The Oklahoma City Thunder used a 13-3 run to start the second half, opening up a 20 point lead in the process, and the outcome of the game seemed to be little more than a mere formality.
Which wasn't exactly all that surprising. The Sixers just picked up their first win of the season on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves after starting the season with 17 consecutive losses. The Thunder, with their dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back for only the second time this season, outclass the Sixers in virtually every aspect, especially with the Sixers point guard depth depleted due to injuries to Tony Wroten and Alexey Shved.
But the Sixers fought back, as they frequently have this season, particularly of late. They immediately answered the Thunder's 13-3 run with a 10-2 run of their own. The Sixers would eventually find themselves down only 7 points with 3:12 left to play before the Thunder pulled away for good, finishing the night with a hard-fought 103-91 win. The loss drops the Sixers to a league worst 1-18 record.
Russell Westbrook was the primary cause of angst for the Sixers and head coach Brett Brown, scoring 27 points on 8-14 shooting from the field to go along with 5 rebounds and 7 assists. He led 5 Thunder players in double figure, joined by Serge Ibaka (19 points), Jeremy Lamb (15), Reggie Jackson (11), and Kevin Durant (10).
For Durant, he got his 10th point of the game with only 2:40 left in the game. With that basket, his streak of scoring at least 10 points in a game reaches 407 consecutive games.
The Sixers were fueled by Michael Carter-Williams, who finished the game with 16 points, 14 assists, and 7 rebounds, and Robert Covington, the second year player out of Tennessee State who set a career high with 21 points off the bench.
"There was a physical side of the group tonight that I was proud of," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game. "There was a lot of fight in that young group."
For Michael Carter-Williams, who had a game high 14 assists to only 4 turnovers, it was his fourth straight impressive game passing the ball. The second year point guard has averaged 11.5 assists per game over his last four games, all with Tony Wroten out of the lineup due to a right knee sprain. Carter-Williams is averaging 19.5 points, 11.5 assists, and 9.3 rebounds per game over that stretch, and became the first player to record at least 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in 4 consecutive games since Russell Westbrook accomplished the feat last season.
Despite the impressive numbers, Sixers head coach Brett Brown isn't ready to say that his Carter-Williams' improved play is a direct result of Tony Wroten's absence from the lineup. With Wroten and Carter-Williams both being drive and kick lead guards who struggle from the perimeter, many have questioned how well they fit together.
"I don't think that's it," Brown said before the game, when asked whether Wroten's absence has influenced Carter-Williams' improved play. "I think that he's just starting to play more, and starting to get in more of a playing rhythm."
While Michael Carter-Williams wouldn't cite the change in starting lineup as the cause of his improved play, he does credit much of it to his teammates being in the right positions and making shots.
"They're doing a great job," Carter-Williams said about his teammates after the game. "They're getting to the hoop and finishing, they're knocking down shots, and they're in the right position. My job is just to find them when they're open."
With Wroten out of the lineup, Michael Carter-Williams' minutes, which were only at 29.4 minutes per game over his first 8 games as he worked his way back from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum, have been forced to climb, as he's played 38.5 minutes per game over his last 4. He's also passed the ball consistently more, averaging 82.8 passes per game over his last 4 while making assists on 53.5% of his teammates made field goals when he's been on the court. He made only 56.5 passes per game and assisted on only 29% of his teammates baskets during the 4 games that immediately preceded this hot streak when he was starting alongside Tony Wroten.
Part of Michael Carter-Williams' surge in offensive output has been helped by the fact that he's playing with more shooters as of late.
"We're trying to get shooters, as much as possible, on the floor," Brown said after the game. "Really, when I say that you're talking about Hollis [Thompson], K.J. [McDaniels], and [ Robert Covington]. Everybody else is developing [their shot]."
Covington, who the Sixers signed to a 4 year contract in mid-November after he became the first pick in the D-League draft, had his coming out party two weeks ago when he dropped 14 points in 13 minutes of play against the Knicks. Still, Brown seemed like he wasn't yet ready to trust the second year player with consistent playing time, as Covington played only 9 minutes combined over his next two games.
That's seemingly changed of late, as Covington played 31 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday and 28 minutes against Oklahoma City. He set career highs in both of those games, following up his 17 point performance on Wednesday with 21 last night.
"I want him to shoot as many open threes as he can. That's what that kid does," Brown said about Covington after the game. "He came in late. I'm learning how to use him best."
His shooting has opened up the offense considerably, at least in the limited time he's been on the court so far this year. In 158 minutes played, the Sixers have a 101.4 offensive rating when he's been on the court, compared to an offensive rating of 87.8 over the last 10 games when Covington is on the bench.
Individually, Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the bigger beneficiaries of Covington's presence. Carter-Williams has struggled all season with his efficiency shooting the basketball and with turnovers, shooting only 36.3% from the field while averaging 4.3 turnovers per game.
Over the last 10 games, Michael Carter-Williams has shot 33.9% from the field when Covington has been on the bench, turning the ball over 5.3 times per 36 minutes, with only a 1.23/1 assist to turnover ratio. In the 98 minutes Covington and Carter-Williams have been on the court together those numbers change drastically, with Carter-Williams shooting 45.5% from the field, turning the ball over only 1.8 times per 36 minutes, while having a 5.6/1 assist to turnover ratio.
|Last 10 games||Team||Michael Carter-Williams|
|With/Without||Off Rtg||FG%||TO/36 min||Assists/TO|
Looking at Carter-Williams' shot distribution, he's gotten 63.7% of his offense in the paint with Covington on the floor, but only 53.4% over the last 10 games with Covington on the bench. He's also shooting better once he gets there, connecting on 53.6% with Covington there to stretch the floor, but only 47.6% when Covington has been on the bench.
Before the game, Brett Brown talked about the need to sacrifice defense for offense in order to open things up.
"At times it does factor on 'Well, maybe we're going to be better off scoring than getting that additional stop'," Brown said. "That sentence doesn't gel entirely well with me, but it's true. At times [Covington] is going to have to be on the floor for us to have more firepower."
Michael Carter-Williams and Russell Westbrook feud
Michael Carter-Williams and Russell Westbrook spent much of the night talking back and forth to each other, including some demonstrative showings from Westbrook even when he was on the bench.
"He goes out there and plays hard for his team, and I go out there and play hard for mine. It gets competitive," Carter-Williams said about the verbal sparring after the game. "It's part of the game.
"I have nothing against him, it just gets intense," Carter-Williams went on to say. "There's pride involved. After the game, it's all good, and during the game it is what it is."
"That’s kind of how I play. That’s what I do," Westbrook said. "Obviously the one-on-one battles don’t mean much. All that matters is whose team wins."
Brett Brown took the back and forth as sort of a mixed bag.
"I think at times that side of it got the better of him. It's part of his evolution. It's part of his development," Brown said, referring to Michael Carter-Williams. "I like the fact he goes right back at him go. It's done not in an obnoxious way.
"When it gets to the point where it's a little bit personal, and it carries over into not sharing the ball and too much on the dribble, that's where that part of it loses me," Brown said. "I think at times it carried over to that side of it, but by and large I like the fact that he went after him."
- Nerlens Noel had another strong game, finishing with 11 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals and an impressive block on Kevin Durant. Over his last 5 games, Noel is averaging 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks in 33.2 minutes per night, while shooting 55.3% from the field.
- K.J. McDaniels played 32 minutes again last night, his 5th straight game playing 30 minutes or more. He got to the line 6 times, but he's been struggling a bit from the field, shooting only 29.6% from three point range over his last 5 games, including 3-14 over his last 2 games.
- JaKarr Sampson continued to play some emergency point guard minutes with Tony Wroten and Alexey Shved out. The Sixers signed Malcolm Lee from their D-League team, the Delaware 87ers, earlier in the day, and Lee was available to play, although Brown looked at him as an emergency option.
- The Sixers collected 19 offensive rebounds on only 52 missed field goals, including 6 offensive rebounds by Nerlens Noel. It was one of their best rebounding performances of the season.
- Hollis Thompson continues to struggle from the field, shooting only 2-13 in his last two games, including 1-10 from three point range.
- Brandon Davies role on this team continues to change. Davies played double figures in minutes in 16 of the Sixers first 17 games, including 15 games in a row. He has not played more than 10 minutes in either of the last two games as Robert Covington's role expands, logging only 5 minutes against the Thunder last night.
Next up: Tonight against the Pistons in Detroit, at 7:30 pm.