SACRAMENTO – By his own admission he couldn’t hit a thing from behind the arc all night, but when it counted Russell Westbrook knocked down the one that mattered.
In what was an astonishing, yet familiar sight for Thunder fans, Westbrook careened around the top of the arc behind a Steven Adams screen and with just one second left buried a three-pointer from the top of the key. The quick-trigger jumper broke a tie with the Sacramento Kings and lifted the Thunder to a 110-107 victory to commence the home stretch of the 2017-18 season.
“I caught it clean enough,” Westbrook smirked.
“I gotta find a way to get space, obviously with one second left and kind of run him off of Steven. Coach drew up a great play,” Westbrook added. “They thought I was going for a lob. I just read the defender and tried to pop back and get some space.”
“Competitors are winners,” forward Paul George said of Westbrook. “That’s what it comes down to. Guys who are super competitive find a way to win.”
This was yet another topsy-turvy game for the Thunder, which played perhaps its best quarter of the season to open the game, followed by two of its worst periods after that. In the opening 12 minutes the Thunder outscored Sacramento 44-21 thanks to some crisp offensive pace, catch-and-shoot looks from the three-point line and lockdown perimeter defense. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club was firing on all cylinders coming out of the All-Star Break, and racked up an Oklahoma City record 14 assists in the first quarter.
“We played fast and we just moved. We played off of one another. We spread the floor,” George said. “I thought we were just aggressive to make plays.”
In the second, when the Kings’ feisty, experienced second unit came into the game, things changed. The Thunder struggled to stop the ball at the point of attack, didn’t find shooters in transition well enough and needed to move Sacramento’s defense more with precise, quick ball movement. The result was a 35-16 start to the second quarter for the Kings.
“I think it’s not allowing the ball to get so deep in our paint,” George explained. “Not allowing them to kind of attack and draw multiple defenders on the ball.”
“When we’re not getting good looks or good shots, it’s on us to slow the game down and try to get a basket or something to stops the bleeding at that point,” George noted. “We’ll get better with that.”
That burst was stymied just briefly by the Thunder to start the third quarter, but bubbled over again into an emphatic 16-0 run by the Kings to take the lead for the first time all night. Donovan’s group was pressed onto its heels in the early stages of the fourth quarter, but rallied back and chipped away at Sacramento’s lead for most of the quarter.
“We just have to sustain it. I was impressed with our win though,” George stated. “We went up big. We came out and established our tempo and established our dominance. We gave up the lead but we didn’t try to make home run plays and try to get the lead right away. We understood we were down and had to get back into the game. We did that. We took care of it. We got the shots we wanted and we finished down the stretch.”
Down by three with the minutes ticking off the clock, Westbrook attacked in transition and was fouled. He proceeded to knock down two free throws, then after trading stops with Sacramento, George attacked the rim as he had all night, but this time he missed. Adams was there to clean it up, giving the Thunder the lead for the first time in the fourth quarter.
Again both teams struggled to score, but Westbrook attacked again and hit one free throw to give the Thunder just a hair more of breathing room. On the ensuing defensive possession, Carmelo Anthony got knocked over but scrambled off the ground to deter a shot from being attempted, then on a switch Adams forced a driving miss by Buddy Hield.
A George three-pointer missed short on the Thunder’s next possession, and when Sacramento’s Vince Carter launched and missed a deep three, Donovan thought his team was going to escape unscathed. The ball caromed off the rim, and not once but twice the Kings got the offensive rebound, resulting in a put back by rookie Justin Jackson.
That bucket set up a timeout that gave Donovan a chance to call a side out of bounds play. During the All-Star Break the Thunder’s head coach said that he spent time looking at tons of film to evaluate lineups, rotations and yes, out of bounds plays. That extra study paid off bigtime tonight.
Highlights: Thunder at Kings
By the Numbers
7 – Made threes by Carmelo Anthony on the night, one shy of a Thunder record as he started the game 4-for-4 from behind the arc
9-for-9 – Free throw shooting numbers for Paul George, who made three three-pointers on his way to 26 points
44 – Points scored by the Thunder in the first quarter tonight, the most in a quarter this season
The Last Word
“We did a good job of coming out with a defensive mindset, getting stops, pushing the pace. Teams are going to make runs but we stuck together.” – point guard Russell Westbrook