SACRAMENTO – “We will be better because I will be better. I’m not worried. I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you closer as a unit and as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room.”
Russell Westbrook, usually a man of few words, delivered that quote on Tuesday night after the Thunder’s 94-86 loss to the Sacramento Kings. It was a frustrating and disappointing game for the Thunder, who are still attempting to gel as a unit and build a cohesive style of play.
It was a poor performance on the floor for the Thunder, but Westbrook’s leadership after the game was an encouraging sign that the team is in good hands as it figures this all out. He stood and delivered for his team, giving the group someone to rely on to shoulder the responsibility for helping to pull the Thunder out of this three-game losing streak.
It didn’t start all bad for the Thunder. In fact, it was all gravy to begin. Westbrook pitched over the top to Steven Adams on three straight early possessions for wide open layups, then handed an easy drop off to Andre Roberson for a reverse dunk to force Sacramento to call a timeout. The Thunder’s 8-0 lead turned into an eventual 17-point first quarter lead as the defense smothered Kings into a scoreless drought for the first 5:38 of action. The Kings started 0-for-11 shooting and although they got hot later on, the Thunder forced 23 turnovers that led to 19 points.
“The thing I was encouraged about was our stamina on defense,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said. “From a defensive standpoint we did a pretty good job with all their moving and cutting.”
When the second quarter began, however, the Kings comeback came in a hurry. Young guns Buddy Hield and Justin Jackson got going from the perimeter because the Thunder lost focus and toughness on defense, and on the other end Oklahoma City’s offense stalled out. By halftime, the Kings had the lead.
“Our intensity. When we sub, we have to be ready to play. They came in and did a good job of changing the pace,” Westbrook said. “It starts with me. Part of my job is to be able to do that, make sure my guys are ready to play. I take ownership of that.”
In the third quarter, the Thunder had three shot clock violations because the offense couldn’t generate easy looks going to the rim. As a result of all the jump shots, the Thunder shot just 33.7 percent from the field, including 10-for-37 from the three-point line.
“Knowing time and score, I take ownership in that,” Westbrook said. “I will be better and we will be better.”
“They’re trying to move the ball. They’re trying to extra pass,” Donovan said. “It’s something we have to continue to work on and try to get better at.”
Behind Westbrook’s fourth quarter relentlessness, the Thunder didn’t roll over. Despite falling behind by 12 just before the final period began, Oklahoma City managed to pull back to within one at 77-76 with 4:08 to go. After the Kings’ called a timeout, however, a technical foul gave Hield a free throw to get in rhythm, and then he hit a three on the ensuing possession to push the Sacramento lead back out to five.
From there the Thunder was playing uphill the rest of the way, and though a Westbrook three-pointer made it 89-86 with 16.4 seconds to go, it was too little, too late. George missed a three-point attempt after one Sacramento free throw, and the Thunder ran out of time.
Donovan and the Thunder’s veteran leaders were focused on taking the long view on this game, and not overreacting to the adversity the team is faced with right now. The Thunder has to turn around and play a road-home back-to-back against the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers on Thursday and Friday, but it’s also keeping in mind that this is a long season and that it wants to invest in itself now so that it can reap the benefits in April.
“It’s always tough in the moment. That’s the challenging part,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “If you can not think about the moment, but think about the big picture, it’ll be okay.”
“That comes with this journey, this process,” Anthony continued. “It’s all new to everybody. It’s a new situation for everybody. Even though we’re losing games, it’s more lessons being learned.”
By the Numbers
+11 – The Thunder’s advantage in free throw attempts, an area of focus heading into the game.
23 – Turnovers forced by the Thunder defense, leading to 19 points
46.8 – 33.7 – Difference in shooting percentages in the Kings’ favor
The Last Word
“We have a whole year to figure it out. We can’t really try to rush this. It’s something that step-by-step, day-by-day, at this point game-by-game we have to slowly try to get on the same page,” George said. “It sucks to drop games like this. We look back down the road in March and April, we’ll be pretty sick about it, but this isn’t when we want to play our best basketball.” – forward Paul George