Tidbits from the Thunder’s 100-95 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night inside FedExForum:
- Tonight was a microcosm of what makes OKC point guard Russell Westbrook so great, and what makes him his own worst enemy. As far as I’m concerned, although he shot 60 percent from the free-throw line, this was Westbrook’s best game of the young season with 30 points, 12-for-20 shooting from the field, six rebounds, four assists, one game-clinching block and two turnovers. Particularly impressive was Westbrook doing this while battling unlucky number 13. He shot 0 for 13 from the field when he last stepped inside the building 13 days earlier.
So focused was Westbrook, he reportedly told teammates not to talk to him during the 11 a.m. shoot-around session inside the arena earlier in the day. Westbrook evidently wasn’t kidding, scoring 12 points in the first quarter, shooting 4 for 4 from the field and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line and having zero turnovers.
Westbrook’s first miss was at the 5:50 mark of the second quarter when he was fouled on a layup (no call). By halftime, he had 18 points, went 7 for 8 from the field in the first half and still had no turnovers. Westbrook’s first bad shot was a 26-footer with 9:15 left in the third quarter, which started a stretch of three straight misses and two turnovers. Westbrook’s entire mood changed. He begged for fouls, nothing was ever his fault, but no anger was directed at teammates.
After the second turnover with 3:36 left in the quarter, Westbrook started cussing himself while running back down court. Thunder coach Scott Brooks stood up, clapped his hands several times fast and screamed, “Let it go, Russell. Let it go. Come on.”
This is where Westbrook could have gone in the tank. There have been several times he has. Westbrook will start out great and finish lousy. On this night, however, Westbrook stabilized and came up big. To Brooks’ credit, he yanked Westbrook with 1:18 left in the third and let him cool off until reinserting him for good with 9:17 remaining.
Westbrook came up clutch, burying a 19-footer with 2:22 left to give OKC a 93-87 lead and then converted a reverse layup off a sweet Kevin Durant pass underneath. The finishing touch came when Mike Conley blew past Westbrook for an easy layup, which Westbrook partially blocked from behind with 21.9 seconds left that essentially sealed the win when Perkins came down with the rebound and converted both free throws for a 99-92 lead at 19.7 seconds.
In the span of one game, Westbrook went from being virtually unstoppable, to being careless, to being self-destructive, to be clutch. Westbrook is outrageously athletic. He also is outrageously emotional. If Westbrook is ever able to properly channel that emotion while continuing to improve his game, there’s no telling how great he could be someday. But it’s all up to him, and that’s what makes this entire journey so nerve-wracking.
“Russell was really good,” Brooks said, seemingly with a sigh of relief. “He controlled the game, he controlled the tempo, he did a good job of picking his spots and running the plays. His mid-range game was really effective tonight and his layup game was good.”
- Twenty minutes before tip, while the Thunder was in its pre-game layup line, Perkins stood underneath the basket and slammed an ally-oop bounce pass straight up for James Harden and Westbrook. Harden politely dunked his ally-oop. Westbrook, however, cupped the ball, cocked it back and threw it down. As Westbrook nonchalantly walked to the back of the line, several teammates stood frozen with mouths and eyes wide open. Westbrook flashed a smile and teammates shook their heads.
- As is always the case, Westbrook is a much better interview when discussing his teammates than when talking about himself. Westbrook couldn’t wait to share his thoughts on Perkins (13 rebounds; two blocks) and guard Thabo Sefolosha, who had 12 points, shot 3 for 3 from 3-point range and played superb defense on Memphis forward Rudy Gay (7 for 21). “Thabo did a great job,” Westbrook said. “He does this all year. Perk does what he does. In my opinion, he’s the best post defender in the league and he showed that tonight.”
- OKC finishes 2-0 inside FedExForum during the regular season, which is no small feat. But Durant, as usual, was keeping it real after Tuesday’s game. “Let’s put it in perspective now,” Durant said. “The first time they didn’t have (Mike) Conley (injured ankle 24 seconds into the game) and tonight they didn’t have Zach Randolph (out 6-8 weeks with a knee injury). Of course they’re a much, much better team with those two guys on the floor.”
- Randolph was missing, but the game no doubt was still physical, just like every game last season, which culminated with the Thunder winning the Western Conference semifinal 4-3 to advance in the playoffs. “We’re both competitive teams,” Durant said. “We really don’t enjoy each other. We don’t like each other, to be honest. We didn’t last year in the playoffs. Of course, they thought they had a better team than us. I think we’re building a nice little rivalry between us.”
- OKC outscored Memphis 26-12 at the free-throw line, a sign of the Thunder’s aggressiveness getting to the rim.
- Durant shot only 7 for 20 from the field, but the rest of his game was unaffected with 11 rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot. “I missed a few shots I should have made tonight – a few layups and few wide-open jumpers – but I didn’t let that get me down,” Durant said. “I was still being aggressive, still trying to make good passes to my guys.”
- Sefolosha entered the game fifth in the league in 3-point shooting (.538). After Tuesday night, he is now 10 for 16 on the season (.625). On the flip side, Daequan Cook started the season 14 for 29 (.483) from 3-point range and has since gone 1 for 7.
- In the locker room after the game, forward Serge Ibaka had a spirited conversation with Sefolosha. Ibaka talks slowly in broken English, but he goes 100 mph when speaking French. No clue what they were talking about, but Ibaka vented and Sefolsoha set him straight. Sefolosha’s presence with Ibaka is immeasurable. Ibaka is only 22 years old. It’s hard to imagine the culture shock he would have felt not being able to communicate with anyone on the team.
- There was a nice dinner spread inside the Thunder locker room afterward and rookie Reggie Jackson was reminded of his freshman status. “Hey, rook,” Cook said to Jackson, who was filling his own plate. “Make me a light plate, will ya? Just a little bit of chicken. Appreciate ya. You looked good out there tonight, if I haven’t told you.”
- It’s always good to talk to Nick Collison, about anything and anyone at anytime. The Thunder could win 15 straight games and Collison would still find ways for the team to improve while not minimizing what it had just achieved.
Collison on Perkins: “He was really good tonight. He made some big plays down the stretch, some big rebounds. He did a good job communicating, which he always does. He was big for us.”
Collison on Westbrook: “He was taking better shots and he got it going. He was confident tonight. It was good to see. His shot was falling. I thought he played really well. Defensively he controlled the ball too a lot which is huge for us.”
Collison on why it’s always a fist-fight against Memphis: “I think it’s their style of play. They’re always trying to score in the paint. Statistically, they score more points deep in the paint than anybody in the league, so that’s where they’re trying to go.”
- Perkins’ 13 rebounds were a season high by four. He had one blocked shot in every game this season, but on Tuesday he had two. “Just trying to do what I can to help us keep winning,” Perkins said. “One thing I’ve been wanting to put an emphasis on is picking up my rebounding and my blocked shots, so over the next couple of games you’ll see me putting in more effort to rebound and block shots.”
- This-’n-that: FedExForum is the loudest arena in the league, but not from crowd noise. It’s because of an outrageous sound system with monster speakers pointed straight down onto the court from inside a massive scoreboard. … Piped-in noise is white noise. … Tuesday’s crowd was 13,601, well below the 18,119 capacity. … The crowd’s loudest reactions were with boos, not cheers. Only a tacky crowd spends more time booing the officiating and the opponent rather than cheering for its own team. … The bearded fan who gave the Thunder bench an earful during the last game on Dec. 28 was uncharacteristically quiet on Tuesday. Not sure why. Did he learn a lesson from last game? Did someone from the Grizzlies organization have a chat with him? Was he embarrassed at what transpired last game? Did he not want to anger the Thunder? Who knows?