Hands folded across his lap, towels and heating pads on his legs per usual, Russell Westbrook’s eyes bore holes in the television screen in the middle of the locker room. He was back in the Thunder lineup, and into his pregame routine that always includes a fully focused film study session on the opposition.
In the Thunder home opener of the 2018-19 season, Westbrook’s sights were also set on the Sacramento Kings, and how he could make his season debut against them a tone-setter. In the opening two minutes, Westbrook’s presence was felt in every aspect of the game.
On the opening possession, the Thunder point guard hurled his body into the paint, and snared a one-handed rebound while being bumped, ending a Kings possession. That next trip down court, Westbrook flicked his head to direct the angle of a screen, then swung a pass cross-court to Paul George for a three-pointer. Two possessions later, Westbrook used a hard left to right crossover dribble to get his defender on his hip, finishing the play with a righty layup at the rim. Just as the clock struck 10:00 left in the first quarter, there was the Thunder leader, diving on the floor for a loose ball and calling timeout. Quite a first 120 seconds for the Brodie.
“I never take this game for granted,” said Westbrook, who finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. “I’m always blessed and thankful to the man above for allowing me to go out and play. That’s my main thing, just going out and giving it all I have.”
"He almost notched a triple-double," said Paul George. "I'd say that's pretty Russ to me. He looked comfortable. He looked mid-season form. He just looked good energy-wise."
Westbrook’s energy radiated out onto the court and into the Chesapeake Energy Arena stands, where he himself tumbled into the second row to save a loose ball midway through the first quarter. The effect was so great, when Dennis Schröder checked in, the first time he touched the ball and jumped towards the rim, Westbrook’s fellow point guard’s shoe came off.
The frenetic feeling in the building didn’t have totally positive effects, as the Thunder defense came off as jittery rather than poised, and the result was a 131-120 loss for Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club. All night long, from the opening minutes through the final buzzer, the Kings offense had free reign to create high-percentage shots on dribble drives for kick outs, side pick and rolls for pocket passes and kick-aheads for transition layups. For the game, the Kings shot 54.9 percent from the field, including 59.6 percent in the paint on 57 attempts, while making 10-of-22 three-pointers and scoring 18 fast break points.
“Defensively, I thought we got hurt several times at the rim on pull across in the first half,” Donovan said. “The number of non-paint twos that they made, and what we were trying to do in terms of forcing them into jump shots, they made them.”
“Just communicating different schemes that we have to figure out and fight through a little bit more,” added Westbrook.
On the other end, the Thunder got quality looks at the rim, including countless wide open three-point attempts. They just didn’t fall. The second chance numbers looked great, as the Thunder racked up 29 points on 18 offensive rebounds, but the Thunder shot just 9-of-39 (23.1 percent) from behind the arc and didn’t help itself at the free throw line either, going just 19-of-30 (63.3%), thwarting the opportunity gained by 13 more field goal attempts than Sacramento.
“We generated a lot of really good things. For the entire game, we played a good, sound game,” Donovan said. “We scored 120 points… To me, that was an indication that we were moving the basketball.”
“You’re going to have stretches where you’re trying to find a shot and find a rhythm as a team,” said Paul George, who finished with 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting.
As a result, the Thunder fell behind by as many as 17, but a consistent energy from the crowd kept hope alive, and on the second possession of the fourth quarter, Schröder slipped into the teeth of the defense and got a finger roll layup to go down, cutting the Kings’ lead to 5.
Sacramento broke it open again, until Westbrook and George combined for a four-point possession to cut it to five again with just over four minutes to go. The Thunder simply couldn’t stop guard Iman Shumpert (26 points) on jump shots, as he hit a 15-foot bank shot and a 20-foot pull-up over the next few possessions to push the Kings lead out to 11 again. The Thunder could never cut it closer than six the rest of the way.
“We got some good shots, some good looks. We gotta get stops, get stops on demand and take care of home court,” Westbrook said. “Tonight, certain nights shots aren’t going to fall, but our defense can’t have a night off.”
Layne Murdoch Honored
At tonight’s game, the Thunder honored long-time team photographer Layne Murdoch, who passed away in the offseason. Murdoch was the Thunder’s only official team photographer for the first 10 seasons in Oklahoma City, and captured some of the organization’s most significant and historic moments. Layne’s designated spot on the baseline near the Thunder bench was left open tonight and will be memorialized with his initials – LAM – for the remainder of the season. The Thunder also hosted Murdoch’s family members in a suite at the game.