1. Thunder Finally Find Themselves
In their first three games, the Thunder were the team playing without James Harden. They were trying to find a new voice, trying to fit in a new piece and trying to regroup after having their tight-knit world rocked.
But Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, they finally started playing like the team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka -- the team that still has top-tier talent and can completely overwhelm an inferior opponent. They started playing like a team that is still very, very good.
The Raptors were the unfortunate group on the wrong end of an angry, frustrated Thunder team looking to prove something as OKC rolled up Toronto, 108-88. It wasn't that the Thunder made some significant statements that everything was going to be OK or that they were back. But with OKC entering the game with a 1-2 record and with critics ready to sound the alarm, it was less about winning and more about not losing.
"We don't change how we approach any game," Scott Brooks said. "We had a tough loss last game [against Atlanta]. But we're not a team that's going to put our heads down and run from what we need to work on.
"And if we have a good win, we're not going to all of sudden puff our chests out and say we're good now. We're a solid team. We play together, we play hard and we work on the things that we need to work on."
Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka were solid but not spectacular, combining for 51 points, but the trio set the tone early on against the Raptors. In a 30-17 first-quarter blitzing, OKC's defense swarmed and Durant posterized rookie Jonas Valanciunas, allowing another sold-out home crowd to breathe easy.
"We started the game off with a lot of intensity, and that is what we need every game from here on out, to start off with a lot of energy," Durant said. "We fed off our crowd. Our bench was up and excited about every play. Guys were moving the basketball and just helping on defense."
It's easy to point at the absence of Harden as the culprit for OKC's early season struggles, but the reality is the two Thunder losses could've been taken straight from last season. Against the Spurs, it was one of those "full moons" when Westbrook transformed into a reckless point guard, forcing shots and wasting possessions. Against the Hawks, OKC lacked energy and played a soft defensive game.
The secret right now is that new guy, Kevin Martin, has replaced Harden's box score production, and then some. With another 15 points in 22 minutes against Toronto, Martin is averaging more than 19 points per game, which is about three more than Harden did last season as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.
Stylistically, Martin doesn't provide the same things Harden did. The Thunder don't have a secondary ball handler to spell Westbrook when he goes haywire.
Also, the Thunder don't have another creator on the floor with Westbrook and Durant. It's meant that the Thunder's super-duo has taken on more responsibility as distributors, specifically Durant, who is averaging a career high in assists and a career low in shot attempts per game.
But that's all part of sorting out the shakeup. There's a lot that is similar about this Thunder team, but the differences that remain require some work.
Even with feeling their way through the changes, the Harden trade probably hasn't contributed to any specific loss as of yet. It's easy to assume having Harden would've meant a 4-0 start, but the issue could be deeper.
Maybe the biggest thing so far for the Thunder has been a post-Finals hangover. As a young team coming off the high of their careers just a few months ago, these November games feel a long way away from June.
"There's no question that when you get to the NBA Finals, you're at the highest level," Brooks said. "But the process to get back has to start at the beginning of the season.
"And our guys have done a good job of understanding that process of work every day. There's no guarantee that June excitement will come back. We have to work for it, and there are a lot of steps ahead."
Those steps include forgetting about that guy with the beard and focusing on what's still there: a whole lot of talent and a very, very good team.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Russell Westbrook. Tough to pick one for a game with so much garbage time, but he had 19 points and eight assists while it was still a contest. Fans were robbed of a potential Westbrook-Lowry battle, however.
Least valuable player: DeMar DeRozan. He couldn't get anything going against Thabo Sefolosha, finishing 2-for-10. He had one nice take against Kevin Durant when he had two fouls early, but DeRozan proceeded to try to shoot instead of attacking.
That was painful: Kyle Lowry tried to gather the ball after a Thunder bucket and his right foot landed on Kendrick Perkins, resulting in a badly rolled ankle. Lowry is considered day-to-day.
Recap | Box score
Most valuable players: Luol Deng (23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and Joakim Noah (20 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks, 4 assists, 2 smoking finger pistols) played like All-Stars for the Bulls.
Least valuable player: Glen Davis. "Big Baby" led Orlando in shot attempts (22) and misses (15), including several air balls. He also chucked up an ill-advised 3-pointer when the Magic were down only 94-89 with 54 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Defining moment: After Davis' misguided 3-point attempt, Noah fed Taj Gibson for a hammer dunk and the foul. Gibson completed the three-point play to put the Bulls up 96-89 with 39 seconds to go. That play effectively ended the game.
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Several Nuggets could make claim (Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee) but Greg Monroe carried the Pistons with 27 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks and a steal.
Least valuable player: Charlie Villanueva played for the first time this season, entering the game with 4.4 seconds left in the half for a Nuggets free throw. Villanueva and Monroe lined up nearest the basket, and when Denver missed, most of the Pistons raced up court as Tayshaun Prince rebounded. Monroe made it all the way to the opposite paint by the time Detroit took its shot. Villanueva wasn't in even the picture. He obviously didn't return to the game.
That was sorting: Detroit and Denver both entered tonight 0-3, but now the Pistons and Wizards are the NBA's only winless teams. At least one of the two should win before they play each other on Dec. 21, right?
3. Tuesday's Best
Luol Deng, Bulls: Deng scored 15 of his 23 points in the second half, keying a comeback over the previously unbeaten Magic. With the win, the Bulls move to 3-1 without an injured Derrick Rose.
4. Tuesday's Worst
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors: Coming off a 22-point, seven-rebound effort Sunday, DeRozan laid an egg against the Thunder. He scored only eight points on 2-of-10 shooting as Toronto fell to 1-3.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"This is not calculus. This is not trying to figure out the next Pythagorean theorem."
-- Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, on trying to get his team to buy into the concept of being more unselfish.
8. If It Ain't Broke ...
9. Something Had To Give
Denver won its home opener against Detroit after starting the season with three straight losses, all on the road. The Pistons are now winless at 0-4.
Tuesday night was the first NBA game in which both teams entered with a record of 0-3 or worse since Nov. 6, 2007, when the Kings (0-3) beat the SuperSonics (0-3). Seattle began that season with eight straight losses.
10. Dunk Of The Night