Thunder Dampen Harkless’ Breakout Performance
19-year-old Maurice Harkless is earning stellar praise as his rookie season winds down, posting a career-high 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting with Kevin Durant guarding him in a 97-89 Oklahoma City Thunder victory. OKC’s leadership and calm nerves amid the frantic final minutes was what allowed the Thunder to prevail. Maurice also contributed 9 rebounds, 4 steals, and 4 blocks as Harkless has made leaps and bounds from November when he was still recovering from sports hernia surgery. It was thrilling to see Glen Davis pumped up on the bench and helping get all 17,429 Amway Center fans up on their feet down the stretch of a very physical contest. It was just another case of the Magic playing well against one of the best teams in the league, but falling short at the end.
OKC Coach Scott Brooks on Harkless: “He’s as talented as any player in this league. He’s a defensive guy. His shot has improved as the season went on. Tonight, I don’t know if it was his best game of the year, but it’s his best game since I’ve seen him.”
After playing the first 68 contests of the season, Nikola Vucevic missed his 2nd consecutive game of the season Friday night as it is now known that his ill symptoms have occurred because he suffered a concussion in Indiana. That meant rookie Kyle O’Quinn was tapped for his first career NBA start. It’s an early gift for Kyle who turns 23 years old on March 26th as Kyle posted 11 points and 9 rebounds in a solid follow-up to his career night in Madison Square Garden.
Coach Jacque Vaughn on Harkless: “He’s a competitor and you really saw that tonight. Just unselfish plays on both ends of the floor and I’m glad I’m his coach. I’m lucky. He’s an unbelievable human being and he’ll be ready to work tomorrow and the next day and be ready for the game after that.”
Despite the effort, Orlando trailed 22-14 after the opening twelve minutes because of OKC’s 8-0 free throw attempt advantage with the now 18-52 Magic coughing up eight turnovers. At least Orlando didn’t give up a 30-point quarter tonight. The difference in the end would be OKC’s 23 free throw attempt advantage.
Kevin Durant on Harkless: “I like his energy, his length, and his athleticism. If you are in the league, your jump shot is going to start to get better, your handle is going to get better, your confidence, and I like what he brings. I really believe in Rob Hennigan…I am a big fan of the Magic and I would like to see them do well.”
Magic were down nine points at the 9:09 mark of the second quarter when Afflalo went down with a right hamstring injury and did not return. No word yet on Arron’s status for Monday. Doron Lamb and Al Harrington had to gingerly assist a heavily limping Arron to the locker room. Orlando was defending OKC well, but couldn’t snag a large chunk of rebound chances. The Thunder didn’t find much resistance inside, constantly driving into the paint and kicking out for open perimeter looks. Orlando’s 33.3 FG% meant stagnant offense and a 47-34 Thunder lead at the break.
Russell Westbrook on Harkless: “He will be good. He is a good player. He is active, athletic, he defends. He goes out there and plays and does whatever he needs for for their team.”
With Beno starting in the 2nd half, Orlando rumbled to a swift 10-0 run in the first 1:41 of the third period. Eight of those points belonged to Jameer who drilled back-to-back triples. Jameer tallied 14 points in the period and Nelson’s evening would conclude with 16 points and 10 assists. He’d be overshadowed by Harkless’ 2-way play. Maurice was hellbent on earning even more respect from Durant and company as Harkless buried 12 points of his own in that session. Maurice wasn’t shy to attack directly at Durant and Ibaka. Orlando trailed just 70-66 entering the final period.
Not sure what Scott Brooks was thinking throwing in ex-Magic man DeAndre Liggins to start the fourth. Then again, Jacque inserted Doron who finished a lay-up to tie the contest up at 74-74 with nine minutes remaining in regulation. An Udrih pull-up jumper actually gave Orlando a brief 78-76 advantage with seven and a half minutes to go before OKC’s starters kicked into another gear. Durant would hit a 3-pointer with 2:41 remaining to put the Thunder up for good 89-86 as they wouldn’t relinquish their lead. Westbrook and Durant scored 21 of OKC’s 27 fourth quarter points. That’s 6 straight losses for the Magic currently. Orlando has 2 days to prepare for the scorching Miami Heat.
Adam Papageorgiou runs Orlando Magic Greek and is a proud MBO contributor.