The Thunder had a whole host of issues that needed solving after their first two games. Spacing, execution, ball movement, energy.
They didn’t really fix any of that Sunday against the Suns in their 103-96 win, but they looked and played a whole lot better. Simple reason for it: They got Russell Westbrook back. Amazing what having a top five player back on the floor can do for your team.
The Suns led 79-73 about halfway through the fourth quarter and started pushing things into the “OK guys, heh heh, you’re gonna lose this one if you don’t start playing better” zone. The big area for concern for OKC without Westbrook has mostly boiled down to their halfcourt execution, particularly in the fourth quarter of a close game.
A Kevin Durant layup cut it to 79-75, two Nick Collison free throws made it 79-77, a coast-to-coast Westbrook layup tied it, and a turnover and Reggie Jackson runout layup put the Thunder up 81-79. An explosive, lightning fast 8-0 run to take control of the game is what did it. And from there, it wasn’t about great design or execution to close it out. It was just about having a fantastic playmaker on the court that was making plays.
“He just made plays,” Kevin Durant said. “We trust him in the pick-and-roll. Coach drew up some great plays for us and the best thing I thought about it was it wasn’t just isos. Guys were moving from side to side, we were screening, guys were rolling and pulling over.”
That’s really the big secret here that’s not at all a secret. Westbrook makes the Thunder better for one big reason: He’s awesome. The team talked about wanting to be better at the little things when he returned, to have improved in ways that when Westbrook was plugged in that the entire team blew our minds with their execution and effectiveness. It’s still early and there’s a lot of time to improve, but really, what we saw Sunday against the Suns was just a classic Thunder win. They shot the ball terribly (which is a huge concern, definitely), they had poor stretches, they lapsed a little defensively but in the end, they had two amazing players making plays in crunchtime. And that’s enough to get it done more often than not. That’s the Thunder formula to winning. We all want to see better stuff, to see cleaner offense and a more well-rounded structure. But when it really comes down to it, the Thunder just rely on their two superstars to do things.
I’m not trying to say that’s a good thing and when they lose, it’s often because those two guys didn’t carry the load enough in the fourth quarter. And when they win big, it’s because those two guys got quality help. When they win close , it’s because they did most of it on their own, especially late. For better or worse, this is how the Thunder win games.
Having Westbrook covers up so many of the issues we’ve seen develop over the last 11 games because he’s so damn good. I said it everywhere throughout the postseason: Take away Dwyane Wade, take away Tony Parker, take away Paul George, take away Derrick Rose, take away any elite player off a good team, and that team is going to struggle. It’s the whole point of having and coveting those elite players. They’re really, really, really good. Sometimes, even with all the film work and advanced numbers and breakdowns, basketball can really be that simple.
And Westbrook wasn’t even that fantastic. He showed some signs of rust, particularly in the first half where he had four turnovers, and he missed some shots at the rim he’s prone to making. But he wasn’t disillusioned. He was the first to say he understands it’s going to take a little time to get it all working in proper order.
“I’m comfortable. Very comfortable. I’m making any move I want. I missed some easy ones that I usually make, but that will come,” he said. “[My conditioning] could be better. It was alright. But that’s expected. I didn’t expect to come back and be bionic man.”
Westbrook played 33 minutes and while Brooks said pregame there was no minute restriction on him, it did seem like he was trying to manage it wisely, not going overboard in this first game. And as the game progressed, Westbrook looked more and more like his old self. He didn’t turn it over in the second half and he got back to attacking the rim with that beautiful reckless abandon we’re all so used to.
“His presence [was big],” Durant said. “Russ is Russell Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, 23-5-7 the last three years so you’ve got to respect it. He put pressure on the defense all night. He missed a few layups, but it was good to see him aggressive and not worry about anything and just play freely. He opened it up for a lot of people tonight.
“It’s hard when you have a guy like that who can easily go off and erupt for 40 points and like I said, he gets everybody open shots just from his aggressiveness,” Durant said. “He was able to make it easier for me, for Reggie, for Serge — we missed some shots, which I think we’re going to start making here soon, but just his presence. It was good to have him out there.”
Westbrook finished with 21 on 5-16 shooting with seven assists, four rebounds and a steal. A quality game back, but most importantly, he looked like Russell Westbrook. And more, most importantly, he made the Thunder a lot better. Completely fixed and ready to contend? There’s a long way to go to figure that out, but with a healthy Westbrook and Durant on the floor together, the Thunder are tough to beat, issues and problems and all.
- Westbrook was announced last in the starting lineup tonight instead of his customary first spot. Instead, KD went first, instead of his customary last spot. According to a team official, Durant requested to have Westbrook go last tonight, though when asked about it after the game, KD said he didn’t.
- Scott Brooks: “I think the biggest thing, and I’ve been saying it forever, is two things [Westbrook] does at a high level: He wins, that’s one. He’s a winner. The guy plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. It’s not always going to be perfect, but he plays with everything he has, every single night. And the second thing is leadership.”
- Reggie Jackson had his first night as a true sixth man, playing 28 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points with five assists and four rebounds. He was clearly more comfortable in that role where he got to play with Westbrook a lot, as well as control the second unit on his own for stretches in the second and third quarters.
- Jackson played roughly 14 of his 28 minutes with Westbrook, cementing the much-talked about plan that Brooks should play them together a lot this season. While Jeremy Lamb was first off the bench tonight as Perk picked up two quick fouls and the Thunder went small, when Brooks subbed Jackson midway through the first it was for Thabo, clearly showing his intent to play Westbrook and him together.
- Brooks on Jackson and Westbrook together: “They’ve both become dynamic players on the offensive end. One of your guards is usually going to be a 2-guard, and you’re going to have to pick who you’re going to guard with. Guarding a point in this league if you’re not a point is hard. For whatever reason, that step over is tough. And they’re both great pick-and-roll players and I trust Russell’s ability to guard any 1s, 2s or 3s in this league with the exception of a few. And they’re both great defensive rebounders for their position.”
- The Thunder’s best lineup tonight was Westbrook, Jackson, Fisher, Durant and Collison, at least in terms of plus/minus. But tied with that? Jackson, Lamb, Fisher, Jones and Collison. That’s the entire second unit. They played eight minutes tonight, finished a +4 and did solid work.
- Speaking of, I thought Lamb and Jones both had quietly productive games. Lamb hit two big shots in the fourth — both runners — played some decent defense and spaced well. He finished with eight points in 16 minutes, while Jones had two points, two rebounds and an assist in 10. Good showings from both. Nothing overwhelmingly excellent, but they contributed in their roles, which is all you can ask.
- I was happy to see Brooks did axe his rotation just because Westbrook came back. Instead, it expanded to 11. Now some of that may have had to do with foul trouble and the fact Phoenix played small all night, but I hope Jones continue to get routine chances to contribute. The only way he’ll get better is if he plays.
- Steven Adams’ nine minutes were mostly uneventful, but he did pull in four rebounds with two points. Which is three more rebounds and only one point fewer than Perk in his 16 minutes. The numbers seem to be backing what our eyes are telling us — Adams is more effective than Perk. I’m curious to see how the efficiency numbers play out as things go along, but I don’t necessarily see any big defensive drop-off with Adams out there.
- Derek Fisher, excellent tonight. He had a couple big buckets late driving to the basket (say what?) and came up with a big steal, with an assist to Bill Spooner. Fisher had nine points in 20 minutes with two steals and an assist. I don’t know if there’s a plan to play him that much or if that’s just what tonight’s matchups called for, but you can’t deny it — Fisher played great.
- We saw it just for a few minutes, but Brooks had Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Durant and Ibaka on the floor together in the first quarter. I think by season’s end, this will be OKC’s best lineup.
- Thabo isn’t shooting the ball well, nor is he taking good shots.
- Ibaka didn’t have a very quality offensive game (nine points on 4-12 shooting), but he did seem more comfortable within the flow of the offense. Westbrook clearly makes a huge difference for him. And three of the shots Ibaka missed were right at the rim, shots he routinely makes. I think he only really forced two bad ones, which is something that hurt him in the first two games. It’s gonna get better for Ibaka. Especially with Westbrook back. I wouldn’t worry about him.
- A big positive for Ibaka too: He’s rebounding well. He had 10 in 25 minutes tonight.
- Durant had 33 on 10-19 shooting with 10 rebounds and somehow, it didn’t feel like he played all that great. Like I feel like noticed only like 18 of those points. That’s just the way of Durant.
- Westbrook on rust: “A little bit, yeah. But that’s expected. I’m going to continue to go. Stay in attack mode and continue to try and win.”
- KD: “The crowd was great. Classy group of fans. Always behind him and accepted him, so it was great to see.”
- Westbrook went for a dunk attempt in the second half and came up short on it. I don’t know if that was a play where he’s just not all the way back, or if it was Westbrook just being Westbrook, going for a poster he had no business trying.
- Eric Bledsoe is pretty awesome.
- Every time Westbrook did anything, my stomach churned a bit. Every bump he took, every fall, I had visions of torn menisci everywhere. I’m hoping that goes away soon or this season is going to be miserable.
- The Thunder wore a patch on their jersey for Moore tonight.
- The Morris twins should just quit messing around and both wear the same number too. Same tattoos, same face, same size. It’s kind of ridiculous, guys.
- Brooks gaffed a few times with his subs, especially in the third when he went with Collison and Adams against [Insert] Morris and Channing Frye. After an easy bucket and an open Frye 3, Brooks fixed it and went back to a small group.
Next up: Wednesday at home against the Mavs