The last time the Oklahoma City Thunder had a losing season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were 20. They’re 32 now, and while each is a long way from OKC, the Thunder have never strayed far from success. Last year they were one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. After last night’s 101-89 win in New York, OKC — who many predicted to be the league’s worst outfit this season — is .500 and 4-1 on the road.
Nothing tempts people as much stories. We’ll overthrow the most heinous monsters or commit atrocities against each other and ourselves if the story behind the action makes enough sense. It’s tempting to take the God’s-eye view of last night’s game and reduce it to a simple story of history, of culture. The Thunder have it together, have always had it together, and their accumulation of young talent and a billion first-round picks the next half-decade proves they’ll always have it together. The Knicks? You know how that story usually goes.
But the Knicks didn’t lose because of the weight of history, or culture, or anything so abstract. They lost because their guards — Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Austin Rivers and Immanuel Quickley — took 58 shots and made only 17. That’s 29%. They lost because their collective slash line was 36/33/60. They lost because Al Horford outplayed Julius Randle in the first half and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander outplayed everybody in the second.
They lost because not a single Knick had a game to be proud of. They lost for the same reason babies fall and cry: because it is human to struggle, and these Knicks are so very flawed, so very hopeful, so very human. They dream they can fly, wake reminded that they can’t, then spend their waking hours plotting to try, to fail, and to fail better. Somedays waking up is harder than others. That was this game, all right.
Both teams came out of the gates misfiring, but New York got off to a double-digit lead in the first quarter thanks to no one on the Thunder besides Horford making a shot for the opening seven minutes. Still, the Knicks were missing lots of open looks, a theme they’d revisit throughout the evening. But Randle was dishing effectively with four assists early and Barrett’s work on the offensive glass helped push the Knicks out in front. OKC closed the quarter shooting just 5-of-24, but they only trailed by nine. There’s a baseball adage when facing a great pitcher that you need to get to them early. The Knicks loaded the bases with no outs but only scored one run. That usually comes back to bite you.
The Thunder used a 10-0 run bridging the first and second quarters to pull themselves back into the game. Midway through the quarter the score was 28-26, straight outta 1999. The teams’ offenses were so putrid forget about ignominy — this was ignomaxi. They tied an NBA record for fewest free throws in a quarter with zero; the Knicks missed all four of their attempts while the Thunder never got to the line. Randle finished the half scoreless. We all finished the half a little poorer for having witnessed it. The teams were knotted at 42 at the break, only appropriate since neither deserved to be winning.
In the third quarter Randle and SGA woke from their scoring slumber. Julius put up 11 in the frame, while Gilgeous-Alexander continued the discomforting trend of opposing guards looking uncomfortably comfortable taking Payton off the dribble over and over and over again. Slowly but surely Oklahoma City got a grip on the game. It was like a boa wrapping around you slowly, so slowly, in a way that doesn’t feel threatening until you realize it’s too late to do anything about it. Walt Frazier, perhaps inspired after being slandered as uninformative on a blessedly Trump-free Twitter, pointed out a key difference as the game progressed: when a Knick drove into the paint, there were like four Thunder defenders waiting there; when OKC drove the lane, it looked as empty as London in 28 Days Later.
The score was still close enough to look respectable; with eight minutes left, the gap was only five. But remember, this was 1999 basketball, when a five-point lead might as well be 10. The Knicks didn’t have the firepower all night to sustain a run, and while they got more on track in the fourth, the Thunder did too.
The middle of the fourth was the death knell. Kevin Knox missed a short jumper. Queens-bred Hamidou Diallo took it right at RJ and scored over him, after which Barrett missed a three. Soon after, a Rivers turnover led to a George Hill scoop shot. Quickley badly missed a running jumper. Lu Dort missed from deep and Randle grabbed the rebound, but Diallo snuck up from behind as Randle dribbled up the court, stole the ball and took it in for the uncontested dunk. Payton split a pair of free throws, SGA hit from distance and that’s how a five-point gap became 13 with four minutes left. A Dort three two minutes later was the nail in what anyone with any decency would ensure was a closed casket.
- 25, 10 and 7 for Gilgeous-Alexander, who for at least this night didn’t look like he missed Chris Paul.
- 23 and 11 for Diallo, who like SGA is a Kentucky product. So I guess they’ll both be Knicks in a couple years, which is fine by me.
- 18, 12 and 7 for Randle. Between those numbers and him shooting 8-of-15, you’d never realize how frustrated he looked. He got hit with a technical and at one point I thought he was on his way to a second. He looked more annoyed with his teammates at points than he did the refs. I don’t say that as a criticism. This was a tough game to watch; I can’t imagine how annoying it was to lose as a player.
- Adding to my frustration: I have Spectrum cable, which often sucks. Half the game the feed was pixelating so badly I couldn’t see the ball or tell who any of the Thunder players were. It was like watching Atari.
- Aleksej Pokuševski, the NBA’s youngest player, came into the game just 2-of-21 from the floor. Natch he hit three of his five shots, including one three from a few feet behind the arc.
- At one point Pokuševski was stuck guarding Randle, which really should be a felony. That’s gotta be a 60-pound difference. 60 pounds of muscle, even.
- Nerlens Noel returned to action after missing the last two games. Had a couple nice blocks.
- On the MSG broadcast Frazier mentioned the Knicks needed 47 games last year to shoot 50% or better four times. This year they did so four times in their first eight games. Not tonight!
- OKC’s Kenrich Williams looks a lot like my childhood best friend, Joey Gomez. If you see Joey, tell him that.
- Payton has really been putting up shots this year, which is philosophically sound. You can’t have someone out there refusing to shoot, especially in today’s game; defenses will suffocate you for playing 4-on-5. Then again, the Soviet Union’s five-year plans were philosophically noble while their reality brought death and misery to lots of people. This team misses Alec Burks, man.
- Give Rivers credit: he almost forced a couple eight-second violations pressuring OKC ballhandlers in the last 2 minutes, when all looked lost.
- I never knew DeAndre Jordan was as good a passer as he is until I got to see him playing every night for the Knicks. Ditto Rivers’ off-the-dribble game. Better than I realized.
- We got our first Mike Miller sighting since his run as Knicks interim coach ended. MM is now an assistant coach with the Thunder. I felt pure happiness seeing Miller again. He’s not your biological father and he’s not the man who makes the biggest impact in your life. But he brought you stability for a few years when middle school was going downhill, and he treated your mom with the respect she deserves. You’ll always remember him with gratitude for that.
- I like so much about Tom Thibodeau. But his mask etiquette is WEAK. That shit is off his nose waaaay too much. Cut the dicknose, Thibs.
- Trivia: who is Oklahoma City’s head coach?
A) Alain Vigneault
B) Mark Daigneault
C) Francois Guidoune
D) Jacques Clouseau
- Randle and RJ were out there till the very end of the game. Only 31 minutes for Julius. 44 for Barrett.
- Not much help from the bench, who were outscored 48-24 by the Thunder reserves. Second straight quiet game for Quickley.
- Here’s a fun drinking game: take a shot every time there’s a dead ball and Quickley lifts his legs to grab the bottom of his shoes. You’ll have a nice buzz by the fourth quarter.
- Reggie Bullock missed a ton of open looks early and didn’t shoot much after that.
- Kevin Knox’s hustle plays have become a personal fave. They remind me of Summer League Knox a few years ago, who always made it a point to do something besides score. I think the shooting will work itself out. Keep grinding, Knox. Keep up the tenacity.
- OKC’s Theo Maledon looked unusually comfortable for a 19-year-old rookie point guard.
- Isaiah Roby is beautiful. I don’t mean that in a sexual manner. More like a work of art.
- OKC’s coach is Mark Daigneault. With his mask covering half his face he looks like Michiel Huisman from The Haunting of Hill House.
- I could do without MSG looking like The Price Is Right. They got brand new cars behind each basket like after the game there’s a Showcase Showdown coming. Actually, that’d be pretty sweet.
- The Knicks lost what I believe was their first game wearing their stupid new KITH jerseys. For me, “KITH” will always be Kids In The Hall.
- After the subject of Horford being married to Amelia Vega, a former Miss Universe, came up, Clyde goes “So.......” and held it for sooooo long my mind was bugging imagining allllll the unimaginable places he might take the subject. Thankfully he got right back into basketball talk.
Quoth Clyde in the first quarter: “It’s been ghastly.” It didn’t get any better. Next game is Sunday when New York hosts Denver. The quality of play will likely be prettier. Hopefully the outcome is, too.