Back on its Bedrocks: Thunder Hits Identity with Speed and Physicality – OKC 117, MEM 95

The Thunder had been winning, 8 of its last 9 games coming into Thursday night’s clash with the Memphis Grizzlies at Chesapeake Energy Arena. But over the last few contests, there was still a sense of urgency to recapture something it had been losing during that time: it’s identity.

In the first quarter against the Grizzlies, that disconnect from the Thunder’s desired playing style hit its nadir. Of the team’s first 21 field goal attempts, 17 came from behind the three-point line against the trade deadline-day, skeleton-crew Grizzlies’ zone defense denied drives to the lane and forced 6 first quarter turnovers. On defense, the Thunder was over-switching, getting itself caught up in some mismatches that allowed the Grizzlies to a 16-2 advantage in points in the paint over the first 12 minutes.  

When Russell Westbrook checked back into the game in the second quarter, however, everything changed. Down 36-27, the Thunder looked like they were headed for a disappointing home loss but Westbrook’s next-level speed changed the game completely. At shootaround on Thursday morning, Westbrook said, “there is no scout for speed” and that proved prescient as he attacked before the Grizzlies were able to settle into their matchup two-three zone set up.

“I just tried to change the pace. We were playing too slow early on. Pace is big for our team,” said Westbrook. “There’s a lot of space and an opportunity to make plays. That’s what I tried to do.”

“As much as we can get interior scoring the better. Tonight they played a funky zone,” said forward Paul George. “That’s all it is, you just find a spot. Their zone was to try to keep us out of the paint. We get catches in the paint and then fling it out to get uncontested threes, that’s going to get a team out the zone right away.”

Quickly, Westbrook got downhill and did the most important thing to supercharge the Thunder’s offense – hit the paint. That speed, combined with the Thunder going small with Patrick Patterson at the center spot, helped Head Coach Billy Donovan’s group burst out to a 19-2 run to flip that 9-point deficit into an eventual 9-point lead.

Memphis actually punched back one more time with a 13-2 run right before halftime, but coming out of the locker room the Thunder was in complete control. Steven Adams returned after picking up three first quarter fouls to score the Thunder’s first 6 points and the defense tightened up too as guys fought over screens to get back in front of their own man. The result was a 16-2 start to the third quarter for the Thunder, who never trailed the rest of the way in a 117-95 victory.

“Started staying on our man the whole time instead of giving up easy switches to the post up,” said guard Terrance Ferguson. “In the second half we tried to be physical with them and stay with our own man, and it definitely helped.”

“We just got ahold of their personnel,” added George. “We just dialed into it.”

Westbrook’s continual aggressiveness resulted in his eighth-consecutive triple-double, and his 21st of the season and 125th of his career. With the 15-point, 13-rebound, 15-assist performance, Westbrook is now just one triple-double shy of tying Wilt Chamberlain’s record for consecutive triple-doubles and is only 13 behind Magic Johnson for 2nd overall in career triple-doubles.

By the time the Thunder ripped off 11 straight points to start the fourth quarter, this one was all but over. Donovan’s club put on some finishing touches in style though, giving the home crowd a glimpse of just how much fun this game can be. Terrance Ferguson threw down a pair of ridiculous dunks, including a backdoor alley-oop from Westbrook and a fast break windmill slam. Ferguson added a pair of three-pointers as well, despite missing his first five attempts from behind the arc.

“Russ told me he was going to beat me up if I stopped shooting, so I kept shooting,” a giggling Ferguson cracked.

“It’s great feeling to see your teammates do well,” said Westbrook. “It’s one of the most satisfying things for me to be able to see your brother, your teammate, the guy next to you put in the work and see it come to play throughout the game.”

Earlier in the game, Westbrook had some fun with the rim after he doinked a forceful two-handed slam off the back iron and then was extra careful when he got a second chance. In the fourth though it was Westbrook who was floor-bound, awaiting his fellow point guard Dennis Schröder’s return to earth. It was the lithe German’s first dunk of the season, and apparently he has four more slams to hunt before the 82-game season is up.

By the time this one ended, the Thunder once again had six players in double figures, including George who had a team-high 27 points on 7-of-16 shooting, including 6 made three-pointers, to go with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals. George started just 2-for-6 from the floor but heated up quickly as the game went along. Both he and Westbrook, his Team Giannis All-Star teammate, were able to sit out the closing minutes as the Thunder moved to 35-19 on the season.

“Doesn’t matter if he starts slow or fast. He’s a bucket no matter what,” Ferguson said of George. “He’s going to get the ball inside the net. That’s the kind of player he is. He’s an All-Star, a future Hall of Famer.”

“I let the game come to me,” George said. “I can always feel, as I get going, as I start getting the looks I want, then the rhythm starts to come and I get some easy looks.”