Russell Westbrook barreled down the lane, blowing past the powerless Detroit Pistons defense, and threw down an emphatic tomahawk dunk. To punctuate the slam, he leaned back, flexed his muscles and let out a thunderous roar.
The basket gave the Thunder a mere four-point lead 2 minutes, 9 seconds in. But right then, you got the sense this one would be a blowout. Thunder players had a different look in their eyes and pep in their step. Thunder fans, who hadn't seen their team in more than a week, were full of the fervor that had faded in the last few.
When Westbrook whipped an on-the run, behind-the-back pass to Kevin Durant for a layup on the ensuing Thunder possession, the rout was on.
The Thunder took care of the Pistons 99-79 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena in a game that featured plenty of highlights and never was in doubt after those opening three minutes Monday night.
“I just tried to keep the excitement in the game,” Westbrook explained when asked about his two early highlights. “I just tried to keep the fans involved and keep my teammates involved as well.”
But for all the showcase sequences on offense, the Thunder cruised because of yet another shutdown performance defensively.
Oklahoma City led by as many as 32 points and trailed only when Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey hit a jump shot 22 seconds in for the first points of the game. The Thunder then forced the Pistons into missing 15 of their final 17 shots in the first period.
At the end of the first period, Detroit stared at a 29-12 deficit after shooting 16.7 percent. The Thunder pestered the Pistons into shooting just 34.1 percent for the game, and never let Detroit see 40 percent shooting after missing two of its first three shots.
“I thought our defense set the tone tonight right from the very first possession,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Monday night marked the fourth straight game in which the Thunder has held an opponent to less than 40 percent shooting. On Saturday, OKC held New Jersey to an opponent-low 31 percent. But when the Thunder took a 60-33 halftime lead, the Pistons' point total was two fewer than the Nets had at intermission, setting a new opponent low.
By out-rebounding the Pistons 51-38, the Thunder also excelled at an area that's been problematic thus far. Serge Ibaka led the way with a game-high 10 rebounds to go with another five blocked shots, the second time in as many games that Ibaka has swatted that many.
Ibaka's dominance was by far the most pleasant part of the blowout. After a slow start to the season had many questioning his value, Ibaka finally looks to be rounding into form. Over his past three games, Ibaka has tallied 29 rebounds and swatted 12 shots.
“He's back to protecting the paint and rebounding,” Westbrook said. “In the last five or six games, he's gotten people scared to come in the paint. I'd be scared if I was them, too.”
But nothing characterized the Thunder's defensive effort like the final two Pistons possessions of the first half.
When forward Tayshaun Prince looked to finish a fast break with a dunk, guard Thabo Sefolosha came out of nowhere to stuff him at the rim. And after Durant lost the ball, Sefolosha stopped another Pistons break, this time a 3-on-1, by blocking a short jumper by Jonas Jerebko.
With a 27-point lead at that point, no one would have groaned had Sefolosha stepped aside and let the Pistons score.
“Nothing Thabo does surprises me anymore,” said Brooks. “NBA players usually don't stop a 3-on-1 break. That's just Thabo's will and his determination to play every possession every second while he's on the floor.”
Just as the Thunder likes it, the defensive energy led to offense, with easy scoring opportunities coming off stops that allowed OKC to get out in transition.
The Thunder recorded 15 of its 19 fast break points in the first quarter alone. And those easy chances had a trickle-down effect that led to better ball movement and improved overall team ball. The Thunder had 13 assists by halftime, an extraordinary number for a team that finished with only 13 assists in two of its previous three games. OKC's 21 assists marked the first time in eight games that the Thunder handed out at least 20 helpers.
In the end, Westbrook (24 points), Durant (20 points) and James Harden (24 points) all scored at least 20 points, and the Thunder shot 53.2 percent, the fifth time this season OKC has connected on at least 50 percent of its field goals.
“Guys were making shots,” said Durant. “We were passing the basketball and we got some stops to get some easy points. So it was a good game for us.”