ORLANDO — With the Oklahoma City Thunder (32-18) riding high after a big win on Sunday, one message reigned over the practice floor in Orlando prior to tonight’s game against the Magic (20-31). Don’t let up.
No doubt memories of last year still stick in the Thunder’s mind. Routine wins over the elite of the NBA, only to be followed by head-scratching losses to teams vying for lottery position. Paul George certainly had something to mention about it.
“We are playing good right now,” George said earlier at team shoot around. “We don’t want no setbacks. We’ve had our fair share of those where we win big ones and then lay an egg. This group is pretty focused coming into tonight.”
In the first half, Oklahoma City looked to be following George’s message. After a sloppy 10-2 Orlando lead to begin the game, George and the Thunder got to work. The All-Star starter scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. With each minute, Oklahoma City’s offense and George began to catch fire. Even with the Magic shooting 5-for-8 from three in the first quarter, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that George was going to have a game for the ages.
The second quarter made that seem all the more possible. George exploded for 19 additional points, hitting ridiculous and-ones and step-back jumpers. As Orlando cooled down from three, the Thunder kept going.
At half, George had 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting. Oklahoma City led only by three, but an easy win seemed to be in the future.
Sharing now that George finished the game with 37 points should be enough to convey that the win did not become an easy one. Midway through the third quarter with the Thunder holding a double-digit lead, the Magic went on a 28-5 run to regain the lead. The stellar defense of the first half as well as George’s superb scoring all disappeared.
It will probably be blamed on the Thunder’s inability to rebound throughout most of the game. Steven Adams was out tonight with a right ankle sprain sustained on Sunday, so Nerlens Noel got the start. Orlando out-rebounded the Thunder by 10 and dominated them on the offensive glass 18-6.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the game seemed to fit the symptom of the “laying an egg” scenario George spoke of prior to the game.
Then Dennis Schröder exploded into the game. With three points to his name, the Thunder’s back up point guard scored 18 points to help regain control of the game. At one point, Schröder went on a 8-0 run by himself in just over a minute of play.
Without Schröder’s play, it is easy to see the Thunder dropping this one. Despite Russell Westbrook’s quietly efficient 17th triple-double of the season (23 point on 7-of-12 shooting, 14 rebounds and 14 assists) and George’s first half, the lack of consistent play in the second would have resulted in a disappointing loss without the heroics of Schröder.
While Oklahoma City was outworked on the glass, it would be important to acknowledge the play of Noel. In his second start of the season, Noel finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and five blocks. Those five blocks erased 10 potential Orlando points in a game the Thunder won by nine.
Alex Abrines Returns
In the second quarter, Alex Abrines returned to the floor for the first time since December 23rd. He has been active for the last three games but was not in the rotation.
“It’s so exciting to be back with the team,” Abrines said in the locker room after the game. “I’ve been around the team and working with them, but it just feels good to be around the team and help them.”
Abrines played just under six minutes and hit one of his two shot attempts. Both were threes.
The Spanish shooting guard was out with an undisclosed illness before being out for “personal reasons.” Abrines and the team have never disclosed what those reasons were and probably never will.