OKLAHOMA CITY — A regular problem for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season has been third quarters, with good first halves being washed away by sloppy offense and lazy defense coming out of the break.
At shootaround Wednesday morning, Russell Westbrook addressed the problem. “We need to set the tone for the first quarter,” he said. “When we get to the third quarter, we’ll figure that out.”
Westbrook was referencing the start the Thunder had Monday in Washington, when the Wizards opened up 9-of-9 from the field and basically kicked off a blowout in the first six minutes. On Wednesday night, against the New York Knicks, it appeared to be more of the same, with Carmelo Anthony starting 7-of-7 and the Knicks rushing out to a 16-2 lead.
The spark for the Thunder came in the second quarter, naturally led by Westbrook, as Oklahoma City overcame a 17-point deficit to take a lead into halftime. Then, as Westbrook referenced, they continued to figure things out in the third and, behind their All-Star point guard’s stellar closing ability, finished the Knicks 116-105.
It gives the Thunder a feel-good win heading into the All-Star break, something of a “get right” game to get over the sting of the Wizards debacle and the emotional hangover of the Warriors game. There was some concern about the Thunder looking past the Knicks to a week off, and for Westbrook, with his awkward weekend ahead, teaming with four Warriors. But there was to be no glancing ahead.
“No, not if you got your ass kicked two times in a row,” Westbrook said before the game.
As the Thunder mostly go, it was Westbrook who propelled them ahead. He posted his 27th triple-double — he’s now alone for the third most in a season, behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson — with 38 points (on 13-of-22 shooting), 14 rebounds and 12 assists. He has had a season full of masterpieces, but Wednesday’s ranks near the top of the list. He didn’t have a rebound until well into the second quarter but picked up four quick ones, including two on the offensive end that led to buckets. He piled up six more quickly in the third quarter, taking New York misses and instantly turning them into transition opportunities. It was all a setup for his closing act, in which he knocked down two dagger 3-pointers and set up another for Jerami Grant to slam the door.
It was another example of just how much the Thunder lean on Westbrook. The offense tanked with him off the floor, and the energy dissolved from the building. Everything the Thunder do revolves around Westbrook’s scoring and playmaking, and even against a not-good Knicks team, it took Westbrook’s pinpoint orchestrating to pull away. Westbrook’s MVP case rests in games like this, a seemingly ho-hum win over a likely Eastern Conference lottery team, but one that doesn’t happen without a lot of heavy lifting by Westbrook.
The Thunder wrapped up a tough, draining week and a half, during which they lost in Indiana, beat the Cavs, lost to the Warriors and lost in D.C. They can turn the page to a slate of winnable games ahead, mostly at home, and start trying to focus on playoff seeding. But for Westbrook there’s no time to relax. He now heads to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend, which is supposed to be a fun time of showcasing your talent, but instead will put him on a team with Kevin Durant and three other Warriors.
Asked about “having the chance to get on the court with [Durant] as a teammate again,” Westbrook didn’t hesitate. “I’m excited about All-Star Weekend,” he said, the dodge plain and clear. “Just in general. Just to be able to be there and be able to enjoy the opportunity. Humbled by the opportunity to be there and be voted in, and I’m looking forward to it.”
It will be an uncomfortable four days in New Orleans, culminating with a game that nobody is sure how it will go. Westbrook’s previous trips to the All-Star Game have never been alone, and with Durant’s return game at OKC and the emotions that came with it still very fresh, the tensions will be high.
But one thing that will help Westbrook’s mood? He put a win in his pocket before he leaves.