Electric Westbrook Surges Thunder Past Pelicans – OKC 122, NOP 116

New Orleans Pelicans’ head coach Alvin Gentry is a former disciple and current practitioner of Mike D’Antoni’s old “7 seconds or less” Phoenix Suns philosophy. On Thursday night, against the Pelicans, Russell Westbrook breathed new life into the phrase and exhibited, once again, why he should be an All Star alongside his Thunder teammate Paul George, who was named a Western Conference starter on Thursday evening. 

Late in the fourth quarter during the midst of a game that felt more like a street race, Westbrook made a game-altering play that caused a four-point swing and ensured an eventual 122-116 victory over New Orleans. In a span of exactly 7 seconds, Westbrook made a chase-down block of a Pelicans’ fast break layup. Westbrook then took the ball 70 feet on the dribble for a viciously quick attacking layup of his own. 

The basket gave the Thunder an 8-point lead with 2:17 to go, finally putting an end to a relentless push by a short-handed Pelicans squad. After building a 22-point lead in the second half, the Thunder had a bit of a let-down in the fourth quarter, allowing its lead to be slashed all the way to five points, but Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club did enough to get its fourth-straight win and move to 30-18 on the season. 

“Just focus in, finish the job. Regardless of who was out there, we had a job to do,” said George. “We did what we had to do.”

It’s always a bit of an uncomfortable position for a team to be in to face an unpredictable opponent, like the Thunder did tonight. Just before tip-off, the Pelicans announced that Julius Randle would miss the game, joining Anthony Davis, E’Twuan Moore and Nikola Mirotic on the injured list for New Orleans. The result was that the Thunder’s opponents were a group of guys who haven’t put much on film together, but they played with pride, intensity and most notably, speed. 

“You just gotta learn guys’ tendencies on the go, figure out the guys they’re throwing in there, learn the personnel on the fly,” George explained.

Both teams took 101 shot attempts in this one, there were 27 total free throws taken and 26 combined turnovers, meaning that the sheer volume of possessions in this game made it feel as much like a ping-pong match as a basketball game. That’s the trap the Thunder fell into in the fourth quarter, but during the middle two periods the team hit that extra gear that only a true contender can muster.

The precursor came when the Thunder scored 12 points in 90 seconds in the first quarter to wake up a sleepy start to the game, but that spurt was nothing compared to the 15-0 blitz the Pelicans had to face in the second period. The burst started with Westbrook at the free throw line but continued with a unique four-point play after one made free throw then a second chance Terrance Ferguson three-pointer.

Jerami Grant followed that triple up with a top of the key three of his own and then a finish in transition. After a Pelicans timeout, Steven Adams flushed home a fast break dunk to break the game open, for what seemed like would be a comfortable cruising altitude the rest of the way.

Westbrook was the catalyst during the first half, racking up 11 of his 16 assists before halftime. Whether it was a brilliant touch pass to Adams in the lane, a slick one-handed lefty pass to a cutting Ferguson or a calculated drive and dish to George for three, Westbrook set up his teammates left, right and center all game long.

“(Westbrook) is a once in a generation kind of guy,” said forward Abdel Nader. “He’s special on both ends. He plays with the energy level that some guys wish they could play with. He’s a hell of a leader and a hell of a player.”

In fact, the Thunder had 11 assists on its first 12 made baskets as a team, and for the night ended up with 33 helpers on 50 made field goals. The Thunder as a whole shot 49.5 percent, including 14-of-32 (43.8 percent) from three-point range while also dominating the boards 58-42. Westbrook, as usual, had his hand in all of those dimensions, scoring a game-high-tying 23 points to go with 17 rebounds and the 16 assists, with only 4 turnovers.

“It takes a good amount of discipline, which I pride myself on,” Westbrook said of his mental approach to being able to impact the game on every level. “Since I first started in the league, I know the hardest thing to do is be consistent. You gotta be able to do the same thing every single night, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what you may have going on at home. Family, friends, teammates. Everybody is going through something. Everybody has something going on, but mentally you gotta get your mind right to be able to come out every night and do the same thing.”

The offense had no trouble on Thursday, but the defense, particularly after halftime, left a bit to be desired. New Orleans scored 63 points on 51.9 percent shooting with just 2 turnovers over the final 24 minutes of action, racking up 38 points in the paint and 9 fast break points in the half. While the Thunder never shakes its head at a win, the second half did provide an opportunity to reflect on ways it can improve over the next two days before completing this home stand with Sunday’s battle against Milwaukee.  

George Grateful for All-Star Starting Spot

An hour before tip-off on Thursday, the NBA announced the starters for the upcoming 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte on February 17. This will be George’s sixth All-Star appearance, his second with the Thunder, and his third time as a starter, but the first time starting with the Thunder and in the Western Conference. George was clearly touched about the accolade after the game.

“Completely honored, grateful, not only for the state of Oklahoma but for the world for voting for me. I can’t thank the fans enough for being in my corner, being behind me all season long,” said George.

Ever humble, George deflected much of the praise in the moment, heaping it instead on teammates who have helped facilitate his many three-pointers, been on the same page with him defensively and had his back at all times.

“The growth of this team, my comfort level being around these guys. It’s an accomplishment that I think we can all kind of share,” said George. “I couldn’t get it without playing with this group here. They help me and they push me, and it’s the reason fans have enjoyed my play.”

“It’s great man, it’s amazing just to see the work (George) has been able to put in over the summer, coming into this year,” Westbrook added. “He’s obviously playing at a very, very high level and that’s no surprise to me at all. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody.”

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