Hot Start, Strong Finish for Thunder for Third-Straight Win - OKC 132, MIN 126

By Nick Gallo | Digital Content Reporter |

MINNEAPOLIS -- From an identity standpoint, it couldn’t have been a more perfect start for the Thunder. Three stops and three scores. Russell Westbrook created a catch and shoot three-pointer in the corner, Westbrook scored on a transition layup after a defensive rebound, then Steven Adams cleaned up the glass with a put-back dunk. Tough defense limiting foes to one shot, pushing the pace in transition for threes or layups and the physicality on the offensive glass. It was all there right at the start. 

In a 132-126 road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, that identity went away for long stretches, but when it came to the fourth quarter and crunch time, the Thunder got enough stops and executed to score enough to close out a third-straight victory. The hallmark Thunder toughness showed up on the glass with a plus-14 rebounding edge, and the precision was there too as the Thunder racked up 27 assists to just 14 turnovers and shoot 52.2 percent from the field.

“We were just ready to play,” said Westbrook.

“We came out making a statement, imposing our will,” forward Paul George echoed. “Really just setting the standard of how we were going to play.”

The Thunder’s early 7-0 lead swelled to 12-2 then 22-8 on Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised battle in the Twin Cities, which played host on Saturday to the NCAA Final Four and will be the site of NCAA National Championship game on Monday. For basketball purists, the Thunder’s start was about as beautiful as you can get, as Head Coach Billy Donovan’s squad knocked down 7-of-13 three-point attempts in the first quarter and 14 total in the game. 

After the first 5 minutes, however, the Thunder’s previously stout defense began to slip, allowing Minnesota to go 11-for-17 and score 23 points over the final 7-and-a-half minutes of the quarter. The Thunder’s lead was 38-31 by the break, but the vibe was all different, with the Timberwolves playing with much more verve offensively than before. 

“As the quarter went on later in the first and into the second, we lost some of that intensity,” Donovan explained. “They made some shots, got back in the game very, very quickly.

That carried over into the second period when the Timberwolves got some incredible shot-making from Andrew Wiggins and capitalized on some poor offensive possessions by the Thunder to take a 50-48 lead. That 19-9 run flipped the momentum in the game and made it a back-and-forth contest through halftime and to start the third quarter, when both teams combined to score on 13 of the first 14 possessions of the second half.

Trading baskets is never a recipe for sustained success for the Thunder, and when the Thunder’s hot shooting wore off, Minnesota’s kept rolling. Timberwolves stretch forward Dario Saric buried four third quarter three-pointers, including three in a row at one point, midway through the period. Meanwhile, Westbrook missed two free throws at the 3:46 mark of the quarter, marking the first attempts from either Westbrook or George in the game to that point. Minnesota capitalized on that momentum and carried those made three-pointers into a 22-5 run midway through the period to build a 10-point lead at 93-83.

George, however, gave the Thunder an answer with a five-point possession after drawing a flagrant foul when defending a screening action. The All-Star forward made two free throws then buried a three-pointer to fuel a 12-4 closing run at the end of the third quarter, part of a 27-point, 7-rebound, 6-assist effort that featured 15 third quarter points. At that juncture, it was Dennis Schröder’s time to shine. The shifty point guard used his quickness and ballhandling skill to attack a wearying Minnesota defense to keep the Thunder charge going.

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“(Schröder) was able to turn the corner on the big man and get downhill. He got the ball in space where he was able to put the defender in a tough spot,” said Donovan. “A couple times they left him and took the roll to the basket, and it gave him an open lane to drive. He made good decisions when he got in there.”

“On the offensive end we just moved the ball and played fast. That’s the reason why we got that run,” said Schröder. “We raised our level of intensity and got stops. That was the key.”

With 14 of his 21 points coming in the fourth quarter including 10 right out of the gates, Schröder extended the Thunder run across the quarter break to a remarkable 26-6, giving the Thunder a 115-103 lead with just over six minutes remaining. That’s when the Thunder faced a final wave of adversity – Steven Adams’ sixth foul with 5:51 to go. To that point, Adams had been the Thunder’s best resistance against the overwhelming talent of Karl-Anthony Towns, so Donovan’s group had to finish this one out with committee defense and productive offense down the stretch.

“Just poise,” Westbrook replied when asked about the keys in the closing run. “Doing a good job of getting the matchups we wanted and the shots we wanted.”

Despite Minnesota cutting the Thunder’s lead down to just four points on five separate occasions over the final three minutes, George and Westbrook delivered an answer each time. George got fouled on a jumper and hit two free throws then Westbrook attacked for a layup on the left side, got a three-point play with a jump shot at the nail plus the foul. Capping a 27-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound triple-double, his 32nd this year and 136th of his career, Westbrook made two more free throws to cap a perfect 11-for-11 showing from the line in the fourth quarter for the Thunder as a whole.

All season long, those type of fundamental aspects of the game have been hit or miss for the Thunder, so it was encouraging to see this team take care of business in that department when it mattered most. While playoff basketball will be another level up, the Thunder is getting back into a groove of executing to victory with three straight wins bringing the season record to 47-33 with two games remaining and the chance to cement at least the 7th seed in the Western Conference still on the table.

“One day at a time,” Westbrook noted, reminding that now is not the time to look ahead.

“We have moments where we’re still working to clean it up,” said George. “We’ve found ways to get it done. Honestly, that’s what we want to see. It’s just the fight of this group that we can be proud of.”



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