Pedal to the Floor, Thunder Runs Out of Gas – OKC 98, DEN 105
Huddled in his locker after the game, the Thunder’s 19th of the season, Russell Westbrook looked sick to his stomach. It was a November loss on the third game in four nights to a high-quality Denver Nuggets team. Many 11-year NBA veterans might have shrugged it off and gone to grab a late bite on a Saturday night. What’s one loss in an 82-game season?
Not Westbrook. If it wasn’t obvious after more than a decade of playing with the same tenacity every night, he cares. Deeply. This is his team and he helped set Oklahoma City’s standards for performance, and in the first half on Saturday night the Thunder didn’t play up to those bars. Over the final 24 minutes, Westbrook and his teammates charged back from a 25-point deficit, but the comeback sputtered out after the Thunder pulled to within five at 99-94 with 1:30 to go. Westbrook missed all six of his shots in the fourth quarter, five of them threes, and so after the game he and his teammates took the 105-98 loss to heart.
“Russ has the ability to take the game over down the stretch. Tonight those didn’t fall. But we’ve seen Russ get hot behind that three-point line,” said George. “Russ just wants to win. He’s going to take it hard, every loss. That’s just how he’s made up.”
“I’ll look at the film and see how I can be better,” said Westbrook, who stayed in his uniform and got more shots up on the court 90 minutes after the game ended. “Each game, win or loss, I figure out a way to make sure that my guys are ready to play and I come back and improve some part of my game.”
In the first half the Thunder ran crisp offense, setting up teammates for wide open shots on the perimeter and down around the basket. Hardly anything actually dropped through the net. Shooting just 29.2 percent over the first two quarters wasn’t going to keep the scoreboard moving fast enough to keep up with Denver, who kept raining threes from the outside and snapping up offensive rebounds due to their constant offensive movement leaving Thunder defenders out of position and in scramble situations.
“We kind of walked into the game,” We just need to bring more effort on both sides of the ball.”
All those high efficiency buckets and second chances added up for the Nuggets, who broke the Thunder’s back time and again while the home team came up dry possession after possession.
“We got great looks, great opportunities,” said Paul George. “I’m not mad at the shots we got.”
Eventually the 25-point deficit looked the Thunder squarely in the face, daring this group to fold, to roll over, to believe that 12 wins in the last 14 games was good enough. That’s not how Oklahoma City is wired.
“You can’t just fold. We’re not that kind of team, especially with our leaders. They won’t allow it one bit,” said Adams.
Right out of the gates in the third quarter, the Thunder began to chip away, doing it with the defense to bleed Denver’s possessions out to the bitter end of the shot clock. In fact, the Thunder forced four shot clock violations in the game, and all the tough shots the Nuggets were forced to take resulted in just 16 points allowed by Donovan’s club in the third period. As the quarter came to a close, the Thunder trailed by 13, and after the break Paul George stayed on the court and helped his squad rip off a 7-1 burst that infused life into the building. All of the sudden a game that looked dead to rights was a 7-point affair with 9:46 to go.
— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) November 25, 2018
“We took them out of their offense, we forced them to play iso ball,” said George. “We’ll take our chances against anybody that tries to score on us one-on-one.”
“We had to take control of the game, build our way back one possession at a time,” George added. “One stop, turn it into one basket and keep repeating that cycle.”
From there, a Thunder team running on fumes from pushing the gas pedal down to the floor for the previous 36 minutes had to come down and execute. The results were mixed. A few three-pointers dropped for George, Dennis Schröder and Jerami Grant, and some of those pesky layups that had previously gone awry finally banked in squarely off the glass.
But on the other end the Thunder just couldn’t seal the deal on enough possessions, giving up a transition three-pointer to Jamal Murray and then a devastating putback by Torrey Craig, that put the game tantalizingly out of reach. Westbrook and Schröder’s three-pointers hit iron, and the Thunder’s comeback concluded - a few stops and scores short.
“Sometimes we rushed it maybe, but I think that happens when you’re down 20 and you just try to fight back,” said Schröder. “In the second half we did a better job competing and playing with energy. In this locker room everybody tries to compete and tries to come back.”
For the Thunder, more work will go into the shooting and time will be spent watching film, but the team showed the most important sign any group can: a never say die attitude. In OKC, there’s never a reason to leave the building early. That stems directly from the way the Thunder can make a game, even one that’s not much of a game, into a game once more. Donovan’s group will have three full days to try and get healthy and back into rhythm at the Thunder Ion before returning to Chesapeake Energy Arena to continue the home stand against Cleveland on Wednesday.
“We did a good job in the second half of just sticking with our principles and sticking with the game plan and being a lot more physical, defending at a high level. It was a little too late,” said Westbrook. “We’ll be ready to go Wednesday.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. Nuggets - 11/24