Three big themes from the Thunder’s 116-99 win over the Bobcats tonight:
1) Yep, Russell Westbrook is pretty good. And important. Game by game, Westbrook is playing better and better. Tonight, it was maybe the best yet since his return, topping the previous best yet which happened Friday against the Grizzlies. Westbrook hit his first eight shots, finished 10-12 and 4-5 from 3 for 26 points with six assists. And here’s the thing about it: Kevin Durant went through a stretch of missing 14 consecutive shots, and while he finished with 28 on 8-24, which is pretty decent, obviously Westbrook was able to carry a lot of weight with Durant struggling.
“Just trying to take my time, whatever shot is given to me, try to take it but at the same time, just take my time and knock it down,” Westbrook said.
And… he showed a flash of what Scott Brooks called “vintage Russell,” throwing down a hammer from just a step inside the free throw line.
“That time, I just kind of turned it up a notch, but still take my time,” Westbrook said.
It’s obvious that Westbrook is playing more comfortably, getting to his preferred spots on the floor and taking the shots he’s most confident in. His first couple games, things were a bit rugged in part because of his staggered playing time, but also because it was clear he was lacking a little cadence and patience to his game.
“The more I play, the more rhythm I’m able to catch, the more rhythm I’m able to get,” he said.
The high efficiency shooting is obviously a bit of a statistical outlier, but there’s no question that Westbrook illustrated what we all knew when there was talk about the Thunder being better without him. This team needs him. He makes them better. Durant can carry a lot of weight on those skinny shoulders, but the margin for error is far slimmer night to night when you’re missing someone as dynamic as Westbrook.
2) The return of Reggie Jackson, good basketball player. Jackson might be finding a little of that old bench rhythm to his game as he settles back in to his role. In 27 minutes he had 17 points — 10 in the second half — while knocking down some pretty big shots. He got back to his style of attacking, going at the rim and scoring with driving layups and running floaters.
There’s been a bit of frustration brewing with Jackson lately because of his shot selection and a few other things, but this was just a much steadier, better performance. THAT’S the guy that can be a playoff X-factor. THAT’S the guy the Thunder need desperately off their bench. Before Westbrook’s December procedure, Scott Brooks favored a three guard lineup to close games and a lot of the reason it worked so well was because of how much offensive pressure the Thunder could apply. How do you guard Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka in differing pick-and-roll sets when you’ve got another attacker like Jackson along with a shooter like Lamb or Fisher?
Tonight, that lineup was back to its previously destructive self as Ibaka patrolled the paint and the three-headed guard attack constantly backed the Bobcats into a corner. But so much of what makes it effective is Jackson not be a ball-stopping hog, but a catch-and-drive player that looks for open spots to attack. I think with him alongside Westbrook, some of that gets back into his game as he gets off the ball more in trying to set up the offensive and falls back into an off-guard rhythm.
3) Fourth quarter defense. The Bobcats were down 85-81 to start the fourth quarter. But the Thunder held them to just 18 points on 4-13 shooting. The defense in the first three quarters wasn’t very good — especially when you considered the Bobcats are one of the five worst offensive teams in the league — but the late-game lockdown was very good.
This was the first game of what’s going to be a bit of a weird stretch for the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins is already out until at least early April with a groin strain, and now Thabo Sefolosha is down until around then as well. Perry Jones III got the start in his place, and was solid, but Brooks is going to have to do a little mixing and matching to find what works. He’s got a new piece to play with as Caron Butler arrives tomorrow, but the core part of this is always going to be about how Westbrook and Durant play. Those other players are important, and how they fulfill their roles is critical, but when Westbrook and Durant are often what make those other parts churn anyway.
The Thunder have shrugged off those three consecutive losses — which aren’t forgotten yet — to win two straight, both in fairly impressive fashion. There was a bit too much messing around against the Bobcats tonight, but remember: That’s not a bad team. Not great, but these aren’t your typical walkover Bobcats. They defend, they compete and they can beat teams any given night. The Thunder had that dominant feel about them at times and like Westbrook said, the more you play, the more rhythm you get back. It was always going to take some time, but the Thunder are starting to get back to looking like the Thunder again.
- Russell Westbrook appears to have worked on his 3-point shooting during his time off. He went 4-5 from 3 tonight, and is 10-17 from 3 his last four games.
- Westbrook on his 3: “If the guys go under, I’ve just got to make them respect it.”
- This was the best shooting game of Westbrook’s career (minimum 10 shots). He went 10-12, which is 83 percent. His previous best was 10-13, and two times of 12-16.
- Counter to Westbrook’s importance in tonight’s win: He probably threw KD’s rhythm off after he started 5-6 and caused him to miss 14 straight shots. You’re going to hear someone say that tomorrow.
- KD talked about how he tries to overcome bad shooting stretches: “Not think about it and keep shooting. I get a lot of shots, man. There’s going to be nights when they feel like that and I started off pretty hot, felt good, then I tailed off a little bit so I just tried to do other things within the game to help my team win. Last game I started off terrible and ended well, so it can happen sometimes man. It’s just all about how I fight through it. My teammates kept encouraging me and I was able to hit a few in that fourth quarter. It’s a part of the game, and I think that’s a beauty of the game is trying to fight through obstacles and do what I can to win. And I have an attitude, I think I’ve grown since two or three years ago where I have would have an attitude after missing a few shots, I would get down and it would affect my play. I just try to keep my head up and next time a shot comes through, try to knock it down.”
- This was only the 11th game this season KD shot under 40 percent from the floor. For a while, he was under 30 percent, and he hasn’t any game this season where he shot under that mark.
- When Scott Brooks hates the way his team is playing, he puts Andre Roberson in. It delivers the message, along with putting a high energy player on the floor.
- Jackson put Bismack Biyombo down with a crossover, but couldn’t hit the jumper. We need a name for that. Instead of an ankle-breaker, an ankle-roller? The “Oooooooooohawwwwwww”? Someone suggested on Twitter “the brick-roll” which is not bad.
- Ibaka hit his third non-corner 3 of the season tonight.
- The Thunder were wearing warmup shirts that said “El Thunder” tonight. Why haven’t they worn any “El Thunder” jerseys yet, though?
- Jefferson gave OKC fits (25 points, 10-16 shooting), but he only got two shots in the fourth and scored only two points. Steven Adams was OK on him and Hasheem Thabeet did a pretty decent job. Jefferson’s a tough cover, though.
- Jeremy Lamb hasn’t scored more than five points in five straight games. That was something that was going to be a fact before he got back in during garbage time and hit a jumper.
- Steve Clifford could definitely play Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a future biopic.
- Awesome heckle tonight from a fan directed at Josh McRoberts: “Hey McRoberts! Get a haircut!” HAHAHAHA oh man what a burn.
- The Thunder’s starting lineup tonight: 6-3, 6-11, 6-11 (KD’s actual height), 6-10, 7-0. That’s some size right there.
- KD talked a little pregame and said he’s “6-8 or 6-7″ when asked about how tall he really is. I don’t know why he denies his actual height. It’s like me when I tell everyone I still weight 170 pounds, when I know full well and good that I do not. I think we’re lying for different reasons, though.
- Apparently Fox Sports Oklahoma named Hasheem Thabeet the player of the game. Come on bros. That’s embarrassing. Not many people took you guys that seriously before, but really? Really?
- KD picked up his 11th technical of the season after he got called for carrying. He was talking ref Kane Fitzgerald, who called him on both, and jokingly wrapped it up saying, “I wanted a tech from you.”
- The “COME ON RUSSSSSSELLLLL!” lady didn’t make it tonight, so some guy assumed the responsibility and did it. Well done, some guy.
- Again, if you missed it: Perry Jones started for Thabo who is out 4-6 weeks with a calf strain.
- Despite bad weather, it was a decent crowd. What is wrong with you people?
Next up: Home against the 76ers on Tuesday