Although not a victory, Tuesday's strong showing against the Suns added more fuel to the fire. Only a furious Phoenix comeback and 3-pointer in the last minute stopped new coach Scott Brooks from putting the Thunder back in the win column.
Oklahoma City fell to 1-14 on the year, but the improvements far out-weigh the negatives going forward. Kevin Durant did the most damage, leading the team from his newly-reacquired small forward position. The Thunder shot better on the night, but no one stepped up down the stretch to help Durant. Chris Wilcox had another strong game off the bench and is close to regaining his form over the past two seasons.
Damien Wilkins and Jeff Green aren't shy about taking shots, but they need to start making more for OKC to pull out the close games. They combined for a 7-23 output on the night, numbers that don't lead to increased playing time in the upcoming weeks. Russell Westbrook and Desmond Mason would be more than happy to pick up the slack with Westbrook already getting work in at both guard spots. Green is falling more in a hole, however, and you have to think his leash is getting shorter.
Getting no time to think about the Suns' nail-biter, the Thunder find themselves at the end of a grueling four-game stretch. OKC travels to Cleveland to take on LeBron James and the 11-3 Cavaliers. If there was ever a time for a landmark decision, a road win against a top-flight team would make up for all the frustration thus far in 08.
But to have a chance at that goal, point guard Earl Watson, center Nick Collison, and the rest of the club have to play even better defense than on Tuesday. Holding Phoenix under 100 points was a great start, and it is time for the Thunder to buy into Coach Brooks' system. It won't matter how many jumpers Durant makes if the Cavs are scoring at will on the other end.
That starts with Watson and ends with Collison. King James will get his points, and it will be up to the other Cleveland players to take advantage of OKC's weaknesses. Collison is under-sized for a five, but he will get help from Wilcox and Joe Smith. Watson will have his hands full on the outside, and his veteran play will go a long way to determining how successful the Thunder can be tonight and in the next couple of weeks.
Once Mason returns to the lineup, the defensive play will get a boost. It will take a total team effort against the Cavs to stay close but here's hoping the home club is looking past OKC. Just maybe if Cleveland is thinking about the turkey dinner on Thursday, the Thunder can steal a huge momentum swing going into the weekend.
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