Thunder Follows Incredible Third Quarter Comeback with Fantastic Finish – OKC 117, HOU 112

HOUSTON – Russell Westbrook got down in a crouch, arms wide and head up. On an imperfect night, the Thunder leader sat down in perfect defensive position for the impending action. Houston Rockets guard James Harden danced with the ball in isolation. Westbrook took a low, intentionally wide swipe to distract him. Harden sidled right to get a bit of air space. Westbrook moved there with him and got a hand up. It’s all you can do. It was enough. 

“To win big games on the road, you gotta be able to get stops,” Westbrook said.

Harden’s potential game-winning three-pointer with under 5 seconds remaining missed and caromed off, into the awaiting arms of Paul George, who was nearly perfect on Saturday night, in an imperfect Thunder performance. The MVP candidate knocked down all four of his free throws after that to bring his point total to 45 for the game, and the Thunder left Houston with a 117-113 win. 

“When (George) is aggressive and plays the way he plays at a high level, like he’s been doing all year long, we’re a tough team to stop,” Westbrook said. “Tonight was one of those nights where he’s kept us flowing all 48 minutes.”

If you had been watching this for 60 real time minutes before the final buzzer sounded, the final outcome would have seemed ridiculous. In the first half the Rockets got everything they wanted offensively, burying 12-of-27 three-pointers and picking up easy buckets around the rim due to 12 Thunder turnovers that resulted in 17 Houston points. The physicality for the Thunder was all wrong, as was the cohesion. George and Westbrook had been mildly productive, but the Thunder fell behind at one point by 26 and stared a 22-point deficit square in the face heading into halftime.

It’s a long game. The Thunder understood just how long, but knew the comeback had to get started right away in the third quarter, with the correct attitude and approach. Westbrook put his arm around Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant and told them to do something simple: stop thinking.

“Russ just said play your game out there, stop thinking. Do what you do. That’s just what happened,” recalled Ferguson, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the third quarter.

“The time when teams go through adversity you show the true measurement of your team,” said Westbrook. “Tonight you see guys come together, come closer. And that’s part of my job to make sure my team, our guys stay together and stay confident with what they’re doing.”

The young two teammates rewarded Westbrook’s leadership, and the entire team took on the vibe that Westbrook, George and Dennis Schröder embodied in the halftime locker room, which was a commitment to defending with physicality and continued trust on offense. In the third quarter, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club blitzed the Rockets, outscoring Houston 42-20 in the period to shockingly unravel the entirety of the halftime deficit and tie the game at 90 heading into the final frame.

“This team is competitive. That’s just what it comes down to,” said George. “That’s what the game is about.”  

The fourth quarter was a tense, playoff-like back-and-forth battle. The Thunder kept its charge going in the opening minutes, taking a 98-92 lead on three-pointers by George and Grant and then a driving lob from Ferguson to Nerlens Noel. The Rockets punched right back though, scoring 11 straight points to retake the lead. Westbrook, who had 21 points and 11 assists, snagged the 10th of his 12 rebounds in the game during the run, helping the Thunder quell the crowd and also resulting in his 9th-striaght triple-double, which ties Wilt Chamberlain for the longest streak ever. This was Westbrook’s 22nd triple-double of the season and the 126th of the year.

George was sensational in the quarter, scoring 15 of his 45 points (on merely 22 field goal attempts) in the fourth, including the free throws to ice the game, but it was Westbrook who put the finishing flourish on this one. On a sideline out of bounds play with the Thunder down one point and less 30 seconds remaining, Westbrook received a screen from Steven Adams on the left wing. Recognizing that Adams’ man was rushing up to the level of the screen, a bit out of control, Westbrook took the opportunity to split the double team and slice downhill into the lane, finishing a layup to put the Thunder over the top for good.

“I had been seeing that all game actually and was just waiting on the right time to use it,” Westbrook said.

“At that point in time we just wanted to get a good shot,” Donovan added. “For Russ, it was a layup as he went downhill and got to the rim, and he made a great move to split the defense.”

In order to pull this one off, the Thunder’s 10th win in 11 games, it took every ounce of guile, will-power and togetherness that this club had to give. It wasn’t a perfect performance. It was enough for a win.