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Thunder vs Pelicans, final score: 4th quarter dominance spells 121-110 win

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The Thunder atoned from their 4th quarter mistakes vs the Hawks and got back in the win column in New Orleans.

Merry Christmas from Pierre
Bennett Berry

box score | The Bird Writes

The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the New Orleans Pelicans on the road, 121-110. Following a home loss to the Hawks where Russell Westbrook tried to do everything but still came up short, tonight’s game was about what happens when the Thunder play as a team. To be sure, the Pelicans continue to struggle on both ends of the court, where their output tends to be Anthony Davis and 1-2 other random guys who try to step up. What is important for OKC to remember is, against teams like the ‘Cans, consistency is better than occasional greatness. Bad teams are bad not because they are incapable of playing great ball, but because over the course of a game, the poor play reduces the great moments to meaningless highlights. To win, just be consistently a little bit better over the other 40 minutes of action.

And so it was tonight, when we got an absolutely perfect microcosm of the difference between OKC relying on Russ to play great in order to win vs everybody simply doing their jobs. Westbrook finished with another eye-popping stat line of 42-10-7 in only 34 minutes of play, which really isn’t materially different from what he did against the Hawks, where he finished with 46-11-7. However, the way he produced was significant. Check this out:

This is the Thunder players’ +/- for the game. Now since I am not particularly clever, I am sure you can figure out quickly who owns each stat. Westbrook, for all of his dominance, finished with the 2nd lowest of the game (all starters except one finished with a negative). By contrast, all of the bench players finished with positives, most in double figures. Why?

The key lies in the stretches during the 2nd and 3rd quarters when Westbrook rested. During the first half the much maligned Semaj Christon (5 assists, 0 turnovers) and the Thunder bench mob grew a 5 point lead into a 9 point lead, and they did it simply by moving the basketball and finding the open man. Enes Kanter (14 points), Joffrey Lauvergne (10 points), and rookie Alex Abrines (18 points, 5-11 from three) were key in building the lead. Remember, bad defensive teams are bad not because they can’t defend the point of attack, but because they can’t deal with the secondary and tertiary action. That’s what the Thunder bench did, and it was good enough to move OKC into the driver’s seat.

Enter Westbrook. Instead of continuing this team play, I counted 7-8 consecutive possessions where Westbrook failed to run any semblance of an offense, attacked on his own, and in short order single-handedly turned a 9 point lead into a 3 point deficit. Yes, he helped OKC eventually right itself to take a 5 point lead into the half, but he was working far too hard for far too little effect, and the result was the Pelicans were still in the game.

The pattern nearly repeated itself in the 3rd quarter, where Westbrook again could not create any separation for his team, and when he checked out of the 3rd with 2:04 remaining, OKC led only by 2. In came the bench mob, and instead of trying to overpower the Pelicans, they went to work by moving the ball, making New Orleans guard them for long stretches of possessions (instead of quick shots), and with less than 3 minutes gone in the 4th, that lead had grown to 13 points.

That lead stayed firm for another 2 minutes when Westbrook checked back in, and THIS time, Westbrook took a better approach. Instead of trying to assault the rim like he did against the Hawks, Westbrook showed great patience, made the Pelicans defense work, and in the end helped his team produce 34 points in the 4th on 59% shooting, including 4-8 from 3-point range. Abrines was the high 4th quarter scorer with 12, and overall 6 different players produced points. And most importantly, when Westbrook did shoot, it was in the natural flow of the offense, against favorable match-ups, and ultimately iced the game.

Random Notes

  • Westbrook didn’t record a triple-double, finishing with only 7 assists on the night, but once he settled in and let his teammates perform, I liked the way the ball was moving because of how it made the Pelicans’ defense have to move around.
  • Mutton Chops Abrines had his best shooting day as a pro, scoring 18 on 6-12 shooting, including 5-11 from three. Not every game is going to be like this, but by Abrines simply being effective for stretches, it can radically change the complexion of the game. Now, instead of Westbrook trying to force-feed a hot/cold Anthony Morrow, or the team being reliant on Andre Roberson’s moon balls, they can cycle through their shooters (throw Joffrey in there as well) until one of them starts hitting.
  • I’m seeing less and less of Sabonis involved in the natural flow of the offense, and I think that’s a big reason why the starting unit is struggling to score at times. Sabonis represents a very real offensive threat on the court, one that has to be guarded. But if he isn’t touching the ball, his effectiveness drops considerably.
  • Billy D really needs to let Steven Adams square up and shoot the ball. On several occasions, he was wide open at the foul line with the ball, and he didn’t even look at the rim. His unwillingness to present himself as a threat from a very makable spot on the court is hurting the team’s spacing.
  • 20-24 from the free throw line. Major improvement. Granted, 18 of those came from Westbrook, but still.
  • Bakers 7, in case you were wondering.

Next game: Friday, 6:30PM CST on Dec. 23rd @ Boston