OKLAHOMA CITY — Some 70 minutes before the game, Russell Westbrook sat at his locker, iPhone earbuds in, bobbing his head and singing along to his unofficial theme song.
Always been one hundred, put that on my block
Used to want a four-door, now I want that drop
Now I do what I want, now I do what I want
With the Oklahoma City Thunder riding a four-game losing streak, Friday’s game against the LA Clippers had the setup for a peak Westbrookian performance, one in which he casts aside convention and forcibly bends 48 minutes to his will. Maybe it takes 40 shot attempts. Maybe it takes a 50-point triple-double. Maybe it takes both.
The game started as such, with Westbrook plowing downhill at the rim, scoring in a first-quarter flurry that had him posing on the baseline, fully flexed and screaming into the crowd as the Clippers called timeout. But as the game played on, and Paul George found the most rhythm he’s had since arriving in Oklahoma City, Westbrook pulled off the pedal and settled in as George drove the game.
“I just came out with an aggressive mindset every time I caught the ball,” George said. “I gotta be that, just to take pressure off everybody. Kind of get some rhythm for myself and get the offense flowing.”
A night after getting only one shot in a miserable fourth quarter in a loss to the Denver Nuggets, George poured in 42 points on 13-of-22 shooting, plus nine rebounds and seven assists as the Thunder snapped their four-game skid, 120-111 over the Clippers. The Thunder’s triad has spoken often about trusting the hot hand, about playing off the guy that has it going on any given night, but with the Clippers coming back from double-digit deficits on multiple occasions and the game suddenly at risk, Westbrook’s instinct is often to take on the challenge himself.
With 5 minutes, 36 seconds to go, the Clippers had tied the game, 105-105, on an Austin Rivers 3-pointer and George headed to check back in, joining Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder in clutch-time this season (game within five points with five minutes or less remaining) has been disastrous, with their defense turning to shambles and their record 0-6. Offensive possessions feature awkward isolation and turn-taking, and an otherwise stout defensive team melts into a red carpet to the rim.
There was a real pressure building on the Thunder with the reality of blowing yet another lead and another clutch-time failure cranking up the noise even more. After a pair of Dakari Johnson free throws — who was filling in for an injured Steven Adams — the Thunder moved the ball side-to-side and George hit Anthony on the block curling at the rim for an easy layup. Next trip, Westbrook set up George for a smooth, open jumper. Then George hit two free throws, Andre Roberson tipped in a missed Westbrook layup, and Westbrook set up Johnson again for a wide open jumper. In the final five minutes, Westbrook took one shot and had three assists. In the other six clutch-time games, the Thunder had three assists total combined. They produced four on Friday.
“We made good decisions, we had good ball movement, we made the extra pass,” said Thunder coach Billy Donovan. “Some asked me about the assists coming down the stretch, I get all that. We’re trying to figure that part out.”
The Thunder Big Three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George had struggled mightily when on the floor together in the 4th quarter entering Friday night. But the 3-man lineup entered a tie game for the final 5:36 of the 4th quarter against the Clippers and helped secure a relatively close win for the Thunder.
Despite the perception, the Thunder actually run a lot of slick, intelligent offensive sets. But so many of them have happened in the first 40 minutes of the game, with the offense tightening as the game does along with it. There’s not much organic movement or read-and-react levels to their offense. They fall into old habits; the ball sticks, the trust level to move it on to the next man slips. George is one of the league’s premier off-ball movers and his slithering around screens can generate some of that on its own, but Westbrook utilized his dynamic playmaking ability to work the setups instead of standing and holding.
“When I got here, one of the talks we had about what was best with me and this offense was the movement,” George said. “And Coach Donovan was happy he could utilize me in that situation of moving, getting some flow in the offense. So I’m comfortable with that.”
George made sure to note after the game this is only one game and by no means is it any sign of things to some, or some suggestion they have solved their issues. The Thunder by all means looked far improved and the crunch-time execution was the best it has been. They have preached patience and understand it’s a work in progress that will only get better with more reps and more time. But part of that is adjusting to free-flowing roles, knowing one night it could be George, another it could be Westbrook, another it could be Anthony. Westbrook sensed it on Friday, as did Anthony, and gave way to George, who carried the game.
“We better,” Anthony said of stepping back when George had it going. “Somebody gonna come out and have 40-something points and get it going like that, especially on a back-to-back like we just had, we were looking for him to get it going and he got it going. He led the charge tonight.”
The Thunder checked two nagging boxes on Friday, their first clutch-time win (previously 0-6) and their first win against the Western Conference (previously 0-6). They were baffling stats in what has been a confusing start to this new era of Thunder basketball, but they also ticked another box: The first win this season in which Westbrook didn’t have a triple-double.