Relentless Russell Drives Home Thunder Heart Stopper – OKC 95, DEN 94

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer |

Every possession matters, and tonight that old adage was confirmed when one point made all the difference. In the Thunder’s 95-94 win over the Denver Nuggets, it was lock down defense, a Russell Westbrook fourth quarter explosion and a crucial scorekeeping adjustment that helped kick off this home stand the right way.

For over four minutes of action deep into the fourth quarter, the Thunder trailed by one more point than it should have. Gary Harris left a toe on the line during his long jumper with 8:06 to go, but the officials weren’t able to make an official review until the 4:04 mark because there were no timeouts or stoppages of play in between those timestamps. The referees corrected the three down to a two, making it just a two-point deficit for the Thunder at 92-90.

To that point, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club had already embarked on a 7-2 mini-burst, and so heading into the timeout it still had momentum. On the ensuing Thunder possession, Westbrook dribbled left around a screen at the elbow and dropped in a jump shot. That patented “cotton shot” hasn’t always been there for him this season but perennially has been one of his most effective weapons, and it was crucial tonight.

The two teams traded a pair of stops, and then Harris managed to wiggle in under the rim for a very tough layup. Westbrook missed at the rim on the next possession, but got a chance at redemption by picking up the ball after a clutch Paul George steal and taking it the length of the court for a layup to tie it at 94 with 1:48 to go.

No one scored again until 2.3 seconds remained, when Westbrook nearly lost the ball on a drive but gathered and was slapped across the arm under the backboard. The Thunder point guard went to the line and knocked down one free throw, finishing out a 38-point effort on 16-for-28 shooting to go with nine rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block. 16 of Westbrook’s points came in the fourth quarter alone, when he went 7-of-12 from the floor and scored 14 of the Thunder’s 16 final points.

“Russell took really good shots, efficient shots in elbow areas where he’s always shot a high percentage from,” Donovan said. “I have a lot of confidence when he gets that kind of space and he’s open and he can go straight up and down that he’s going to make those kind of shots.”

“His energy, his emotion, his positivity in timeouts really lifted our team,” Donovan added.

Westbrook’s offense was certainly a crucial element, but the Thunder’s defense was also a massive part of closing out the win. After giving up 32 points in a sluggish third quarter, Donovan’s group righted the ship over the final 12 minutes, as it held Denver to just 8-for-24 shooting, including a 2-for-10 mark on three-pointers, with zero free throw attempts and three turnovers forced.

“We just closed. We played really good basketball down the stretch and forced a lot tough baskets,” George said.

Unsung Heroes

During the Thunder’s 22-11 extended run to finish the game, one of the understated keys was how disruptive the Thunder was on defense. George picked up two steals and a block in the fourth quarter in addition to driving to the rim for a crucial layup on the other end. Donovan explained that George’s defensive presence was vital to the way the team closed this win out.

“They were running a lot of action at the end of the game to his side of the floor. He blew a lot of stuff up and took that out,” Donovan explained. “It doesn’t go in the stat sheet, people probably don’t recognize it or realize, but what he did on a lot of those actions there on the weak side was really important because it stagnated them and slowed them down a little bit.”

George’s fellow perimeter defensive dynamo Andre Roberson made a huge impact in the game, but it was actually on offense. In the second quarter as the Thunder tried to fend off a Nuggets charge, Roberson took the ball from the wing and instead of taking a wide open three, put the ball on the deck and rose above his smaller defender to finish at the hoop.

Minutes later, Westbrook found Roberson on back to back possessions for layups, and Roberson paid it forward by hitting center Dakari Johnson for a dunk immediately afterward. Donovan has helped Roberson find ways to be a weapon on offense, and it helped the Thunder bigtime tonight.

“For Andre with the way he’s guarded, he’s doing a really good job of finding areas and creases where he can get into some space and we can find him,” Donovan explained. “He is very conscientious about trying to cut and move and put some pressure on the defense. It was good what he did tonight. He had a couple of opportunities where he could have taken some threes and he drove the ball.”

Another conduit for the offense tonight was forward Carmelo Anthony, who only took six shots but helped facilitate opportunities for others by posting up with good, deep position. The veteran waited for the defense to either double or cheat over, then pin-pointed the open man to generate either a shot attempt or a driving lane.

“Carmelo tonight did a terrific job of passing the ball out of the post. He generated a lot of shots,” Donovan explained. “He really opened up the floor on the back side and got guys good looks.”

Thunder Highlights:

By the Numbers

16-8 – The Thunder’s advantage in points off turnovers during the game

25 – Point swing in the game, after the Thunder led by 15 in the second quarter and the Nuggets led by 10 early in the fourth

48.1 – Shooting percentage for the Thunder on the night, including a 24-for-35 mark in the paint

The Last Word

“We didn’t want to lose. That was kind of our mindset as a team. We didn’t want to let this game slip away. That was the mentality we had going into that fourth quarter.” – forward Carmelo Anthony


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