Thunder bounce back in Dallas and unveil a potentially big adjustment

DALLAS -- They had spent two days answering questions about getting blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers on national television, about losing consecutive home games, and if there's concern, panic or worry.

The way the Oklahoma City Thunder played Wednesday, it looked like they were pretty sick of the questions. They started the game on a 15-3 run, then started the fourth on a 15-0 burst, forcing the Dallas Mavericks into 14 consecutive misses. Then they closed with a small 11-6 spurt to put Dallas away, 116-103.

Neither Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook would agree with the theory that they played angry, or that there was any extra motivation. But they certainly played with a point to prove.

"We just played our game," Durant said. "We just did a better job of playing our game. We definitely didn't want to lose three in a row, but guys were relaxed. We were relaxed, we played calm all night. When they made that little run we stayed calm and we stayed together. But no, we played our game. We let everybody on the outside panic and we just tried to stay solid."

Said Westbrook: "No, we came out and competed at a high level defensively. Like I said the last two games, there wasn't concern, man. We're a good team when we play the right way, and we did that tonight."

Any doubting of the Thunder's contender credentials was just reactionary, but the alarming way in which the Cavs beat them certainly rung some bells. The Thunder don't lose like that, really, especially at home. And while they weren't flawless against the Mavs, they looked far sturdier on the defensive end, while also unlocking some of their depth, a problem that has plagued them throughout the season.

It started with getting Andre Roberson back from a knee sprain that has kept him out the past month, which restored the starting five and allowed the Thunder to play their preferred rotation. It also was influenced by a long-coming adjustment from Billy Donovan, with him staggering Durant's and Westbrook's minutes to keep at least one on the floor for basically the entire game. Except for the final 1 minute, 11 seconds, when they both subbed out together with the Thunder up 15, at least one of the two was on the court.

Where the adjustment came was in subbing Durant midway through the first and third quarters, where typically he plays both all the way through. Durant has always preferred to play 12 minutes straight because he feels it has helped with his rhythm, but Donovan suggested the change during the two-day break, and Durant was receptive.

"Man, whatever he wants me to do, I'm down," Durant said. "I felt good. I've been in this league long enough I can figure it out. Coach just came to me the other day and said he wanted to try it out, and I said it was cool. It doesn't really affect me. At some point I'm going to get it going, at some point I'm going to make shots. Tonight it just started to come around. I've just got to stay patient. I can't force anything because I'm coming out a little earlier, I've just got to play my game. What happens, happens. Just try to play winning basketball."

The stagger argument has been a topic of conversation around the Thunder's two stars for a good while now, and part of the reason the front office tried to reform the second unit the past two seasons was to alleviate some of the pressure to do so. By staggering Durant and Westbrook's minutes, they might play more individually, but less collectively -- which is when the Thunder obliterate teams.

For example: This season Durant and Westbrook have played 31 minutes a game together. It was 25 against the Mavs. When they play together, the Thunder outscore teams by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. In comparison, the Warriors are outscoring teams by 12.7 for the season.

The heart of the change is to help the struggling bench and role players, who came up big in Dallas. Dion Waiters snapped out of his post-All-Star funk, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half, hitting 4-of-6 from 3-point territory. Enes Kanter had 14 points and nine rebounds in 17 minutes. New addition Randy Foye hit a pair of first half 3s. Serge Ibaka had 13 points and eight rebounds; Steven Adams had 15 points (13 in the third quarter) and seven boards. The Thunder scored an easy 116 points, with Durant and Westbrook scoring only 24 apiece.

"[Durant has] been great in terms of always wanting to do what's best for the team," Donovan said of the rotation change. "I just told him, in particular the fourth quarter, I think we've got to have either you or Russell out there to start that fourth quarter. I went to it early and we had talked about it the last couple days and he wanted to try it, he was all for it."

With Durant on the floor to begin the fourth quarter on Wednesday, the Thunder opened 15-0 run to build a 21-point lead.

The change might not be permanent, especially if Durant decides he wants to go back to his standard full first- and third-quarter runs. But with the way the Thunder's bench has become a liability, the best fix for that is to try to make sure either Westbrook or Durant are on the floor all 48 minutes -- unless Waiters is going to play like he did on Wednesday in every game. That doesn't seem like a smart bet to make, though.

The two days the Thunder had off seemed like they were about them regrouping following a deflating weekend at home. Instead, it could've produced a significant adjustment, one that could have important postseason implications.