By Randy Renner
Amazing what bringing a former NBA MVP and 4-time scoring champ back into the lineup will do for a team.
And who knows maybe there's a little more to the Thunder's 111-89 beatdown of the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City than Kevin Durant being back.
Durant has said sometimes it takes losing games to get players' attention and head coach Billy Donovan warned back during training camp that things might look ugly at times.
A 3-0 start to the season masked some defensive deficiencies and trouble with turnovers. A three game losing streak brought those problem areas into sharp focus and KD missing six games with a hamstring strain had people wondering if what he had going on was worse than anyone with the team was letting on.
Then came the Dallas game on Sunday and especially the fourth quarter of that game when the Thunder seemed to snap out of a funk. Everything was happening with more intensity. The offense hummed, even with Durant still on the bench in a suit.
The defense, which had been torched at times during the evening, made a couple of critical stops in the closing seconds when the Mavericks were forced out onto the perimeter to try to tie the game.
Last night was even better. Durant of course was back and like Russell Westbrook said after the game, "“It’s like he never left."
Durant scored 27 points in 30 minutes on 10-for-13 shooting overall and 3-for-6 from deep. He also pulled down six rebounds, four steals and a block.
"I just have the mindset that, no matter what, I just pick up where I left off," Durant said, echoing Westbrook. "I think that is what separates good players from great players, is that mindset."
“We know how to get him open," Westbrook added. "He’s one of the best scorers in the world, and he can get a bucket… He has a great mentality, he’s a team guy and is very unselfish. Tonight it showed and it paid off for him.”
The Thunder were coming off an emotional and mentally draining game against Dallas and playing on the second night of a back-to-back in one of the NBA's most difficult environments and the Jazz came in with the NBA's second best scoring defense, allowing opponents only 92.4 points a game.
The Thunder managed to start fast and just keep building the momentum scoring 40 points in the second quarter on 73.7 percent shooting (14-for-19) overall and 66.7 percent (4-for-6) on threes.
When it was over the Thunder had blown past Utah's 92.4 defensive average and had held the Jazz to just 89 points on 38.4 percent shooting.
“We were just being physical,” Westbrook said. “It’s another step in the right direction. I like the way we’re playing defensively. We’re doing a better job. We’re letting our defense run our offense. We don’t go run plays if we get stops, rebounds and get out on the break and use our athleticism.”
But again it's only about five quarters of top notch basketball.
Donovan said he thought Sunday's game might have been his team's best offensive game this season, especially while Durant was out and last night the Thunder kept things going on offense while bringing the defense most of the game too.
It was consistent and it was encouraging to see,” Donovan said. “We made some progress and strides defensively. We’re learning, we’re growing and we’re getting better. We just need to keep building on this. It’s a long season and hopefully it’s something we can build upon.”
We've heard that before too when it looked like the Thunder might be ready to turn the corner only to find themselves in a blind alley. Maybe this time the freeway awaits.