CLEVELAND – Russell Westbrook set up the pins, and his teammates knocked them all down.
Turns out that in Saturday afternoon’s 148-124 Thunder win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in a prestige national TV matinee, offense was the best defense, and that was the case very early on. In fact, the Thunder burst out of the gates with an 8-0 lead after its first four offensive possessions and never trailed the rest of the way. The initial burst was fueled by two Paul George free throws and six of Steven Adams’ 25 points, two on dishes from Westbrook and another on a put back.
“We were balanced,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “We played well offensively because we generated good shots from the paint and behind the line."
“A lot of shots were going in. We moved the ball really well. We took advantage of a lot of the stuff from what they were doing defensively,” Adams said. “Once you get that sort of lead, you kind of try to ride that out with the same intensity.”
Adams’ effect was felt right off the bat, as he helped clean up the glass and went nearly perfect from the field (12-for-13), forcing the Cavaliers to change up their rotations to deal with him. The Thunder just kept playing its game – attacking with plenty of time on the shot clock, keeping the ball zipping through the middle of the floor and out to the perimeter and staying aggressive on drives back into the paint.
“When they were going through that run of theirs, we did a good job of still keeping our same pace and still playing the same way,” said forward Paul George. “We played for one another and we kept the ball moving.”
While Adams was getting going inside, so was George on the outside. On the same afternoon that he unveiled his new Nike PG2’s, George was smooth in everything he did. Not only he knock down the wide open looks that Westbrook helped create, but he also nailed the tough ones, including a step-back three-pointer in the corner to ignite a 7-2 spurt to end the first half, taking the Thunder’s 11-point lead back out to 16. For the night, George finished with 36 points on 12-for-19 shooting, including 5-for-11 from behind the three-point line.
“Those two free throws definitely helped, just getting a look at the rim, seeing it go down,” George recalled. “Then those early threes in catch and shoot situations, just getting clean looks helped put me in a rhythm where every shot I took felt good and felt like it was going in. When you can get easy opportunities the game definitely opens up a lot more.”
After the Thunder jumped out to a 24-12 lead in the first quarter, Cleveland continued to put a little game pressure on Donovan’s club, but every time a threat was made, there was a response. In the third quarter the Cavaliers cut what once was a 24-point lead all the way down to 12 during a 10-2 run, but George knocked down two free throws, Westbrook hit a step-back three-pointer on the wing, George hit a mid-range jumper and then Felton drained a three-pointer to push the lead back to 20 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We did a good job of playing through adversity. Teams are going to make runs each and every game,” Westbrook noted. “That’s where your true colors show as a team, when you find a way to stick together.”
While the understandable human nature element prevented the Thunder’s defense from being perfect throughout the night while holding a 20-plus-point lead, Donovan’s group turned it on when threatened. With help from his teammates, George in particular did a nice job of LeBron James, who scored just 18 points on 8-for-17 shooting, not enough to surpass the 30,000-point plateau on this night.
“(George) played LeBron really well in terms of our system and in terms of what we want him doing,” Adams noted. “He did an amazing job there.”
The Thunder offense had an answer at every turn, and it was Westbrook’s complete and utter control of the game that led to an Oklahoma City record 148 points, the most in a regulation game for the Thunder. Westbrook continually attacked off the dribble, knowing exactly when to give the ball up and where the defense was going to converge. The assist tallies continued to rise.
First it was dishes to Adams when the defense trapped, then he directed Carmelo Anthony to roll short to the nail and the elbow for little drop off passes for easy jumpers. Anthony knocked them down with glee, totaling up 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and three assists. A complete game.
Westbrook himself was an all-around gem. He was 9-for-17 from the floor for 23 points, but it was his 20 assists, many of them in situations where he probed the defense to find George stalking the perimeter, that changed the game.
“(Westbrook) gets it and goes and he’s down the court so fast. That established the whole game right there,” George explained. “Then he’s looking and he’s finding guys, it sets a precedent that that’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to play this together and we’re going to look for one another. It’s all about making this as easy as possible with the tools that we have.”
The results were staggering, and a vision into how explosive this Thunder team can be – a match of precision and power that few teams in the league can rival. The Thunder out-rebounded Cleveland 52-28, including an incredible 42-11 advantage for the starters. That carried over into the point totals as well, where the Thunder starters scored 121 points compared to just 67 for the Cavaliers, while shooting an incredible 64 percent from the field.
Highlights: Thunder vs. Cavaliers
By the Numbers
20 - Assists for Russell Westbrook, a season-high, and two shy of his career-high, to go with 23 points and 9 rebounds
+24 – The Thunder’s rebounding margin on the night, thanks to a 16-3 edge in offensive rebounds, as the starters outrebounded the Cavaliers’ starters 42-11
148 - Points for the Thunder on the afternoon, a season-high and the most in a regulation game in Oklahoma City history
The Last Word
“We just established a tempo. We established the pace that we wanted to play at. That’s really what the whole game plan was, to play fast, to play early in the shot clock and try to get out and get easy opportunities. We were able to do that early.” – forward Paul George