Pacers’ defense can’t stop Thunder offense
By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder can generate a lot of excitement as the NBA’s highest-scoring team, but defense is still a matter of pride.
Durant scored 27 points, Kevin Martin added 24 and the Thunder clamped down in the second half to beat the Indiana Pacers 104-93 on Sunday night for their eighth straight win.
It was a matchup of NBA’s most potent offense and the league’s stingiest defense — but Oklahoma City also happens to be the second-best at making opponents miss.
The Pacers shot 60 percent in the first half before Thunder coach Scott Brooks delivered a message at halftime. His players responded by limiting Indiana to 33 percent after that.
“Defense is going to win games. You can score back and forth if you want to, but defending is what we do,” Russell Westbrook said.
Westbrook had 21 points but more importantly came up with a big block against 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert — 11 inches taller — during a late 8-0 burst by the Thunder that put it away after the Pacers had pulled within three.
“Plays like that can change the whole momentum of the game,” Westbrook said. “That was one of those plays.”
David West led the way with 21 points for Indiana, which had all five starters score in double figures but still couldn’t keep up.
The not-so-balanced Pacers came allowing an NBA-best 91.2 points per game but scoring a league-low 90.7.
“We knew to beat this team, we had to put up points as well,” said George Hill, who scored 15. “Our defense can only hold up for so long”
The league’s worst shooting team at 41.5 percent from the field, Indiana was connecting on 59 percent midway through the third quarter before a 1-for-13 dry spell allowed Oklahoma City to move ahead to stay.
Serge Ibaka had two straight putbacks and later added a jumper as the Thunder took advantage with a 17-3 run, taking an 82-72 lead after Nick Collison’s free throw with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Pacers chipped away and pulled to 94-91 on Paul George’s 3-pointer from the right wing with 5:26 to play. Durant found Ibaka open underneath for a layup on the other end, and the Thunder scored eight straight points to regain control.
After his block against Hibbert under the basket, Westbrook hit a jumper from the right wing, came up with a steal and then nailed another jumper from the left side for a 102-91 advantage with 2:59 left.
“Our first half was one of the worst we’ve played this year, and coach really got after us to bring it in the second half, and I think we did that,” Durant said.
The Thunder, averaging a league-best 106.2 points, were just the fifth team to hit triple digits this season against Indiana. The Pacers are 1-4 in those games.
It was the 12th straight game with over 100 points for Oklahoma City. The blistering pace mattered little to Brooks, though, when it was 57-56 Thunder at halftime.
Oklahoma City came in ranked second in the league — behind only Indiana — in allowing opponents to shoot 42.4 percent from the field. The Pacers were 24 for 40 in the first half and trailed mainly because of a 12-point deficit at the foul line.
“Coach got on us at halftime. That wasn’t championship defense right there,” said Martin, who had 22 points in the first half. “We realized that, and that was the No. 1 priority going out there in the second half, just being physical and making them take tough jumpers and getting rebounds. That’s what we did.”
George ended up with 17 points and Lance Stephenson and Hibbert chipped in 10 apiece for the Pacers. After the hot start, Indiana finished with 46 percent shooting from the field.
Oklahoma City also outrebounded the Pacers — the league’s top rebounding team — 40-34 and made 14 more free throws in 17 more attempts.
The Thunder shot 49 percent.
“It’s tough to see guys making shots when you’re playing tough defense on them. That was really what it was for us,” George said.
Durant started out 4 for 17 from the field but hit five of six shots during a key stretch with Indiana trying to rally. Most of the damage came from the post, where Oklahoma City took advantage of the Pacers’ defense switching screens with the small Hill ending up on Durant.
“They found something definitely,” George said.
George sank a 3-pointer from the right wing to spark a 13-0 first-half run by the Pacers that tied it at 45. Stephenson had a three-point play during the spurt, and also hit the free throw following Westbrook’s technical foul for reacting dramatically to what he thought should have been a foul against Indiana.
Westbrook made up for it, though, earning three free throws by sneaking his foot between West’s feet on his 3-point follow-through and tripping him to draw a foul against West. After West argued vehemently, Westbrook knocked down all three foul shots to help the Thunder hold a 57-56 edge at halftime.
“You go through games like that throughout the whole season,” Durant said. “Your energy is not there at the start, but I think it’s how you finish.”
Magic 98, Suns 90
PHOENIX — Rookie Andrew Nicholson scored nine of his career-high 19 points in the fourth quarter and the Orlando Magic pulled away to hand the Phoenix Suns their seventh loss in a row, 98-90 on Sunday night.
Nicholson made 9 of 11 shots and grabbed nine rebounds, also the best of his young career.
J.J. Redick scored 17 of his 20 points in the first half for the Magic in the final stop of their five-game road trip.
Shannon Brown scored 17 and Jared Dudley 15 for the Suns, who were without starting point guard Goran Dragic due to illness.
Phoenix’s losing streak is its longest since 2004.
Redick’s only points of the second half came on a 3-pointer that put the Magic ahead for good, 78-75, with 10:13 remaining.
Orlando, which went 3-2 on its trip west, used an 11-3 run to take its biggest lead of the game, 93-82, when Arron Afflalo made two free throws with 4:38 left.
Bucks 97, Nets 88
NEW YORK — Brandon Jennings had heard all the talk about how Brooklyn’s backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson was considered one of the best in the league.
Jennings and his backcourt mate Monta Ellis were aware of the height advantage Williams and Johnson had on them, but the Milwaukee Bucks’ duo showed they belong in the conversation, too.
Jennings scored 26 points and Ellis added 24 as Milwaukee withstood Brooklyn’s fourth-quarter rally and beat the Nets 97-88 Sunday night.
“It wasnt a competition or anything like that,” said Jennings, who also had seven assists and six rebounds. “We knew they had height advantage … so we wanted to run tonight and use more of your speed.”
Ellis, who’s struggled with his shot in the early part of this season and who came into the game shooting a career-low 38.9 percent from the field, said he didn’t pay any mind to the talk about the Nets’ backcourt.
” I never thought about it,” Ellis said. “It was just another game. It just happened me (and Jennings) came out wanting to play hard. We came out with nice energy, got a great lead. We made our run, they made their run but we were able to hold them off and get a win.”
Jennings and Ellis outscored Williams and Johnson 50-24 and managed to make some key plays in the final minutes to seal the victory.
Marquis Daniels had 13 points for the Bucks and Ersan Ilyasova added 10 as Milwaukee won its second straight. The Bucks have beaten the Nets 12 straight times dating back to March 30, 2009.
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