CHARLOTTE -- It was all Paul George could do, late in the fourth quarter during a difficult shooting night. The All-Star forward dummied like he was going to rise to the top of the key, but then darted to the middle of the floor. Planting his feet in the lane, George absorbed a huge hit square in the chest, freeing Russell Westbrook from his defender, giving the Thunder point guard a lane to the rim for a devastating and-one bucket.
That play broke the game’s final tie and was one of dozens of pivotal moments down the stretch run as the Thunder deflated a Charlotte Hornets lead that had ballooned to 19 points, and eventually took control for a 111-107 road victory.
On a night when the Thunder shot just 8-of-37 from behind the arc, and just 30.4 percent from the field in the first half, there were plenty of opportunities to pack it in and admit it wasn’t the night. Instead, the Westbrook and George led bunch doubled down and gritted out a road victory to move to 3-4 on the year.
After Westbrook’s three-point play there were still a host of crucial possessions that helped close it out. Coming out of a baseline out of bounds play, George saw a crease in the defense and attacked the rim before getting fouled. He knocked down a pair of big free throws, then added a steal and a block on the next two possessions. Again on an inbounds pass from the baseline, the Thunder perfectly executed to get Alex Abrines a curling jump shot from the right corner.
“There’s a lot of things throughout a game that people don’t see – just orchestrating the game, getting people in position to get open shots,” explained Westbrook. “We did that.”
On the next two possessions Westbrook, who finished with 29 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists, went full maestro. First he attacked the middle and found Dennis Schröder for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer at the angle to make it 106-102 with 53 seconds to go.
“It felt pretty good, getting the ball from Russ,” said Schröder, whose three-pointer capped a 21-point, 5-assist performance off the bench. “He made the right basketball play. He saw me open on the 45 and I just shot it with confidence and knocked it down.”
One play later, Westbrook sliced left into the lane and delivered a devastating Shamgod inside-out dribble to shrug off a host of converging Hornets defenders. Westbrook’s layup gave the Thunder a 6-point lead with 35.1 seconds to go, and the Thunder rolled on to a 111-107 win to start this east coast back to back.
None of those late game heroics could have been possible without the marksmanship of Alex Abrines, particularly in a crucial third quarter stretch. Down by 19 points, the Thunder was nearing desperation mode. In a bright move, Head Coach Billy Donovan opted to go small and put Jerami Grant at the center spot, leaving Abrines with more space to operate on the wing. The result was 6-of-7 shooting in the third, including three made three-pointers and three driving layups for the Spaniard, who scored 15 of his career-high 25 points in the quarter.
“It was really fun. I was seeing the rim really big and I was knocking those down, but it was all thanks to Russ and PG and they were finding the open man,” said Abrines.
“He was a huge boost. We don’t get this game tonight without him making those shots,” George noted. “He stepped up, he stepped in and he delivered when we needed him most.”
The 56 bench points were certainly a boon to the Thunder’s chances in this one, but the wind at their back all night that carried the team through and gave it a chance was the defense. Stifling Hornets point guard Kemba Walker in the pick and roll was no easy task, but repeatedly the Thunder got the ball trapped out on the wing and down towards the corner, forcing the ball back out to a secondary playmaker.
“We defended at a very high level. The job Steven Adams did in pick and roll coverage was terrific,” said Donovan. “Our guards fought over as best they could.”
Keeping the ball out of Walker’s comfort zones on the floor was unsustainable for all 48 minutes, but the Thunder did it for long enough to force Charlotte into just 40.9 percent shooting, including 11-for-41 from three and just 22 free throw attempts. Donovan’s club also induced 18 Hornets turnovers, a win considering Charlotte was best in the league coming into the game at protecting the ball.
“You can’t put no words, no terms to it,” shrugged George. “We just flat out played defense tonight.”
George was an absolute stud in that department, registering four steals and two blocks to go with his 11 points and 10 rebounds, 9 of which came on the defensive glass.
“I don’t pride myself to play on one end,” said George. “The reason I came back here is to help this team and that comes with playing on both ends. If shots aren’t falling that doesn’t mean I’m out of the game or my head is somewhere else.”
Every player in the locker room echoed the fact that it was a full team win tonight, and George’s relentless motor even in the face of adverse conditions and 4-for-20 shooting was the perfect personification of that Thunder spirit.
Highlights: OKC at CHA - 11/1/18