Westbrook Locks Down, Thunder Racks Up Road Win – OKC 108, HOU 102

HOUSTON – He might not have the most accurate jump shot, the most precise handles or the most pure skill in the NBA, but Russell Westbrook has one attribute that no one can outdo: he has the ability to play harder, with more heart, than anyone in the league.

Westbrook squared up in front of James Harden possession after possession midway through the fourth quarter, stymieing the Houston Rockets’ 2018 MVP candidate by getting into him, poking the ball away and even coming up with a steal on a pair of inbounds passes intended for Harden.

Westbrook’s defensive effort was the stabilizing force during an 11-0 Thunder burst midway through the fourth quarter that not only regained the lead but broke the margin open for good in a 108-102 road win over the NBA’s top team in the standings.

“My job is to do whatever it takes for us to win the game and at that time that’s what it was,” Westbrook stated when asked about taking the job of guarding Harden. “When the game was on the line I knew what needed to be done.”

In order to get the win, the Thunder had to lock in on a handful of core areas where Houston excels. The first was getting back in transition and forming a wall. Easy buckets in the open floor pile up for the Rockets in their wins. Tonight, the Thunder allowed Houston just 3 fast break points on only two shot attempts.

“Regardless of if we turned the ball over or if we didn’t get a good possession, we did a great job of sprinting back, loading up,” forward Paul George explained. “When it comes down to it they gotta make a bucket on us.”

“We did a good job of trusting each other, communicating, making them shoot tough shots,” Westbrook said. “We made them play really late in the shot clock and made them shoot some tough shots. It’s tough to make those shots consistently.”

Next was eliminating the wide open three-pointers, or at least as many as possible. In particular, the Thunder tried to prevent Houston from getting those drive and dish, catch-and-shoot three-pointers that are so easy for the Rockets to step into and knock down. In the second half, Houston shot just 5-of-16 from behind the arc, and nine of those attempts were one-on-one, step-back threes from Harden and Chris Paul, who managed to make just two combined.

The fine detail behind why the Thunder’s defense was able to clamp down in the second half when they held Houston to a total of 40 points on 41.7 percent shooting and 11 turnovers was what Westbrook did on Harden in the fourth quarter. By not getting too antsy, staying solid, forcing Harden to make the first move and being aggressive with his hands while square in his footwork, Westbrook was able to harass Harden into poor possessions, and an uncharacteristic 1-of-7 shooting second half, with four turnovers.

“You just have to be able to move your feet, use my length, my speed, my quickness,” Westbrook explained. “Tonight was one of those nights where I tried to do what I could to change the game.”

“You can be aggressive on him, you just can’t give him angles,” noted George, who did his fair share of damage on Harden throughout the night as well.

On the other end of the floor, the Thunder got just enough from everybody to win. Westbrook himself spring boarded that crucial 11-0 run with a dead-eye three-pointer at the top of the key, then with a leak-out two-handed dunk after an Alex Abrines steal. On the next possession Raymond Felton dove on the floor for a loose long rebound and Westbrook hit Patrick Patterson over the top for a layup. A pair of George free throws and a Westbrook layup later, and the Thunder was up 102-92 with 3:57 to go, which was plenty of cushion to prevent it from getting too harrowing down the stretch.

Westbrook’s energy and extra efforts were contagious for the Thunder, and they showed up from everyone on the floor. Carmelo Anthony (22 points) was not just knocking down shots and attacking off the dribble, but helping seal off possessions with rebounds.

“Our communication was at an all-time high tonight, throughout the whole game and especially throughout that fourth quarter when it was time to get stops and make plays,” Anthony said. “We competed, we talked it out and we made plays when we had to.”

Jerami Grant hustled over from the weakside for crucial help-side blocks, and Alex Abrines picked up a pair of steals and two offensive rebounds down the stretch. Donovan went with Grant and Abrines in the closing minutes after making a slight alteration to the rotation in the first half as well by inserting Patterson for Adams to defend Nene, allowing Grant to provide rim protection as the help man.

“Those guys have been great all season and doing a great job of constantly being consistent, showing up every night,” Westbrook said in reference to Grant, Abrines and the rest of the Thunder’s reserves, who outplayed Houston’s second group.

It was a near must-win game for the Thunder in Houston, with Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club needing two wins in the final three games of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth. This victory gives the Thunder some extra buffer, but it will mean little if the team doesn’t take care of business in Miami on Monday or at home against Memphis on Wednesday.

Highlights: Thunder 108, Rockets 102

By the Numbers

10-3 – The Thunder’s advantage in fast break points in the game, which helped result in a 42-34 margin in points in the paint as well

22 – Points scored by the Thunder off of 18 Houston turnovers, including a 6-0 edge in turnovers in the fourth quarter

24 – Points scored each by Russell Westbrook (7 rebounds, 10 assists) and Paul George (6 rebounds, 4 assists)

The Last Word

“Our level of focus tonight was incredible. The past two, three days, even at practice we’ve had incredible days. When you have days like that, it trickles down to the actual game.” – forward Carmelo Anthony