The Thunder had been swinging the sledge hammer at the wall for weeks. Aside from one Golden State-sized burst, however, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club just couldn’t break through.
Finally in the first quarter on Friday night, it looked like the Thunder was able to smash through that offensive barrier that had been in the way. The Thunder didn’t follow up with equally impressive quarters to finish the game, but it did withstand runs and limit lulls enough to snap its three-game losing skid.
In a 111-107 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder erupted with 11 assists in a 42-point first quarter, its highest scoring quarter of the season, surpassing its previous high for a first quarter by 11 points. The recipe was coordinated, cohesive ball and player movement, even if the actions concepts weren’t complex. Simple basketball, played the right way, won out.
“We were a little bit aggressive starting the game. Defensively we got into them early. Offensively we got it going,” forward Carmelo Anthony said.
“Offensively we were much better from start to finish,” Donovan said. “Hopefully it’s something we can build upon… We came out and had some really good plays where we executed and had really good looks. We had multiple passes and guys were able to generate really good shots.”
One productive sequence stemmed from one pass and one screen. Russell Westbrook zipped a line drive from the right wing to Paul George on the left side, and at that exact moment, Steven Adams stepped up to set a screen on George’s defender. A momentary window opened and George didn’t hesitate. He attacked the lane and forced help to come over, drawing a foul and then hitting both foul shots.
Another sequence was a bit more involved, but still resulted in an efficient shot. Westbrook drove right around an Adams screen, and his big man rolled hard for him, holding the defense in the lane for an extra second. Meanwhile, George sprinted up to the top of the key from the baseline, and as soon as he hit the three-point line, the ball was there waiting for him. George spun on a dime, loaded up and drained a three.
Later, on back-to-back possessions, Westbrook worked the middle of the floor with Jerami Grant, and the versatile, lanky forward finished at the rim both times. Westbrook finished with 14 assists on the night and despite his sub-par shooting performance, was a catalyst to getting role players and stars alike involved in the offense.
After building a 21-point first half lead and an 11-point edge with 5:27 to go on those Grant buckets, the Thunder may have thought it was close to getting out of the woods. But after a timeout, the Timberwolves ripped off a quick 8-0 run behind back-to-back threes by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, then Towns followed it up with a basket on a roll to the rim. With 4:17 to go the Thunder led by just three, and it needed to buckle down, and slamming the door on opposing runs is something it has struggled with this season.
The key tonight was that the Thunder just trusted it on both ends. Both Westbrook and George missed shots on the ensuing possession, but Andre Roberson completely enveloped Minnesota point guard Jeff Teague on the next play, ultimately helping to force a turnover. The Thunder coughed it up on the next possession and a contested Teague three-pointer barely rimmed out, so the slim three-point lead still remained and the entire Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd held its breath.
Donovan called a play from the sideline, and after movement off the ball, Westbrook barreled down the lane for an awkward driving layup through contact. It was remarkable that Westbrook was able to power it up over the rim, but that’s what the league’s reigning MVP does.
A few possessions later, the Thunder’s lead was back at 105-102 and although Russell Westbrook missed a catch-and-shoot corner three, Adams was there to clean up the mess, wrestling down the rebound over Towns and putting it back for his 11th score of the night, tying a career-high for made field goals and capping a night in which he scored career-best 27 points. In addition to the monster put back, Adams scored on an adventurous steal and euro-step layup in transition and off cuts and rolls to the rim.
“His presence was felt,” Westbrook reviewed of his center. “He did a good job of just being in the paint all night long and using his size and length.”
“We got off the ball quick. That’s how everything got set up,” Adams said in reference to Westbrook and George setting up his scoring night. “Once they attracted two players, they got off the ball quick and that way it’s a disadvantage on their end on the other side.”
It was still a little tense to close out the final minute, but George capped off his prolific offensive night by draining all four of his free throws as the Timberwolves tried to foul their way back into the game. Between his aggressive attacks to the paint producing 11 free throws and his deadly catch-and-shoot jumpers off curls, George finished with 36 points on 10-for-21 shooting. Perhaps the most impressive part of the dynamic forward’s night, however, was the way he got teammates involved early. He racked up 7 of his 9 assists in the first half, finding cutters like Adams on dives to the rim.
“He knows how to play the game, and he plays the right way,” Westbrook said of George.
“It was just about finding guys. We draw so much attention, myself, Russ, Melo, that we have to be mindful when we do draw that attention,” George began. “That’s what this offense has got to be about. When we bring two to the ball, we have to move it, we have to play off of one another.”
Overall it was a great team win. By no means was the early offensive explosion cathartic, no matter how much everyone in Oklahoma City wants to believe that first quarter meant something more. Much more important to the Thunder’s prospects moving forward was something less visible than 42 points on the board in 12 minutes. It was the mental stamina and resolve to withstand Minnesota’s punches and not revert back to an old playing style. The Thunder worked the possession on offense in the fourth quarter, and hunkered down on defense. Those are things it can do every single night, and will need to do game to game.
“We did a good job of responding, whether it was with a good set, getting in the paint or making a good call at timeouts.”
By the Numbers
2:06 – Minutes played like Nick Collison, in which he hit two free throws, made an assist and grabbed a rebound. He wasn’t out there, long, but his ability to facilitate offense was important with Adams in foul trouble
+16 – The Thunder dominated Minnesota on the glass, and its 13 offensive rebounds helped lead to 15 second chance points
16 – Fast break points for the Thunder on the night, aided by 7 steals and 8 blocks
The Last Word
“We did a great job of staying composed when they made a run, withstanding their runs, not getting rattled and continue playing the way we started the game off." - forward Carmelo Anthony