Adversity Strikes, But Thunder Hangs On – OKC 122, NOP 116

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter |

All the Thunder's bugaboos from the first two weeks of the season were striking at the same time. Russell Westbrook wasn’t able to be on the floor. Nine free throws went awry. The Thunder committed three straight fouls with less than three minutes to go, and nine total in the fourth quarter.

Yet as Dennis Schröder anticipated the inbounds pass on the New Orleans Pelicans’ final possession and snatched it away, the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd shed their anxiety and a wave of relief cascaded down upon the court. Instead of buckling, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club locked arms and stuck it out in a harrowing final frame for a 122-116 victory, making it five straight wins for the 5-4 Thunder.

“We had some fouls that we gave, but that didn’t sidetrack us,” said forward Paul George. “That didn’t put any extra pressure on us. Down the stretch we just held up defensively.”

Westbrook, who earlier that day won the Western Conference Player of the Week for the 18th time in his career, was having one of his standard, productive nights albeit less efficient that the career-high 50 percent he’s shot from the field so far this season. With 17 points, mostly on daring coast to coast drives to the rim, 9 assists and 7 rebounds, Westbrook’s energy was yet again a pulsing, life-giving force for the Thunder through this see-saw battle.

That is, until he came down from contesting an Anthony Davis putback and landed funny, rolling over his left ankle. Westbrook’s sprained ankle knocked him out for the rest of the game and was a blow to the Thunder’s collective diaphragm as well. 

“It has nothing to do with winning or losing. That’s your boy. That’s what hits the hardest,” center Steven Adams said of Westbrook going down. “It feels bad. That sums it up. It feels real bad.”

Including Davis’ bucket, the Pelicans scored 7 straight points in the immediacy of Westbrook’s spill but the Thunder wasn’t about to sit around and take body blows for long.

“I think it motivated us even more. When he goes down, everybody was shocked a little bit for a second, but coach (Donovan) pushed us and we came out strong,” explained Schröder. “Whoever steps on the court is ready.”

Thanks to a hounding defense that forced four straight turnovers, including three by rookie Hamidou Diallo alone, the Thunder was able to halt the New Orleans advance. With some organization provided by Schröder and reserve veteran point guard Raymond Felton, Donovan’s group ripped off a 16-4 run to close the third quarter to push its lead to 100-86 heading into the final frame. 

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“It was a great job playing defense as a team and then running with pace on the offensive end, moving the ball and pushing the ball,” said Schröder. “That was the key for the game.”

Behind attacking drives by Julius Randle and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans continued to put pressure on the Thunder down the stretch, pulling to within 108-102 with 6:26 to go. That’s when Schröder took over, continuing to get downhill and generate scoring opportunities for himself at the rim and on pull up jumpers. The German lightning bolt scored 9 straight Thunder points and 11 total in the fourth quarter, all in the final 5:31 of regulation. Steven Adams continually sprung Schröder with screens, allowing him to carve out space in the heart of the defense and take what the Pelicans allowed. 

“Just trying to get good looks, trying to be aggressive and trying to help my teammates win,” said Schröder, who tallied 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting for the night. “Especially when Russ goes out, I have pressure on my shoulders and try to do the same what he does.”

The Pelicans continued to chip away, mostly from the free throw line, but the Thunder got a pair of free throws from Schröder and George to drop in the final 20 seconds to secure the Thunder’s lead for good.

Overall the Thunder’s offense provided bursts of scoring in the first and third quarters but swooned a bit in the second and fourth periods, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort or due to improper motivations. There were times that New Orleans’ own offense forced the Thunder to take the ball out of the bucket and operate out of the halfcourt more, particularly compared to the pick-six, defense-to-offense flow that has defined this team’s identity throughout this young season. 

“We try to use our hands as much as possible. We try to be in position to help one another as much as possible,” noted George, who had 23 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds. “We just have guys with great instincts of where the ball is going to be.”

Donovan’s club forced 21 turnovers on the night while making 15 steals, including a season-high-tying four by George alone. The perimeter pressure wasn’t only reserved for the Pelicans’ guards. The perennial All-Star Davis felt it too. Mostly it came from the relentless, physical, studious Adams, who breaks down game film before sizing up each opponent. Davis shot just 7-of-20 for 20 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist and 5 turnovers in the game, and much of that had to do with Adams’ pressure, with helping hands from Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel.

"Everything with AD, he had to go through Steven," said George. 

“I just had a gameplan man, but honestly he missed a lot of easy ones,” the ever-humble Adams demurred. “I got lucky on a few of them.”

“I try and just make sure to tire him out, lean on him, something,” shrugged Adams. “He’s a really good player. He’s one of those high-volume shooters, really talented players.”

The Pelicans managed to shoot 48.8 percent for the game, but the Thunder paced them at 48.4 percent. In the first half, when New Orleans led by one going into the break, Donovan’s club allowed 11 offensive rebounds for 11 second chance points. After halftime, which included a pep talk in the gang rebounding department, the Thunder did a much better job of peeling back into the lane, checking their assignments on the perimeter and corralling loose possessions. The Pelicans had zero offensive rebounds over the final 24 minutes.

“It’s a difficult position for the guards to be in, in terms of boxing out and whatnot because this team constantly moves. You have a lot of cutters and stuff so you’ll be positioned a little bit different when the shot goes up,” said Adams, who scored 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go with 8 rebounds. “It just came down somewhat to luck and also just being disciplined and minimizing the chance of them actually getting the ball.”

"We just made it a group effort. 'Everybody get in'," said George. "It was just a conscious effort to be aware of their cutters and be aware of the rotation to get those rebounds." 

Those one-and-done possessions compounded on one another for New Orleans and gave the Thunder enough air space to move past all of the adversity that was flung its way.

Highlights: Thunder 122, Pelicans 116