive possessions. The Thunder couldn’t get a stop until almost nine minutes had ticked off the clock in the quarter.

“That’s sick,” Thunder superstar Kevin Durant said when informed of the stat.

Most of that damage was done by the Suns reserves and they mostly did it inside. Phoenix hit just one of 11 shots from beyond the arc for the entire game. But in that second quarter backup bigs Mirza Teletovic and Alex Len scored 27 of the Suns’ 38 points on 10-for-11 shooting.

Head coach Billy Donovan blamed some of the lackluster performance on fatigue.

“We just got more and more drained,” Donovan said. “We were just slow reacting.”

That’s been a common theme when the Thunder defense gets torched. It usually has something to do with slow reactions, slow rotations, mental mistakes.

At least the OKC offense was humming. The Thunder hit 15 threes and shot 49.4 percent overall. OKC put up at least 28 points in each quarter.

Durant cranked up his game in the second half, scoring 25 of his 32 points in the second 24 minutes. Westbrook dropped 29 on the Suns while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing eight assists. Dion Waiters added 15 and Enes Kanter and Cameron Payne each had 11. Payne was 3-for-4 from deep.

But the Thunder let the Suns, who’ve now lost 23 of their last 25 games, hit almost 51 percent of their shots and they sent them to the free throw line 39 times where they made 31 of their tries. It all came together to provide plenty of tense moments deep into the game with the Suns leading by four with a shade over a minute to play in then third quarter.

From there though the Thunder managed to sync up their offense and defense and spurt out on a 17-1 run to provide what seemed to be a safe cushion only to have the defense let them down again.

The Suns cut the lead all the way down to four at 106-102 and it was anybody’s game again with 4:18 to play.

The Thunder then closed things out with a 16-4 run to finally finish off the Suns with a win that looked much more comfortable on the scoreboard than it really was.

OKC will host the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday evening at The Peake before taking about a week off for the All-Star Break.

 

Thunder Can Take Out Frustrations On Suns Tonight

By Randy Renner

One thing the Thunder can take away from their close loss to Golden State on Saturday is just that, it was a close loss.

After a generally terrible first half on defense when the Thunder gave up 73 points on 53 possessions they played much better on that end in the second half to hold Golden State under 40 percent shooting and actually fought back from 18-down to tie the game at 104 with about 3 minutes to play only to have the offense pull the disappearing act, failing to hit critical shots coming down the stretch.

But still the Thunder at least showed they can hang with the Warriors, a team that blew out the Western Conference’s second place San Antonio Spurs by 30 a few nights back. OKC is 1-0 against the Spurs. The Thunder would probably have to play both San Antonio and Golden State in consecutive series and win each if the Thunder are to make it back to the NBA Finals. A challenge Kevin Durant seemed to readily embrace after Saturday’s loss to GSW.

"Man, we're not scared of either one of these teams," Durant said. "We're going to play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared. We have to play them. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we have to play them. We're not ducking anybody."

The Phoenix Suns probably wish they could duck the Thunder though. OKC is in the Valley of the Sun today and will take on a Suns team that appears to be in total disarray.

Old friend Earl Watson, the original Thunder starting point guard, is now the interim coach after Suns management canned Jeff Hornacek. Phoenix comes in having lost seven straight and a stunning 22 of the last 24 which also including a nine-game skid.

The Suns are 0-3 since Watson took over the team but they did rally from 23-down to get back within six points of visiting Utah Saturday night in what was ultimately a 98-89 loss.

"It just shows our fight," guard Devin Booker said. "We're not going to give up. That's been the motto of our team all year. We might lose games but we're going to lay it all out there, and that's what we've been doing."

The Suns are without injured top scorers Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. They are rebuilding around young players like the rookie Booker, averaging 20.4 points in his last five games.

The Thunder have beaten the Suns twice this season, both games in OKC. The first matchup, on November 8th, was a 124-103 Thunder blowout but on New Year’s Eve the Suns took the Thunder to the wire before losing 110-106 and giving Thunder fans a Happy New Year.

Tipoff is set for 8:10 Oklahoma time and the game can be seen on Fox Sports Oklahoma. The Thunder will be back at The Peake on Thursday night to host the New Orleans Pelicans in the last game before the All-Star Break.