Stealth Mode: Kenny Hustle Helps Thunder Drop Bulls
On the Chicago Bulls’ final possession of regulation, the majority of the initial defensive work was done by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley. They trapped Bulls forward Otto Porter and forced a bailout pass to an unsuspecting Zach LaVine, who hoisted up an off-balance 3.
Some players would be entranced with the drama of whether the potential game-winner would go in. But if the shot missed, there’d be a small chance for a tip in, and that’s why Thunder forward Kenrich Williams wasn’t focused on the arc of the ball but instead was burrowing himself into a box out. LaVine’s 3 clanked off the rim with a bit of time still on the clock and Williams, who had done the dirty work early, slapped away a tap-in try by Chicago big man Patrick Williams, the ball harmlessly bouncing out of bounds.
“Personally, I take pride in just getting a stop, especially when the game is on the line,” said Williams. “That’s what I’m on the floor to do.”
Kenrich didn’t get credited for a block on the play. Most nights, he won’t be a stat sheet standout anyway. But tonight in the Thunder’s furious 22-point comeback that resulted in a 127-125 overtime win, Williams put his imprint all over the floor. In a season-high 27 minutes of action, Williams tied Lu Dort for a game-best plus-21 on the box score plus-minus.
“He was awesome tonight,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “He made a lot of important plays in the game. That’s who he is.”
In the first half, Williams helped break a sagging Chicago defense with a drive to the cup off some incredible Thunder ball movement, then he buried a 3-pointer and scored in transition on back-to-back possessions to keep the game within striking distance. While Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort did the heavy lifting in the third quarter during the Thunder’s 5th biggest comeback in team history, it was Williams who earned a 19 of his season-high 27 minutes after halftime and delivered some decisive plays down the stretch.
“I tried to just light a spark with K-Rich there in the third,” said Daigneault.
With his team down 14 with just over four minutes to go, Williams stole the ball from LaVine and streaked out ahead for a fast break dunk for two of the Thunder’s 33 points off turnovers in the game. With his length, activity and consistency, Williams was a catalyst for the Thunder’s defense-to-offense pipeline on the evening.
“That fuels the team. When you’re getting stops, when you’re forcing turnovers and you’re rebounding, it feels good,” said center Mike Muscala, a founding member of the Thunder’s informal “KRich” Appreciation Club. “You feel like now we’ve got some juice going back the other way. So to have that from him in the second half especially, it really was inspiring for the whole team.”
In a pair of the Thunder’s blowout losses this season, Williams was on the floor to play out the final minutes. Tonight, he was in the heat of the battle in the final moments to preserve a victory. What was noticeable to his teammates and the coaching staff was that Williams’ approach was the exact same in both scenarios.
“I give him a lot of credit because obviously we’ve shuffled our rotation and there’s nights where we’ve shuffled him out of the rotation,” said Daigneault. “That’s just a great representation of the mentality that we want to take to this. Obviously it showed up tonight in a great win but it shows up every time he steps over the line. Those are the types of things we try to celebrate here.”
With the game tightening into “clutch time” and the Thunder down by five with under a minute to go, Williams cut in for a dunk off a Gilgeous-Alexander pass, trimming Chicago’s lead to one possession with 49.7 seconds remaining.
“Kenrich is a dog,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Guys as selfless as him, they ultimately help winning no matter where they go or what the situation. Obviously his number doesn’t get called every night, but he’s always ready.”
After preserving a 118-118 tie at the end of regulation with his slap away of the would-be tip-in, Daigneault opted to keep Williams in the game for his defense and tenacity. In the extra frame, Williams rewarded that trust by taking a crucial charge on Bulls guard Coby White, then delivering a vital late bucket.
“He’s a hustler,” said Dort, who knows a thing or two about that subject. “He plays hard.”
The ball found the 26-year-old, third-year wing in the short corner, with the shot clock ticking down. Typically he’d catch it a few steps further back at the 3-point line, then take a shot from behind the arc or pump fake and drive all the way to rim. Noticing a mismatch with the 6-foot-4 White, however, Williams improvised with a post-up going to his left, where he settled in for a push shot to give the Thunder a 123-118 lead with 3:04 remaining.
“I kind of got lost in between. I didn’t know what to do,” Williams admitted, a grin hiding underneath his facemask. “I was a little bigger than him, so I just tried to put him on my back.”
For the game, “Kenny Hustle” finished with 14 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting to go with five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Typically his stat line won’t look anything like that, but you can bet the way he flies around on the court, the level of energy he exhibits and the pride he takes in his craft will be exactly the same on those stealthier nights as well.
As a child growing up in Waco, Texas, Williams remembered nights when he and his two brothers rallied together around their mother when she lost her job, scrapping a way to pay the bills by mowing lawns and other odd jobs. On July 21, 2018, after four years at TCU, Williams held an NBA Draft night party for himself that ended without his name being called. Entering the NBA as an undrafted player comes with a whole set of long odds and uphill climbs. None of that adversity has knocked Williams down yet, so no deficit on the scoreboard or defensive assignment against an All-Star will distract him from of his mindset of leaving it all on the floor.
“It was great to be able to bring it home, bring home the win. I just love playing the game regardless of who I’m out there with,” said Williams. “I try to compete as hard as I can.”