AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Russell Westbrook wanted to have a big game on his big day.
That much was clear from the opening moments of Monday night's game at Detroit, where the Thunder's point guard needed less than five minutes to hoist six of his team's first eight shots.
It was Westbrook's 24th birthday and, at times, he appeared too caught up in trying to celebrate by going on a one-man crusade to crush the worst team in basketball. But once Westbrook settled down and played within the system, he was able to walk out of the Motor City with his good vibes intact following a scare from the winless Pistons.
Westbrook scored 14 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Thunder to a 92-90 win over Detroit inside The Palace of Auburn Hills. Westbrook made 11 of 25 shots and added 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals while turning it over just twice in 44 minutes.
“He did,” said Kevin Durant when asked if Westbrook wanted to have a huge game. “Early on he missed a few easy ones, but he kept going and his pace was way better in the second half. He kept us in the game, and in the fourth quarter he opened it up for me to get some points.”
Durant added 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder outscored the Pistons 30-17 in the final period to come from 13 down and notch its fifth consecutive victory.
When the Thunder entered the fourth trailing by 11, Westbrook took over. He scored a pull-up jumper and then followed that with a series of drives that led to either free throws or layups. His layup with 4:19 remaining gave him 12 of the Thunder's first 19 points in the final period and put the Thunder ahead 81-79.
The icing on the cake, if you will, came when Westbrook soared in from the right wing to snatch a rebound following a missed 3-pointer by Durant. Had the Pistons grabbed the ball, they would have had a chance to pull within one or a tie in the final 13 seconds. But Westbrook was immediately fouled and made both free throws to push OKC's lead to 90-85.
“I thought he had a good floor game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Westbrook. “He was competing and he was getting people involved. I thought he took about three or four shots too many in the first half. They were tougher shots that he normally would take. But overall I thought his effort was good. I can never complain about Russell's effort.”
Ultimately, though, what delivered the victory was Brooks making the right move in a chess match with Pistons coach Lawrence Frank. Detroit toyed with the Thunder's defense through three quarters — shooting 46.4 percent — until Brooks moved Durant to power forward and Serge Ibaka to center, with Kevin Martin at shooting guard and Thabo Sefolosha at small forward. It presented the Pistons with a more athletic lineup that then had to solve a swarming defense that stifled their attack at every spot on the floor. Most impressively, that unit gave second and third efforts that were absent through the first three quarters, playing through seven Pistons offensive rebounds and still shutting down Detroit's offense.
The Pistons started the final period 0-for-9 from the field and made just seven of 27 shots in the quarter — the final one coming on a meaningless 3-pointer courtesy of guard Rodney Stuckey at the final buzzer.
“This one is all on Coach Brooks,” Durant said. “He made the perfect adjustments for us to win by switching every screen and putting the most athletic defenders out there…Coach won this one for us.”
Durant and Ibaka paired up to supply perfect paint protection. In that decisive fourth quarter, they combined for seven of the Thunder's season-high 12 blocked shots, with Durant registering all four of his rejections in the period.
Meanwhile, the Thunder went 18-for-18 from the free throw line in the fourth. First OKC used its free-throw precision to claw back into the game, as nine of the team's first 11 fourth-quarter points were scored at the stripe. Then the Thunder put the finishing touches on the Pistons, who fell to a franchise worst 0-8 start, by going 6-for-6 at the line in the final three minutes.
“We never quit,” Brooks said. “That's one of our trademarks I'm so proud of. We always play hard until the end. There's a lot of games that we don't play well, but there's very few were we don't play hard. And tonight there were so many set-up opportunities to say it wasn't our night; four (games) in five nights, in three different cities. But we didn't use those as excuses nor will we ever. I thought our guys just did a good job of staying with it and playing for 48 minutes.”