The Thunder had every reason in the book to be flat, or to roll over on Sunday night. Less than 24 hours after losing Andre Roberson for the season in an emotional victory in Detroit, the Thunder had another energetic Eastern Conference foe to contend with in the Philadelphia 76ers.
With Russell Westbrook at the helm, however, in a moment where the Thunder needed to show resolve and mental toughness, there was no doubt that the team was going to show up. After a back-and-forth first half, the Thunder took control with a 15-0 run late in the third quarter behind a coordinated offensive effort by Russell Westbrook and Paul George, then closed out the game by outscoring Philadelphia 21-11 over the final 6:18 of action to close out a 122-112 victory.
It was the Thunder’s eighth-straight victory, and a massive one considering how distracting and painful the loss of Roberson might have been in the background. Head Coach Billy Donovan elected to go with Terrance Ferguson in the starting lineup, and closed the game with forward Jerami Grant alongside the other four starters. The result wasn’t a perfect effort on either end, but the Thunder forced four shot clock violations and 18 total turnovers.
“We just have to pick up the slack,” George said of the Thunder defense without Roberson. “He’s so valuable to this team. We truly miss him. We have to stick with it, we have to stay with the process and every man has to pick up and do a little extra.”
After a mediocre first half the Thunder trailed, but Westbrook turned the dial up to a higher notch and began getting better creases into the lane for his own baskets and find teammates for easy baskets. He shot 8-for-13 in the third and fourth quarters combined, scoring 23 of his 37 points in the game.
Westbrook putting the pedal to the metal freed up lobs to Steven Adams, kick-outs on catch-and-shoots for Paul George, drop offs to Jerami Grant at the dunker spot and pick-and-pop looks for Carmelo Anthony. The end result was 14 Westbrook assists and 48.9 percent shooting for the Thunder.
“Midway through the third quarter our energy changed, and I thought Russell had a lot to do with that,” Donovan said of Westbrook. “After playing against them for a half, he understood what was open.”
“I forced too many shots in the first half. In the second half I did a better job of finding my teammates and playing off of them,” Westbrook self-criticized on ESPN after the game. “All I care about is winning. My teammates do a good job of making my job easier. I try to come out and compete and lay it on the line every single night.”
Adams had a lot on his plate to begin with in trying to handle Sixers center Joel Embiid throughout the game, but he still managed to be the Thunder’s most efficient offensive player on the night. The Kiwi center scored 20 points on 10-for-11 shooting. In fact, eight of Adams’ points came during that decisive 21-11 stretch in the Thunder’s favor, including a layup off a pass slung into the lane by Westbrook.
In addition to the scoring, Adams racked up 13 total rebounds including a career-high-tying 10 on the offensive end. That effort helped the Thunder amass 16 more field goal attempts in the game than the Sixers, which made a massive difference in a game that teetered on the edge until the final minute.
“Steven was constantly putting pressure on their entire defense. Every time a shot went up, he was relentless going to the backboard,” Donovan said. “To have to block him out every shot is fatiguing, especially with Steven’s athleticism, size and strength.”
To help close the win, Anthony knocked down a tie-breaking pick-and-pop three from the left wing and Grant picked up a loose ball on the wing, then attacked for an incredibly difficult driving layup as the shot clock nearly expired to make it a three-possession game once again.
Perhaps the most important sequence of the closing minutes was a classic defense-to-offense sequence, as Anthony swung to Westbrook on the left wing for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer just seconds after George sniffed out a Sixers backdoor cut, anticipated the flight of the ball and snagged it in mid-air for his fourth steal. That closed out a two-way masterpiece of a game for the five-time All-Star: 31 points on 9-for-17 shooting to go with four assists and four rebounds in 38 minutes.
“He’s such a great talent on and off the floor. A great, great friend of mine,” Westbrook said of George. “I’m glad he’s in Oklahoma City.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. 76ers
By the Numbers
4 – Shot clock violations forced by the Thunder’s defense, part of a league-leading 54 total by the team this season
9-for-17 – Shooting numbers for Paul George, including 4-for-9 from three and 9-for-11 from the free throw line on his way 31 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals
62 – Points in the paint for the Thunder on the night, thanks to 20 points on 10-for-11 shooting by Steven Adams
The Last Word
“Our crowd is always great regardless of who we’re playing tonight they came with it. It helped us out throughout the night.” – point guard Russell Westbrook