Carlson: OKC Thunder hasn't answered every question, but here are two things we do know
Kevin Durant waited on the perimeter for the little lob pass, but as it came his way, Kenrich Williams jumped, stretching high, trying to get a finger tip on the ball.
But Williams wasn’t deterred. Neither were his teammates. Williams stayed right with Durant, then got help from fellow Thunder reserve Isaiah Roby. When Durant tried to pass out of the double team to a Brooklyn teammate Sunday night, Hamidou Diallo flashed into the passing lane and intercepted the ball.
Say this much for the Thunder — these guys play hard.
This season is still in its infancy. Only nine games have been played by OKC. We have much to learn still about this rebuilt, revamped Thunder roster, and yet, we have at least two truths in these first few weeks of the season.
First, this bunch is exceeding expectations.
Second, it plays with great effort.
“It’s hard to sustain energy through a long season,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said Sunday evening after OKC’s latest triumph, a 129-116 victory over Durant and his Brooklyn buddies. “It’s hard to sustain consistency through a long season.
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“That’s why we’re so focused on that day after day.”
That focus became obvious this past week.
On New Year’s Day, the Thunder left Oklahoma City for a five-game, four-city road trip. Orlando to Miami to New Orleans to New York and Brooklyn. It was a daunting trip because of its long duration and its opponent quality. Three of those teams are expected to be playoff teams, and the other two, Orlando and New York, have exceeded expectations early.
Even a stacked, veteran team might’ve struggled.
But the Thunder returned home early Monday morning with a 4-1 record. That may well be the best road trip in franchise history.
There were all sorts of highlights. Handing Orlando only its second loss of the season. Besting New Orleans less than a week after losing to the Pelicans by 33 points. Holding New York to just 89 points. But what happened Sunday evening against Brooklyn was best of all.
After giving up 41 points in the first quarter and trailing by as many as 15 points early in the second quarter, the Thunder could've packed it in. Last game of a long road trip. Big mountain to climb. To heck with it.
Instead, the Thunder took the opposite approach.
It cranked up the effort.
In the second quarter, OKC had seven steals. Seven. The Thunder forced bad pass after bad pass, and it did so from all over the floor. It forced big men into turnovers. Guards. Wings. No Nets player was immune to the hounding.
The Thunder evened the score before halftime, then took the lead with a little over 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
“All 10 guys that touched the floor in the third did an unbelievable job of amping it up a little bit,” Daigneault said.
As stout as the comeback was, here’s what was every bit as impressive — the Thunder kept up the intensity. Lots of times, a team exerts so much energy chipping away at a big deficit that it doesn’t have anything left to actually go win the game. But OKC kept pouring it on, building a lead that grew to as many as 18 points early in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder played superb offensively during that stretch. There was a 5:43 burst straddling the third and fourth quarters in which the Thunder scored 22 points, hitting 8 of 11 shots from the floor and 5 of 5 from the free-throw line.
But it was the defense that really swung the game. The Nets can score as quickly as any team in the league, thanks to that long, tall fellow named Durant. During that aforementioned stretch of offensive wizardry, however, the Thunder did all sorts of similarly magic things on the defensive end.
Lu Dort drew a charge. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got a steal. And the Thunder didn’t allow the Nets a single offensive rebound.
“We knew it was the last game of our road trip,” said Roby, who was on the court during that entire stretch, “and we wanted to finish strong.”
Playing hard isn’t the only reason why the Thunder beat the Nets, finished the road trip 4-1 and pushed above .500 for the first time since winning the season opener. You need coaching and skill, preparation and execution, too. Winning doesn’t happen only because of effort.
But it rarely happens without it.
Will the Thunder maintain this kind of energy throughout the season, especially when the final results aren’t in its favor? Will it be able to make up for the superstars it lacks with the effort it gives?
It’s impossible to say.
But the early returns have been good, both on the hardwood and on the scoreboard.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.