The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 102-91. In a critical matchup between two teams that are currently chasing the 8th seed, the Thunder got a monster game from Russell Westbrook, who carried the Thunder offense for most of the night. Westbrook finished with 45 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists, tying his career high in point total. The Thunder were without Kevin Durant, who was out once again with a sprained toe, and huge questions loomed over the inconsistent Thunder. Could they rise to the challenge against a team that just defeated the red-hot Atlanta Hawks? Could they slow down Anthony Davis? Could they keep Tyreke Evans out of the lane?
Yes, yes, yes.
Westbrook was aided greatly in the 2nd half by Serge Ibaka, who after struggling in the 1st half finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 blocks, doing a phenomenal job protecting the rim.
The Pelicans were led by Anthony Davis, who finished with 23 points and 8 rebounds.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
The Thunder have not exactly inspired confidence this season when faced with critical matchups, and it is notable that this game vs the Pelicans (as well as the one on Friday) may prove to be a key inflection point for the Thunder's season. The Thunder are trying to leapfrog the 'Cans and get into striking distance with the 8th seed Suns, but once again they were without Kevin Durant and questions remain about the team's focus and balance.
Russell Westbrook put on a performance that rendered this idea of 'balance' moot. In perhaps the best game of his career, given what is on the line in this 2 week stretch of the season, Westbrook started strong and finished strong, scoring nearly half the Thunder's points. One of the traits with Westbrook is that he is not a natural shot-maker as compared to other PG's like Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving. If he has efficient scoring games, it is because he is maxing out on what he does best - getting to the rim, getting to the line, and shooting from the extended free throw. Westbrook did a great job staying within his strengths tonight, as evidenced by his personal shot chart.
Most importantly, with the game on the line, Westbrook stayed under control, recording 9 points and 2 assists in the 4th quarter as the Thunder pulled away for the win. There are very few players in the NBA who can carry a team nearly from beginning to end in a game that they need to win, and Westbrook proved that tonight he was up to that challenge.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
Westbrook will receive all of the accolades tomorrow, but arguably just as important is how the Thunder responded to a poor defensive 1st half. They trailed at the half 57-51. In the 2nd half, they held the Pelicans to only 34 total points, including a remarkable 15 points in the 4th quarter. The Thunder defense keyed a decisive run over the final 5:39 of the game, holding the 'Cans to without a single point the rest of the way, and turning a 91-89 deficit into a 102-91 final.
A big reason why the Pelicans went cold is because of the way that Ibaka protected the rim. He finished with 6 blocks on the night, but as we've seen so many times in his career, he doesn't need to get every shot. To borrow a turn of phrase from the great Bill Russell, "The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot." As a result, the Pelicans missed numerous shots at the rim during that stretch. Tyreke Evans specifically had a very difficult time finishing in the lane, a drastic departure from his previous success this season.
Because of the way OKC protected the paint, they managed to outscore the Pelicans in the lane, 66-46.
This is a great win for a struggling team. That said, if they don't follow it up at home with another win, tonight's efforts on both ends of the court will be wasted. Now is not the time to let up.
Here is a fun little pop quiz. Which NBA player said this recently?
"Just pull the trigger...There's no real deep thought process when it comes to that. I have a lot of confidence that I can make any shot on the floor, and when you're in rhythm and you feel like you're open, you've just got to rely on that muscle memory to take over and just pull the trigger and shoot it.
"That's kind of - if you think too much about it, I think you [do yourself] a disservice...Because then you start to break down your mechanics, overthink the situation. You've kind of got to be free on the court, and even, regardless of whether you're four or five feet beyond the 3-point line, if you feel like it's a good shot - which is a momentary, just, reaction or a thought - then just do it."
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 45 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists
Thunder Down Under: Steven Adams, 8 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, great job helping defend Anthony Davis
Thunder Blunder: Andre Roberson, 0 points in 12 minutes
Thunder Plunderer: Anthony Davis, 23 points, 8 rebounds
Next game: vs New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, Feb. 6 at 7PM CDT