Russell Westbrook curled around a screen at the left elbow and hesitated in the lane, first crossing the ball over then using a quick in and out dribble to push in towards the middle of the lane. It was just enough to freeze the defense, but not Thunder center Steven Adams, who rushed in to set a second screen, freeing up Westbrook to unleash sound and fury.
There’s not many players who can explode off the floor and above the rim with the velocity Westbrook does, but with 7:57 remaining in the pivotal part of a back-and-forth game, Westbrook’s one-handed slam was the type of rare eruption that brings the game to a half. The rim reverberated through the immediate timeout called by the Washington Wizards, and the momentum carried into a crucial 13-4 burst that broke the game open on the way to a 121-112 Thunder win.
“Nice little dunk,” Westbrook smirked. “I tried to keep attacking the basket, finding ways to get in the paint and make plays happen.”
“When he is getting downhill like that,” Head Coach Billy Donovan began, “It opens up free throws, it opens up offensive rebounds, it opens three-point shots and certainly opens up layups.”
In separating from an 88-85 lead with 8:22 to go in regulation to a 101-89 edge with 6:18 to go, the Thunder gave itself enough cushion to keep Washington at bay in what was a 39-38 shootout in the fourth quarter. Westbrook continually attacked the paint, and it created not just layups and free throws for himself, but a swinging set of passes around the perimeter that led to a Terrance Ferguson three-pointer, then a cutting dunk by Carmelo Anthony with 1:16 to go, part of a 6-0 burst to in the final two minutes to put the game away for good.
Despite Washington’s best efforts in the third quarter, the Thunder set the tone from the jump. Early on it was 10-0 Thunder, as Adams led the team in hustle points by diving on the floor multiple times and relentlessly attacking the offensive glass. By saving or regaining extra possessions, Adams earned the continued respect of his teammates.
“(Adams) has been wonderful for us. We need him every night and the things he’s been doing has been amazing,” guard Raymond Felton praised. “He’s diving on the floor, getting to the ball, getting us second chances. That’s big for us.”
The Wizards pulled close again to end the opening frame, but the Thunder’s second unit was absolutely stifling to start the second quarter. Donovan’s unit of Ferguson, Raymond Felton, Josh Huestis, Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant got stops on nine straight possessions early in the second quarter, including three blocks, three steals and two other forced turnovers, a masterful defensive stretch that ignited a 13-0 run that put the Thunder back in control again.
“We were just trying to get into the ball, keep those guys out of the paint,” Felton explained. “Our defense really fuels our offense. If we play that way at a high level on defense, our offense is going to speak for itself.”
The third quarter was choppy for the Thunder, as a mix of poor three-point defense, slow pace and some bizarre plays erased the team’s high water mark of a 19-point lead. Washington tied it up at 68 apiece, and it was a tenuous time inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. In order to bounce back, it took a full team response.
Adams hit a free throw, George corralled one of the Thunder’s season-high 16 steals that led to a Westbrook layup, then Carmelo Anthony walked into a transition three-pointer, which sent the Thunder crowd into a nervous frenzy. After two George free throws and a pair of back-to-back Felton three-pointers, the Thunder lead was safely back to 10.
From there it was up to Westbrook to captain the ship, and he did a masterful job of continually attacking downhill and scoring off the Thunder’s prolific defense. Westbrook finished with a season-high 46 points on 19-for-29 shooting, in addition to six rebounds, six assists and two steals. He scored 21 of those points in just 9:12 of playing time in the fourth quarter, on 9-for-11 shooting.
“Russell played an incredible game,” Donovan said. “He was really, really efficient and did a lot of good things, really on both ends of the floor.”
Despite the lull in the third quarter, the defense was astounding for the Thunder for large portions of the night. The Thunder’s length and quickness allowed for traps in sensitive areas of the floor, and players used their hands to generate deflections and steals, ultimately forcing 23 turnovers that led to 36 points. The result was 22 fast break points and 60 points in the paint, all numbers that portend to Thunder wins.
“We’re using our length, that’s one thing to our advantage, we use our length, our size and obviously that relates to turnovers, loose balls and getting out in transition,” Westbrook said.
“We were very active on the defensive end,” Anthony added. “I thought everybody did a good job of getting to the loose balls, diving on the floor, kind of holding them to one side and being able to play to our strengths defensively.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. Wizards
By the Numbers
6 – Players who scored in double figures for the Thunder, including 11 from Terrance Ferguson and 10 from Raymond Felton as the Thunder’s bench outscored the Wizards 29-15
16 – Steals for the Thunder, tying a season-high, part of 23 turnovers forced that led to 36 points
46 – Points for Russell Westbrook, a season-high, on 19-for-29 shooting
The Last Word
“There’s so many guys sacrificing each and every night. There’s so many things that go on throughout the game that each person in the locker room does. You can’t name each guy, but that’s a part of a team, to be able to do different things to win basketball games.” – point guard Russell Westbrook
“I loved them. I loved them. Really, really, really nice jersey. It’s great to have a little switch up a little change up. Glad Nike was able to pull that together.” – forward Paul George on the Thunder’s “City” jerseys, which debuted on Thursday night