Kanter works over Heat big men in Thunder victory


Photo by Torrey Purvey

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — There are going to be nights when Russell Westbrook isn’t superman. It doesn’t happen often, but it does take place.

When it does happen, the Oklahoma City Thunder needed other players to step up their game and carry the load. That was the case Monday night with the Thunder taking on the Miami Heat.

Enes Kanter scored 24 points off the bench to lead Oklahoma City to a 97-85 victory over Miami at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

It was Kanter’s second straight game in which he hit double figures in points and rebounds and brought boundless energy off the bench.

“Not just me, but when the second unit comes, coach wants us to bring a lot of energy,” Kanter said. “I think that’s what we were trying to do tonight. Tonight and every night.”

Kanter shot 10 of 12 from the floor and 4 of 4 from the free-throw line while hauling in 10 rebounds in only 21 minutes of action. Victor Oladipo scored 17 points while rookie Domantas Sabonis scored a career-high 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had his lowest scoring output of the season with 14 points. But he handed out 11 assists, which was more than all of the Heat starters combined. The Thunder are now off to their best start since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City.

James Johnson paced the Heat with 18 points off the bench. Goran Dragic was held to 11 points on 5 of 12 shooting. Luke Babbitt also added 11 points and four rebounds. Hassan Whiteside tallied five points and 12 boards.

“It’s tough to say what the biggest challenge was,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The physicality. Their opportunities in the paint created some rough offensive possession. We simply have to get better and we will. But they really set the pulse of the game.”

The Thunder (6-1) got a scare midway through the first quarter when center Steven Adams hurried off the court pressing his right hand against his side. He went back to the Thunder locker room and returned a few minutes later with his hand taped up.

Even without Adams, the Thunder continued to attack the paint with Kanter. He came off the bench and went at Whiteside and the Heat frontcourt. He posted 10 points and four rebounds in the quarter to give the Thunder a 39-28 advantage.

Miami (2-4) didn’t shoot particularly well in the first half. But they tried to stay within striking distance by running down loose balls and offensive boards. They also were able to take advantage of Oklahoma City turnovers.

Westbrook, who made his first two shots of the game, ended the half missing eight straight. Yet, the Thunder still led 55-47.

Oklahoma City came out of the break on fire. Led by Westbrook and Sabonis, they began the third quarter on a 20-0 run.

Despite the score getting out of hand, the intensity picked up as Westbrook and Dragic both dove for a loose ball and Dragic rolled onto Westbrook. They got up shoving each other and had to be separated.

Miami was unable to get any easy shots against Oklahoma City’s defense. Andre Roberson made life tough for the Heat wing players with suffocating defense.

Kanter then got a pushing match with several members of the Heat, which got Westbrook off the bench screaming encouragements to Kanter.

“We’ve got bigs that are able to compete at a high level,” Westbrook said. “He ain’t going to do the talking, but I’m going to do the talking for him. A lot of my guys don’t talk much. As a leader of this team my job is to support my teammates and instill confidence in those guys and their game.”

The Thunder took a 22-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Heat never made a serious run after that as Westbrook sat out the fourth quarter for the second straight game.

“That’s great, Westbrook said of sitting out the fourth. “If we can do that all year, that would be great with me. Rest is always good, but it’s always good to see that we’re doing a good job of putting teams away early.”

Oklahoma City won the rebound battle 47-41. They also collected 12 more assists than the Heat, who had 12 turnovers and shot 36.9 from the field.

“Guys were missing shots they normally would make,” Whiteside said. “Me being one of them. So it was just a tough night shooting. We are going to come back, regroup and get ready for the Bulls.”



NOTES: Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was asked before Monday’s game about the shot-blocking prowess of Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and if it would make him more careful about attacking the rim. “I’m not scared of anybody,” Westbrook said. … Miami G Dion Waiters reflected on his trip to the playoffs last year with the Thunder. “I smelled the Finals,” Waiters said. “I was too close, man. That’s why I hate talking about it. I couldn’t even watch it.” … With Oklahoma City guard Cameron Payne still recovering from a fracture in his right foot, coach Billy Donovan said he’s learning how to take care of himself. “He has a great opportunity to focus in on his body,” Donovan said. “Generally your nutrition at that age is predicated on you’re playing all the time. Now that he doesn’t have playing, he is starting to understand a little more about nutrition.”

Thunder improve to 3-0 behind Westbrook triple-double

Photo by Torrey Purvey

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — Written on the chalkboard in the Los Angeles locker room were three keys to their game with Oklahoma City. Unfortunately for the Lakers, none of them included slowing down Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook pushed the pace all night and recorded his second consecutive triple-double to lead the Thunder to a 113-96 victory over the Lakers Sunday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“That’s what we do,” Westbrook said. “We have to go. That’s our advantage, we’re athletic. We’re young and we want to run up and down the floor. That’s what we should do.”
Westbrook posted 33 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds while taking only 21 shots en route to his 39th career triple-double. Through three games, he is averaging 38.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 11.6 assists. He is the first player in NBA history with 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists in the first three games of the season.
“He had a masterful game tonight,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He was getting everyone involved, shooting when the shots were there and playmaking for teammates. He showed today why he is one of the top point guards in the world.”
Victor Oladipo added 20 points, while Steven Adams scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for the Thunder (3-0).
D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle paced the Lakers with 20 points apiece. Randle also grabbed nine rebounds. Nick Young scored 16 for Los Angeles (1-2).
With 4:30 left in the fourth quarter, Westbrook fed Adams a pass that led to an easy layup. The Lakers gave the ball away, and Westbrook turned it into a breakaway dunk that put Oklahoma City up 99-91.
“They started to press a little bit, tried to change the game,” Westbrook said. “We just started attacking the press. Getting out in transition, getting easy buckets. Getting stops when we needed to.”
Young was then called for a charge when he ran over Oladipo under the basket. Westbrook was fouled and knocked down a pair of free throws to push the lead to 10. On the next possession, Westbrook threw an alley-oop to Adams, and the Thunder led 103-91 with 3:15 left.
Randle missed two free throws before Westbrook drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key that put the contest away.
“We tried to pick up the intensity a little bit,” Young said. “We just made a couple of mistakes down the stretch. Westbrook is non-stop energy, a one-man fastbreak. He is constantly on the go. He put a lot of pressure on us, on the defense.”
As a team, the Thunder shot 47.4 percent from the field and turned the ball over 20 times. The Lakers had 22 turnovers, which Oklahoma City turned into 26 points, and shot 40.2 percent.
The Lakers came out moving the ball around and using their quickness to get the Thunder defense out of place. Randle scored eight points in the first six minutes against the bigger front line of center Adams and Domantas Sabonis.
The lead didn’t last long, as Oklahoma City grinded its way back into the game. Oladipo found his shooting touch from beyond the arc and from mid-range.
However, it was the combination of Westbrook and Adams that was too much for the Lakers to handle. The two have nearly perfected their two-man pick-and-roll, which put the Los Angeles defense on its heels.
“Steven, I’m just happy he is on my team,” Westbrook said. “He is a big part of what you guys may not see throughout the game. He’s screening, his ability to roll to the basket. His size. He has tremendous hands. He can catch the basketball at any speed and he’s always ready.”
Besides Randle, the Lakers’ offense went cold for much of the second quarter. As a team, Los Angeles shot 5 of 18 from 3-point range in the half, enabling the Thunder to storm ahead and take a 58-46 advantage into halftime.
The Thunder didn’t shoot particularly well in the third quarter, but they controlled the backboards, which kept the poor-shooting Lakers from getting easy second-chance points.
Guard Jordan Clarkson kept the Lakers close as they trailed 77-71 heading into the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles could have been closer, but it kept trying and failing to complete alley-oop dunks in the paint over the Thunder big men.
Behind Enes Kanter, the Thunder tried to pull away in the fourth. He scored six consecutive points to put Oklahoma City ahead 92-79 midway through the quarter.
“I think the bench was ready,” Kanter said. “They came out with a lot of energy. The most important key was energy. We matched their energy, and we were better on the court.”

Thunder to face Suns in home opener

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – The start of the 2016-17 season for Russell Westbrook almost couldn’t have gone any better. Not only did the Oklahoma City point guard lead his team to a comeback 103-97 victory over Philadelphia Wednesday on the road, but his newest rival out in Oakland lost his season opener.

Just as important, Westbrook posted 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists and was one assist shy of a triple double.

As he enters his ninth year, Westbrook has continued to transform from an aggressive scoring guard to an all-around point guard who can take over games in a variety of ways.

“It’s just taking my time, being patient, poised and managing the game,” Westbrook said. “It’s part of my job, to be able to manage the game at a high level and that’s a huge thing for me moving forward with this team.”

But it was the defense the Thunder displayed in final minutes against the Sixers that really stood out. They had to come up with three consecutive stops, including a blocked shot by guard Andre Roberson and guard Victor Oladipo taking a charge to secure the win.

“I think that was the key,” Thunder forward Enes Kanter said. “When you try to finish the game, when you try to finish the fourth quarter, I think the most important thing is the defense. Everybody was focused, everybody did a good job.”

Opening night was not as kind for the Phoenix Suns. They were at home Wednesday taking on fellow Pacific Division rival Sacramento and fell 113-94.

The Suns got off to start shooting the ball trailed 57-38 at half. Using their reserves, however, Phoenix was able to go on a run in the third quarter and cut the lead to 10. But that would be as close as they would get.

Eric Bledsoe is back on the court for the first time since a season ending knee injury in December. He scored 16 points in his return. Guard Devin Booker led the team with 18.

However, having the second unit play as well as it did was a positive note Phoenix coach Earl Watson can carry into the Suns game with the Thunder.

 “The momentum changed everything,” Watson told The Arizona Republic. “Our second unit, we just played young guys, let them play aggressive, let them have fun, be creative. They played with a lot of passion. It was fun to watch.”

It was also a way for Watson to send a message to his veterans who under-performed and played with lackluster effort at the start.

“The way I addressed the team was, you can’t use, ‘We’re young,’” Watson told Arizonasports.com. “Our young guys got us in the game. Our veterans have to come and have to play with the same passion.”

One of Phoenix’s most explosive players is the Booker, who lit up the Thunder a couple of times last year. His matchup in the backcourt with Westbrook should be the highlight of the night.

Even though the Suns are coming off a contest in which their offense inconsistent, the Thunder are wary of the explosive squad.

“They are a very, very fast team, an explosive team,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the Suns. “Their backcourt with Booker and Brevin Knight has speed. Along with Bledsoe, they can shoot the ball. (Tyson) Chandler is one of the great rollers to the rim and a great post defender. They have the ability to play small. They are a different team than Philadelphia, but it will be a challenge.”

Thunder and Suns tip-off Friday at 7 p.m. at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Will Thunder regain advantage on the boards?

By Michael Kinney

The Western Conference Finals between Oklahoma City and Golden State has defined in terms of big vs little. Can the size of the Thunder win out against the quickness of the Warriors?

In Game 1, it played out just how the Thunder wanted when they wore down the Warriors in the second half and dominated on the boards.

Game 2 was more toward Golden State’s pace with a barrage of 13 three-pointers led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

However, the Warriors also did something in Game 2 that caught Oklahoma City off-guard. They won the rebound battle 54-45. That included a 15-7 advantage on the offensive backboards.

For a team that has been No. 1 in rebounding all season and can put three seven-footers on the court at the same time, being letting a smaller team beat them on the boards can’t happen.

“After what we did to them in the first game, definitely the second game they came out ready and they were really physical,” Enes Kanter said. “We know, I think the third game we just need to come out there with the mindset that it is going to be a really physical game and we need to punish them down there because we can use our size, we can use our physicality. And it’s in front of our crowd, so just go out there and play.”

Kevin Durant agrees Oklahoma City lost out on the hustle points to the Golden State and that showed in the rebound numbers.

I think they just got all the 50-50 balls on the offensive glass,” Durant said. “It kind of surprises when guys are running in there because we’re so good in transition. I thought the team always yell and get back. But they were in there and able to get their hands on some basketballs. So you have to give them credit. It’s on us to make adjustments, boxing guys out and putting bodies on them and getting those rebounds. As simple as that. So we can’t have that next game.”

Game 3 is Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

Two games into the series, fans have seen good, the bad and ugly of the Thunder. However, they have yet to see the best. Durant has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that with bad shooting performance in Game 1 and the turnovers in both contests.

“What they’re doing is a little different,” Dion Waiters said. “Catching the ball and running two at him. So as long as he’s aware of it and he feels the guy coming, he’s always going to make the extra pass and guys are going to be open. He knows that, so I’m not worried about that. He can make adjustments during the game, figuring out what they’re doing because they’re just doing a lot of different things, just trying stuff. So that’s all you’ve got to do.”

Durant agrees he has to be stronger with the ball and more focused on where the defenders are coming from.

“It’s me just finding out when the double team’s coming. Once I get it, I feel like I’m playing one-on-one, but it’s more so a load, and guys are loading,” Durant said. “So I’ve just got to make a stronger pass and find out where guys are. They were sending three guys, I was trying to make the right pass. I was turning the ball over playing the crowd. So maybe I just got to shoot over three people.”

The goal in most seven-game series is for the road team to get a split of the first two games. However, the Thunder have been down that road before and wanted to come back home with a 2-0 advantage.

That didn’t happy and they are not content with the 1-1 tie.

“We’re upset. Guys in the locker room, we weren’t happy because we only won just one game,” Durant said. “We were upset that we didn’t play well tonight and get the second one. But we’re going home, and we can’t relax. At home you tend to let your guard down a bit because you’re at home and you think you’re going to win. But we’ve got to come out here and play. We’ve got to play our brand of basketball even better than what we did when we were in Oakland.”

Being home doesn’t guarantee the Thunder will finally be at their best. They lost their one and only meeting in Oklahoma City with the Warriors during the regular season.

“Well, it’s going to be my first Western Conference Finals in front of OKC fans,” Kanter said. “I’m expecting everybody to show up and it’s going to be definitely a crazy atmosphere. I think just not worry about the second game. Just go out there and play our basketball in front of our crowd and everything is going to work out well for us.”

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer and can be reached at eyeamtruth@gmail.com

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