By Connor MacKenzie @grandepadre94
Much like he did against Minnesota, Dennis Schroder provides a spark and ultimately played a huge part closing out the victory for the Thunder against the Magic. Erupting for 18 points in the 4th Quarter, Schroder pushed the lead to 116-103 off a 3pt attempt with 5:12 remaining. Orlando would remain competitive and hit shots, but simply could not keep up with the athleticism and length of this Thunder squad as Oklahoma City came away victorious 126-117.
It appears Schroder is breaking out of his slump that seemed it would never end. He is lacking stringing these sensational, and at times needed performances together. But rest assured, when called upon he does answer. In 28 minutes of action, Schroder made the most of his opportunities with 21 points on 8-11 shooting, 4 assists, and no turnovers. For a while, he was struggling to find his range but has settled doing what he does best: attacking the rim. Schroder does not get enough credit for how quick he strides toward the basket and how well he finishes. Sam Presti deserves much praise for his work these past few offseasons. The pairing of Westbrook and his new teammates in Schroder, George, and Noel has more than paid dividends this season and it’s just getting started (Scared Money Don’t Make None).
Paul George continued his MVP push by igniting for 31 first-half points (career high) on 11-16 shooting. He scorched the Magic in every way he wanted. Attacking basket, pull-up jumpers, floaters, stepbacks, etc. It was a beautiful display as “The Smooth Operator” took control over the first half of the game and helped close the deal with 6 points in the 4th.
On another note, there is simply not enough to be said at how well he and Westbrook have found this uniquely dangerous chemistry. Westbrook finished with 23 points on 7-12 shooting (8-12 FT), 14 rebounds, and 14 assists. This is some special basketball people are witnessing and I pity those who are missing out or just take “getting another triple double” so lightly. This is something iconic that will looked at 30 year from now and think “man, Russ AVERAGED a Triple Double in back to back to back seasons?”, let that sink in. if that’s not enough, check this out: Westbrook is top 20 in points, top 11 in rebounds, tied with PG for steals per game and also leads the league in assists and it’s looked at as a down year.
In a game with no Steven Adams or Terrance Ferguson, players such as Hamidou Diallo and Nerlens Noel stepped up huge in their respective roles. Noel finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, and an underrated 5 blocks against a dominant big man in Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic contributed his usual numbers of 20+ points and 11 rebounds on 12-20 shooting.
The Thunder defense held Orlando to 43 percent shooting overall and 34 percent from deep. Meanwhile, OKC shot 53.8 percent overall and 43 percent from downtown.
However, perhaps due to Adams out of the lineup, they surrendered 18 offensive boards to Orlando and were outrebounded in total 43-53.
OKC registered 25 assists and turned it over at a minimal 7 times.
When this Thunder team is locked in defensively, they are nearly unstoppable. With aggressive length in Grant, George, and Noel nearly any shot at the rim has a great chance of ending up in the 5th-row seats. They are defending the 3pt line supremely better, holding opponents to below 35 percent in 10 of the last 13 games. The rotations of players subbing in/out has been very effective. Coach Billy Donovan deserves credit for staggering George and Westbrook’s minutes so there is at least one of them on the floor at all times.
The Thunder now move on to face the Miami Heat team struggling to find their identity and place in the east. Should Adams return, it will be a great matchup between him and the polarizing big man in Hassan Whiteside at the electric American Airlines Arena.