The sky was falling and the doubts were growing. Just a night after another listless performance—this time against Houston—Oklahoma City returned home to face the best team in the NBA, Golden State.
And then the Thunder turned in its best performance of the year.
For one night, the Thunder looked like the championship-contending team everyone thought they would (or should) be, rolling past the Warriors, 127-115.
It was just one game, but it was far and away Oklahoma City's best showing this season and a big departure from the level the Thunder had been performing at over the past few weeks. The key for OKC will be playing every night with the same energy it showed Friday night against the Warriors.
The rest of the month poses a brutal test for the Thunder. OKC has just one home game on the schedule in the next eight games, and has road trips to Washington, Atlanta, Cleveland and Memphis in the next two weeks. Going into that stretch with just the previous four games would have been extremely discouraging.
But Friday's complete performance against the Warriors may be the performance that turns the tide for the Thunder in a season where it seems like nothing can go right for OKC.
Oklahoma City won on Friday simply because their stars were hitting on all cylinders. But the Thunder won in emphatic fashion because the stars put up huge performances, and also got support from the rest of the team.
Kevin Durant led all scorers with 36 points, doing so on an uber-efficient 14-of-18 shooting performance. The reigning MVP hasn't played at the same level he did a year ago very often this season, but Friday's performance was a vintage Durant performance.
Russell Westbrook was just sensational as well, collecting a massive triple-double of 17 points, a career-high 17 assists and a game-high 15 rebounds. The energy from Westbrook and Durant on both ends of the floor set the tone for the rest of the team. It was clear from the very beginning the Thunder wasn't going to put on a fifth straight head-scratching performance.
One of the biggest keys for Oklahoma City on Friday was the involvement of Serge Ibaka in the fourth quarter. The Thunder ended the third quarter up 98-91, and Durant and Westbrook sat to begin the final period. Westbrook returned two minutes into the quarter and Durant returned at the 6:49 mark. In that time, OKC increased the lead by a point, thanks in large part to Westbrook and Ibaka playing a strong pick-and-roll game.
In fact, Ibaka scored 14 points in the fourth quarter alone and finished with 27 points, tying his career-high. It was his fourth quarter outburst that turned a tight game into a comfortable win for the Thunder. It's also something OKC has been sorely lacking, as the Thunder usually resorts to Durant or Westbrook isolation plays in the fourth quarter, completely forgetting it has one of the best power forwards in the game wasting away in the corner.
While the Thunder's Big Three was busy putting up career-highs, the OKC bench provided the necessary support to keep the energy high and momentum in favor of the Thunder. Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow and Reggie Jackson combined to score 42 points, with Waiters scoring 21 in 37 minutes, his highest minute total since joining the Thunder.
Oklahoma City shot 52.6 percent from the field, and it was a good thing, too. The Thunder's defense still needs work, as Golden State scored 115 points and shot 45.7 percent. Klay Thompson led the Warriors with 32 points and Mareese Speights continued his Thunder-killing ways by scoring 20. Stephen Curry had 19 and Harrison Barnes added 18.
But while OKC's defense was far from lockdown, it was defense that turned the tide for the Thunder on Friday. After allowing 35 points on 67 percent shooting in the first quarter, the Thunder held Golden State to 29.6 percent shooting in the second quarter. Defense led to offense, and OKC took a 69-60 lead at halftime and didn't trail the rest of the game.
Friday's win was just that—one win. But it was a sign the Thunder hasn't given up on the season, and a reminder of how good the Thunder can be when it performs at a high level. OKC still has plenty of work to do to make the playoffs, but more performances like Friday's could make the Thunder a scary opponent the rest of the way.