In the opening five minutes against New York, the Thunder's point guard missed his first three shots, clanging two jumpers and blowing a layup. Twelve seconds after the third miss, Westbrook rolled his left ankle after stepping on Mike Bibby's foot while uncontrollably barreling to the rim.
After subbing out for 22 seconds of game time, Westbrook returned and promptly picked up where he left off. He jacked two more jumpers, bricking them both to bump his brutal beginning to 0-for-5 from the field.
As recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago, we would have witnessed Westbrook lose his head. He would have become emotional, as he did during an 0-for-13 shooting performance at Memphis on Dec. 28, and played poorly the rest of the night.
But when Westbrook collected himself — making six of his final seven shots and turning it over only once more to lead the Thunder to a 104-92 rout of the Knicks on Saturday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena — his maturity mirrored the continued growth of his team's mental makeup.
“We are maturing,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “There's no question.”
The Thunder led by as many as 31 points and never trailed after taking a 14-13 lead. Oklahoma City jumped on a Knicks team playing without leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who sprained his right ankle two nights earlier at Memphis.
“In years past, if we seen one of their key guys were out, we would kind of be relaxed,” said Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 28 points. “Tonight, we didn't do that. We came out with a lot of intensity…So I think we are growing up.”
The Thunder also put on a clinic on how a team should handle a return home after a road trip, a game that is widely considered a “trap game” on the NBA schedule.
“They always say this is one of the tougher games, when you come back from a road trip,” said Brooks. “And we go right back out, so it was very important that we really lock in and defend tonight from the start and we did that.”
Oklahoma City didn't let up until the fourth quarter, when the Knicks outscored the Thunder 27-12 and became the most recent team to outshine OKC's second and third stringers in playing out the string.
The Thunder entered the final frame, however, leading by 27 points. With two minutes to play in the third period, the lead stood at 90-59.
As a result, no Thunder starter played a single minute in the fourth quarter for the fourth time this season. The first five also sat the final 12 minutes against Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio.
“We wanted to come out and focus on playing the right way,” said Westbrook, who finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals. “We did a good job of being the aggressors tonight.”
That's an understatement.
In the first half, the Thunder's trio of Durant, Westbrook and James Harden combined to outscore the entire Knicks team 53-47. By the break, Westbrook had already tied his season-high tally of eight assists.
The Thunder's 70 points at halftime were four short of the franchise's Oklahoma City-era record for the most scored in a half. Oklahoma City erupted for 74 on March 24, 2010 in an 18-point home win against Houston.
“We moved the basketball,” Durant explained of the first-half dominance. “We got some transition baskets with us playing defense, getting deflections and steals…We played together. That's the name of the game for us. If we continue to do that then we'll be fine.”
The Thunder moved to 11-2 after its sixth straight victory. Although Durant insisted his team isn't focused on the standings at this point, it's impossible to ignore the Thunder sitting atop the Western Conference standings and trailing Chicago by only a half game for the best record in the league.
“We're on a roll right now as far as the way we're playing,” Harden said.