Paint Dominance on Both Ends for the Thunder – OKC 100, CLE 83

In order to get the game up to his desired speed, Russell Westbrook had to first slow it down. After coming around a screen, Westbrook was left wide open at the three-point line. He turned the shot down. Then he stepped inside the arc, and a defender stepped slightly to him. Still no shot. That’s when Jerami Grant, the original screener, finally sprung free and opened himself up with a seal on the block. Westbrook’s eyes were up, and Grant had to be wrapped up.

It was a hardly a standout moment in the second quarter, but that simple patience displayed by Westbrook carried on through the remainder of the game, as he used post ups and the Thunder as a team employed interior passes to get the ball deep into the paint. Inverting the offense thwarted the Cleveland Cavaliers’ attempt to keep the ball out of the lane via the drive and helped Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club snap up a 100-83 victory.

After falling behind 28-21 after one quarter, the Thunder buckled down defensively and got high percentage looks on offense and outscored Cleveland 79-55 the rest of the way. It all started defensively, as the Thunder allowed 19 points in the second, 15 points in the third and 21 points in the fourth quarter to close out the win.

All season long the Thunder’s priority defensively has been to contest well at the three-point line and force opponents to make tough shots over length on the move inside the arc. Tonight that strategy worked nearly to perfection. Cleveland may have knocked down 9 threes, but only attempted 23 for the game. Down low, the Thunder blocked 11 shots and forced the Cavaliers into 16-of-43 shooting (37.2 percent) in the paint. 

“We just played our team defense,” said George, matter-of-factly. “Defense, getting stops, coming down and taking control offensively.”

“We wanted to have a lot of help side,” added Grant. “We knew they like to get in the paint and kick out or get in the paint and try to finish over people. We just wanted to come in and stop that.”

The repetitive defensive stops slowed up the scoreboard long enough for the Thunder’s offensive engine to rev up and get into a rhythm. It started with the catalyst himself - Russell Westbrook - getting down onto the block to draw double teams and then find cutters like Steven Adams and Jerami Grant, the latter of whom scored 21 points and had four blocks.

“That’s a big part of my game. I use it to my advantage any time I can, not for scoring but for setting up the offense, passing, whatever it is that I want to do,” said Westbrook. “When they were double-teaming (Grant) was flooding and going to the right spot and our job was to make sure we found him.”

“They started to double whenever I had a smaller guy on me. Just take the double team on and find ways to get an open shot,” Westbrook added. “Sometimes teams come on the dribble, they come on the catch, they wait. You just gotta read it and see, but it’s always just a waiting game to see what teams do.”

Westbrook dished and dished again while taking what the defense gave. He shot 10-of-17 from the field, 2-of-5 from three and racked up 23 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists for his 107th career triple-double. That puts him in a tie with Jason Kidd for third-most all-time, though Westbrook picked up his 107 in just 760 games compared to Kidd needing 1,247 games to reach that same triple-double total. On the way back to the locker room, Westbrook made one last pass – his game shoes to a youngster in the crowd.

“I am extremely blessed and humbled to be able to go out and play and compete in the NBA itself. Just to be named with Jason Kidd, Magic (Johnson) and Oscar (Robertson), I could have never dreamt about (it),” Westbrook said. “I take everything in and never take anything for granted.”

Westbrook’s dominance and complete control of the offensive flow offset foul trouble for Paul George and Dennis Schröder and allowed the Thunder to be absolutely dominant down low. The final points in the paint tally ended at 56-32, with the Thunder shooting 28-for-47 (59.5 percent) in the lane, standing in stark contrast with the way Cleveland shot. 

“We were getting into some good post up areas and it was causing double teams, and from there we were finding the guy that was flashing. We made the game easy,” explained George, who scored 18 points in 25 minutes. “The guy was flashing and either would finish from that area or there was a big to big pass. We did a good job of spacing in that case and taking advantage of that.”

Falling behind by 11 in the second quarter, it looked like the Thunder wasn’t going to be able to overcome its outside shooting woes well enough to make this anything other than a scratch and claw battle down the stretch. But with a 17-4 run in the second quarter and a 13-0 burst in the third, the Thunder completely flipped the script on this one and was able to run away with a win. 

The victory gives the Thunder a 13-7 record through 20 games, providing a nice reminder that this club was 8-12 last season at this same point in the year. Despite not having health, what the Thunder does have this season is a clear identity: defense first, speed in transition and dominance in the paint. In two days, it’ll get the chance to put that identity to the test again at home, versus the Atlanta Hawks.

Highlights: Thunder 100, Cavs 83