By Ben Eagle
The Thunder stayed hot Tuesday night, outlasting the Nets 117-111 for their sixth consecutive victory and ninth in their last 10 games. Brooklyn, 7-1 at home entering the game, played hard throughout but faltered down the stretch, shooting just 34.6 percent in the fourth quarter. Deron Williams led all scorers with a season-high 33 points, while Kevin Durant chipped in 32 for the Thunder.
• The Thunder showed their mettle. Oklahoma City had won its last five games by an average margin of 21.4 points, a testament to both its prolific offense and its recent competition. Facing a Nets team that refused to concede, the Thunder showed absolutely no competitive rust. Oklahoma City finished the game with tidy percentages across the board, shooting 60.6 percent from field, 50 percent from three-point range and a 88.2 percent from the free-throw line.
Leading the way was Durant, who shot 56 percent from the floor and was 12-of-12 from the line. (And one of the few misses he had was downright spectacular.) In the first half, Durant let the game come to him, taking shots when the defense gave him space, passing when another man was open and driving only when needed. This ease proved contagious, with the Thunder hitting 21 of their first 30 shots.
But the Nets clawed back in the third quarter, hitting 6-of-9 threes to make it a four-point game entering the fourth period. With their lead dwindling, the Thunder leaned on their superstars, Durant and Russell Westbrook, both of whom tallied eight points in the fourth.
Much has been made of the Thunder's new-look roster, but a familiar cast of characters contributed Monday. Westbrook, looking great in his new Jordan XX8s, supplemented Durant's effort with 25 points and nine assists, Serge Ibaka added 18 points and six rebounds and Thabo Sefolosha finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. The Thunder won't shoot this well every night, but their pick-your-poison offense, now even deadlier with Ibaka's improving mid-range game, can match up with any team in the NBA.
None of this bodes well for the Lakers, who visit Oklahoma City on Friday. While the Thunder held on in the fourth versus the Nets, the Lakers collapsed down the stretch Tuesday, falling to the Rockets 107-105. Right now, a matchup predicted by many to be a preview of the Western Conference finals looks like it'll be just another victory for the hottest team in the West.
• Nets find worthy backup in Lopez's absence. Playing without star center Brook Lopez, the Nets still gave the Thunder the biggest challenge they've faced in several games. Much of the credit goes to Williams, who put the team on his back in the absence of his favorite pick-and-roll partner. He was a force on defense, too, matching up with Durant in the fourth quarter and denying the Thunder superstar the ball on several possessions. But no star can do it alone, as Williams learned with Joe Johnson (8-of-21 from the floor) once again unable to find his shot.
A silver lining for the Nets proved to be Andray Blatche, who was filling in for the injured Lopez. Blatche, recently in the news for trashing his former team, finished with 19 points and eight offensive rebounds (11 total) as Brooklyn outrebounded Oklahoma City 16-2 on the offensive end. One series in the second quarter epitomized Blatche as a player. Using a variety of pump-fakes and hesitations, Blatche schooled the Thunder defense before scoring. One play later, Blatche tried the same moves and stepped out of bounds. Disagreeing with the call, Blatche spiked the ball, earning a delay-of-game penalty and the frustration of coach Avery Johnson. With so much invested in the fragile Lopez, the Nets know they need a solid backup, and right now, their best option is Blatche -- good or bad.
• Kevin Martin, who?
Martin played just 7:28 minutes in the closing quarter, missing his only shot attempt. Sefolosha, on the other hand, played all 12 minutes, using his signature perimeter defense to pester the Nets up and down the court. The Swiss native has been a pleasant offensive surprise for Oklahoma City this season, shooting 46.3 percent from three-point range. If Sefolosha can show that type of range all season, he, not Martin, will be a mainstay in coach Scott Brooks' crunch-time lineups.