It was Game 82 of the regular season on Wednesday night, and the Thunder already had a playoff spot locked up before walking into Chesapeake Energy Arena. Despite that, the clash with the rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies turned out to be one of the most dramatic games of the season.
This game meant a lot to the Thunder heading in, as Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club needed to win to avoid falling to the eighth seed in the Western Conference. By stepping up and taking control in the first and second quarters, withstanding a Memphis rally in the third quarter and closing the door in the final frame, the Thunder managed to guarantee itself at least the sixth seed with a 137-123 victory. If the Utah Jazz win in Portland against the Trail Blazers in the late game tonight, the Thunder will stay in sixth. If not, the Thunder jumps to fourth, and hosts Game 1 of Round 1 this weekend in Oklahoma City.
Before the game even began, Russell Westbrook stood at center court and addressed the Oklahoma faithful in attendance, thanking them for their support over the past 10 seasons and welcoming their unmatched energy in the postseason. Before he was done, he called longtime forward Nick Collison over to join him, and delivered a heartfelt message about what the Thunder stalwart has done for the organization and the city over the years. The crowd went berserk for one of their favorite team members, understanding that this is likely his final NBA season.
“That meant a lot to me,” Collison said. “That was very classy for him. It was a cool moment for me, for him, for my family who is here tonight and I’m just thankful to have a relationship with a guy like that and be able to have the experiences that we have had together.”
Led by a blistering hot shooting performance by Paul George, who had recently been coming out of a funk before snapping tonight, the Thunder ripped off a quick 8-0 run midway through the first quarter to take the lead for good. Two of George’s 8 made three-pointers came during that stretch, and the dynamic small forward finished with 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting overall in the game.
George’s offense was a microcosm for how the Thunder played all night on that end, knocking down 55.3 percent of its shots on 32 assists, tying an Oklahoma City-era record with 20 made threes on 43 attempts and a whopping 30 fast break points. Westbrook was pushing the tempo to dizzying degrees, repeatedly taking the ball off the backboard (more on that later) and getting out into transition to find open shooters.
“I just caught a rhythm early,” George said. “It’s just sticking with it, staying with the process and putting a lot of work in. It paid off tonight.”
The Thunder went in to halftime with a 20-point lead, and Westbrook had already racked up 12 assists and 11 rebounds, and 1 point at the break. In a fever dream 2 minutes and 47 seconds after halftime, Westbrook snagged the remaining 5 rebounds he needed to get to 16 for the game and reach 800 total rebounds on the season, giving him a 10.0 average on the year.
That 16th rebound, which came with 9:13 to go in the third quarter, propelled Westbrook into uncharted waters. No player in 55 years had averaged a triple-double before last season when Westbrook matched only Oscar Robertson to achieve that feat. Tonight, Westbrook sealed up a second consecutive season of averaging a triple-double, an achievement that sports fans will be discussing for decades to come.
“I’m blessed man to go out and compete man and like I’ve said many many times I don’t take this game for granted,” explained Westbrook, who finished with a career-high 20 rebounds to go with 19 assists and 6 points. “I don’t take going on the floor and competing for granted.”
Westbrook’s rebound-assist-repeat barrage helped the Thunder run up a 27-point lead midway through the third quarter, but it didn’t completely hold. Memphis and their scrappy group of youngsters and veterans, all fighting to make a name in the NBA, started to get hot. Guard Dillon Brooks scored five straight points on two separate occasions, and suddenly heading into the fourth quarter, the Thunder’s lead was just 9.
The game pressure was on, and the Thunder got three consecutive three-pointers to start the final frame to push the lead back out to 15. But a few minutes later, the game crashed to a complete halt when Mario Chalmers tumbled into Corey Brewer’s vulnerable lower leg as the Thunder guard was coming down on a three-point attempt. Brewer sustained a sprained knee, and the Grizzlies picked Collison to shoot his three free throws. Completely cold, Collison missed the three attempts, but got cheered the entire time by the crowd.
Once Westbrook and company returned and got re-settled in the closing minutes, they ripped off eight straight points to build a 17-point lead with 1:30 to go, thanks to a George second chance dunk, a Terrance Ferguson three-pointer and another George triple. Three quick stops on the other end, and the Thunder had sealed its 48th win of the year.
“This is definitely a set up game, the last game of the season playing against a group of young guys, they can go out and just play freely and when you do that, you can play with a lot of confidence,” George noted. “We did a great job of not falling in to just being complacent. I thought we played phenomenal tonight, it just so happened that they played well as well. It’s like that sometimes. It’s just great we played well enough to win.”
Collison checked in then, and got a second, better chance to make his mark. He snagged an offensive rebound, like he’s done so many times before, then kicked it out to the perimeter, and it swung to Josh Huestis for a three-pointer. The next possession, Collison drove right and attacked the rim and drew a foul. The adrenaline was so high. He had been long on his first three free throw attempts, and again on his fourth. His fifth and final one, just like Collison himself as a teammate and citizen, was true.
“Just seeing what he has brought to this team and this organization, being one of the true pioneers of the game when it comes to Oklahoma City,” began Carmelo Anthony, whose history dates back to the 2003 Final Four and NBA Draft. “Just to see that and be a part of that, and also to be here at the end of his career it’s something you can look back on and tell your kids that this is the definition of what a true professional is.”
“It’s amazing just how great this community is, and just the love that they have for one of the best human beings that I have been around so far,” George added.
“He’s just such an unselfish, unbelievable guy, and somebody I always looked up to since I been here,” Westbrook said of Collison. “He showed me the ropes… I’m just thankful to have him by my side each and every day. I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. Grizzlies
By the Numbers
20 – Rebounds for Russell Westbrook, a career-high, to seal a triple-double average for the second consecutive year, a feat no one has ever accomplished
30 – Fast break points for the Thunder in the game aided by 20 points scored off 13 Grizzlies turnovers
40 – Points for Paul George in the game, on only 20 field goal attempts, as he made 8-of-14 three-pointers
The Last Word
“We came into the game with a mindset of just going out there and continuing to play the way we have played and not letting our foot off of the gas in this game… We did a good job of keeping our composure when they made shots, we just settled down and played the game.” – forward Carmelo Anthony