There had been a bit of a script for the Thunder’s recent losses, and again tonight on the second night of a back to back, a double-digit lead evaporated down to zero. This time, the Thunder shrugged off the fatigue and the recent trend, and slammed the door on the LA Clippers 120-111.
Point guard Russell Westbrook set the tone from the very outset as the Thunder repeated recent history by jumping out to a 14-point first quarter lead. Oklahoma City was aggressive in the passing lanes, forced turnovers and got out into the open floor, for the night turning 19 Clippers turnovers into 24 points.
Once in transition, Westbrook played his game – driving downhill to generate high percentage opportunities at the rim. He scored 10 of his 22 points in the first quarter alone, then proceeded to get others involved. More importantly, it was Westbrook’s energy and intensity, feeding off the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd, that got the engine running.
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His teammates followed suit, and the Thunder’s overall aggressiveness was finally rewarded for the first time this season with a monster night at the free throw line. Donovan’s club knocked down 29-of-40 free throw attempts on the night, which kept the scoreboard going when the offense stalled or LA got hot.
“It was huge for us to get to the line. It didn’t allow us to settle,” George said. “It kind of was a support system for us when we were going through a drought.”
Paul George was the catalyst for the Thunder offensively but it wasn’t just because he was the one taking shots. He was scoring within the flow of offense- hitting corner threes, pin down jumpers at the elbow and driving layups through contact. He kept piling up buckets consistently throughout the night and managed to throw all of his punches.
George finished with his sixth-career 40-point game with 42 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals. George explained that a pre-game stretch that he went through with a Thunder strength and conditioning coach helped his body feel right and unlocked his athleticism and ability to stay low on drives.
“He was in attack mode from the beginning,” Carmelo Anthony said of George’s night. “Anytime he can play downhill the way he was playing tonight in attack mode, that gives us a different dynamic and dimension as a team.”
There were plays that showed growth for the team. Early in the game, the trust was established, exemplified by a sequence with great movement around the perimeter, when Westbrook played out of the post, threw a crosscourt pass to Carmelo Anthony who swung to Alex Abrines who then bounced a pass to George at the top of the key. One more bounce pass got it back to Westbrook, who drained a corner three. It was the most beautiful possession of Thunder basketball this season.
Then, there were sequences that displayed that the Thunder is beginning to learn how to finish out these games in crunch time. After a 20-point third quarter lead was cut to eight, Josh Huestis hit an open corner three, Jerami Grant followed it up with a helpside block and then George hit a driving jumper. Later, with 5:36 in the fourth quarter, the game pressure was on in full force as the Clippers tied it at 105. After a timeout, the Thunder hit two free throws, then George found Anthony on a cutting layup at the block. That sparked a 14-4 run over the final five minutes to seal the Thunder victory.
“It definitely feels good to get a win. We did all the right things for 48 minutes,” Westbrook said. “They made a run and we stepped up and did a good job.”
“It showed how willful of a team and how strong of a team we are to come off of a roadtrip we just came off of,” Anthony said. “To come out and get this win by any means necessary, we came together as a group tonight.”
After landing at 4 a.m. from Denver, the Thunder learned it wouldn’t have center Steven Adams against DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and the Clippers, who hadn’t played since Tuesday. That meant that rookie Dakari Johnson was a last-minute starter against the All-Star front line. Johnson showed up big for Oklahoma City in his first career start. He played with toughness and energy, he battled on the glass and didn’t back down from the challenge, even if his stat sheet wasn’t a stunner. By the end night though, he was on the receiving end of a crunch time Westbrook drive and dish and knocked down a 14-footer with 2:11 to go that iced the game.
“I felt like the past two years I’ve kind of been preparing for it in the G League,” Johnson said. “Coach Donovan just told me to be myself. I just tried to go out there and compete.”
Melo Does the Dirty Work
When he wasn’t ripping off a couple jumpers, Carmelo Anthony was scrapping and fighting down in the paint on Friday night, battling to do all the dirty work at the power forward position. He bodied up on the block, boxed out bigger opponents and kept balls alive. He gave no quarter to Blake Griffin, who finished with just 17 points on 19 field goal attempts in 40 minutes of action. For his own night, Anthony scored 14 points to go with six rebounds, three assists and a block.
“I’m paying for it right now,” Anthony chuckled. “It was a real physical game tonight but everybody did their part.”
“He was banging in there with those bigs,” Westbrook said of Anthony. “He did a good job of talking and communicating defensively and doing the things he does that don’t get seen in the stat sheet.”
By the Numbers
15 – Fast break points for the Thunder, compared to just 7 for the Clippers on four field goal attempts
24 – Points off turnovers by the Thunder, who made eight steals and forced 19 giveaways
42 – Points for Paul George on just 22 shot attempts, for his sixth 40-point NBA performance
The Last Word
“Walking out on the court tonight, it felt like we had been gone for a month. It was really nice to be home. Our fans gave us a great boost. The environment was great. That really helped.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan