LOS ANGELES - The eye contact was made, and it was all Paul George needed to know where to run. Russell Westbrook gave his Thunder teammate a quick look, George cut in from the wing, caught Westbrook’s pass and finished easily at the rim for his first bucket of the game. In one blink of an eye, the Thunder tandem made a splash at the All-Star Game, started a 13-0 run for Team LeBron and represented Oklahoma City on a worldwide stage. They were integral to finishing this one off too.
“That was great for that to be my first basket tonight, getting an assist from Russ,” George smiled.
Led by All-Star Game MVP LeBron James, Team LeBron defeated Team Steph 148-145 at Sunday night’s 2018 NBA All-Star Game, the 67th in league history, at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. The new format change to this game gave this contest a very different feel than from years’ past. It wasn’t a completely reckless affair with minimal defense and maximum fast breaks. The matador defense of past All-Star games was a rare sight, and even though the score was significantly higher than most games, it was clear that the energy and effort were at a much higher level on Sunday due to the playground-style team selection rules.
“I think it was great for the league. I think it was great for the fans,” George noted. “We enjoyed playing with different guys. I think it’s great going forward.”
Westbrook was selected as a starter for Team LeBron after previous starter DeMarcus Cousins’ injury, and he immediately helped get others involved by racking up 7 first half assists, and 8 total in the game as he finished with 11 points and 8 rebounds as well. George came off the bench and got into a groove late in the second quarter when he scored on a quick flurry of 8 quick points: two three-pointers and one steal and slam dunk, showing off his identity as a defense-to-offense phenom.
Throughout the game Team Steph stayed just barely ahead on the scoreboard, but Team LeBron was constantly threatening with runs. That included a fourth quarter 12-2 burst to cut an 11-point Team Steph lead down to just one that started with Westbrook helping to free up George into the corner for one of the Thunder forward’s four three-pointers on the night.
“Just trying to make plays, make something happen, get some things going and get the momentum shifted our way,” Westbrook explained.
“It felt great,” George said. “It was great to be a part of that run.”
Both Westbrook and George (16 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) finished the game for Team LeBron, and it was quite the nervous closing minutes for fans all across the planet that tuned in to see the NBA’s very best all on one floor together. With the game knotted at a 144-144 tie with 1:07 to go, Team LeBron made a tough defensive stand at the rim and Westbrook came away with the loose ball. On the ensuing possession Team LeBron missed twice at the rim, leading to a Team Steph runout and one free throw by DeMar DeRozan.
With 40.2 seconds remaining, Team LeBron had an opportunity to take the lead and it was Westbrook who helped make it happen. The Thunder point guard attacked off the dribble, hit a cutting Kyrie Irving who found James at the rim for a layup. Westbrook then proved his mettle on the other end of the floor, defending James Harden on a missed three-point attempt, which then led to a DeRozan turnover. Westbrook then snuck out behind the defense and caught the ball over the top for a layup to create the final margin.
“I was just trying to find ways to impact the game and help us get a win,” Westbrook shrugged. “It felt good.”
Then it was George’s turn to show his two-way prowess, as he contributed to an impressive final defensive stand, a rarity in All-Star games, as Team LeBron prevented Curry and DeRozan from even getting a shot off from behind the three-point line. Despite neither Westbrook or George originally being selected to start in this game, the respect for their abilities was made clear when both finished this game. It was a sensational finish to the most competitive All-Star Game in recent memory, and one that was defined by the play of Oklahoma City’s two dynamic representatives.
“It’s amazing always to have some representation of your team,” Westbrook said. “(George) obviously deserved to be here. I’m happy to be a part of the All-Star game with him.”