Westbrook’s Wizardry Saves the Day – OKC 124, PHX 116

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

PHOENIX – The focus, the concentration and the fearlessness when the game is on the line all converge together inside of Russell Westbrook, and the result is one of the most impressive crunch time players the NBA has to offer.

In a continuation of a recent post-All-Star trend for the Thunder, Westbrook led his squad to another escape – a gut-wrenching, clutch victory to overcome some shaky stretches during the 48 minutes. With a massive, tie-breaking three-pointer with 56 seconds to go, two offensive rebounds on the next Thunder possession and a rim-rocking two-handed slam dunk to ice this ball game, Westbrook stole the show in Phoenix and propelled the Thunder to a 124-116 victory.

Paul & Russ slam the

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“He’s our leader and the way he plays affects all the teammates,” guard Alex Abrines began, before comparing Westbrook to one of his favorite literary characters. “Me and Josh (Huestis) on the bench were talking about it. We call him ‘Gandalf’ because he’s never early or late. He’s always at the right time. When the moment of the game arrives, he’s ready to show up and he wins the game.”

It wasn’t pretty or easy for the Thunder throughout most of the first half, as the Suns scored at will in all the areas that can hurt teams the most. After 24 minutes, Phoenix had racked up 38 points in the paint, 16 second chance points and 13 fast break points, all amounting to a 67-60 halftime edge. Rotations were missed, help was late to come and the Suns were allowed pitch ahead passes over the top that resulted in easy layups.

At halftime, the Thunder regrouped, and it took nearly all of the third quarter for Head Coach Billy Donovan’s team to cool down Phoenix’s attack. Late in the period, the Thunder ripped off a 12-2 run behind back-to-back three-pointers by Paul George and Terrance Ferguson, along with a quartet of free throws by Westbrook, who finished with an outrageous stat line of 43 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists.

That burst helped the Thunder chip the Phoenix lead down to just two to start the fourth quarter, and that’s when the second unit ramped up the energy. With a hounding defensive approach to begin the period, the Thunder’s reserves burst out with a 5-0 spurt to begin the quarter, setting the tone for a stingy final 12 minutes of defensive action that held the Suns to just 17 points. By switching nearly everything on the perimeter and making the extra efforts, the Thunder defense was able to stay in front of the ball and prevent line drive passes for easy catch-and-shoot looks or drives to the rim.

“They did an amazing job of being aggressive defensively,” Westbrook noted of the second unit. “They scrambled, they was gritty and grinded it out the time while they were in there.”

The spurt began with a Jerami Grant spinning layup, then after Grant poked the ball away on the other end, Raymond Felton found Alex Abrines wide open on the break in transition for a three-pointer to give the Thunder its first lead since the opening minutes of the game.

Phoenix had one charge left, and actually re-took the lead with 2:37 to go on an impossible fadeaway along the baseline by Devin Booker, who scored 39 points for the Suns. It took over a minute, but Westbrook responded with a tough, physical driving layup and then after the Thunder’s defense forced an Elfrid Payton miss, Westbrook caught a pass from Steven Adams and fired from 26-feet for the go-ahead three-pointer from the left wing.

“Some people want it. Some people say they want it. Russ is a guy who wants those moments,” forward Carmelo Anthony (14 points, 8 rebounds) said.

“Russ is a special player. He came out with timely baskets, special plays,” George (20 points) echoed. “That’s what Russ does. He lives for those moments.”

After Phoenix’s Josh Jackson missed a three on the other end, Westbrook wound the clock down, but missed an elbow jump shot. No matter, the Thunder point guard sprinted into the paint after his miss, grabbed the rebound, missed the putback and snagged the ball again before calling timeout. The NBA’s reigning MVP then hit a free throw and scored after a George steal, flushing a transition dunk through the net with authority and sealing another Thunder road victory.

“We stayed with it and made big plays down the stretch,” Westbrook said. “We defended a lot better in the second half and got the win.”

Highlights: Thunder at Suns

By the Numbers

11 – Blocked shots by the Thunder in the game, including 6 in the fourth quarter alone

27-17 – The Thunder’s scoring edge in the fourth quarter, where it held Phoenix to 6-for-22 (27.3 percent) shooting and 4 turnovers

43 – Points for Russell Westbrook, on 16-of-25 shooting, to go with 14 rebounds and 8 assists

The Last Word

“It shows that when we need to get a stop, we can lock down and get stops on demand. You’re going to need that to be able to close games… When you defend, you always give yourself a chance to win.” – point guard Russell Westbrook


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