Russell Westbrook has gotten pretty good at this passing thing.
And the Thunder has become nearly unbeatable when he's at his best distributing the ball.
Westbrook scored 13 points with a game-high 13 assists to lead the Thunder to a fairly routine 113-103 victory over Sacramento on Friday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
It was Westbrook's team-leading ninth double-double and his seventh game this year with at least 10 assists. Last year, Westbrook recorded at least 10 assists only six times all season, and that included a 20-game postseason run.
“The way he's been playing the last 10 games is as good as any point guard in this league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He finds guys. That's what we want.”
Westbrook's 13 assists tied his season high and fell just three short of matching his career high. Had his big men bobbled fewer passes, Westbrook could have easily surpassed his 16-assist high mark.
“He's a great passer,” Durant said. “He's getting into the lane and making the right decisions. I wish I could have made a few for him. I wish we could have caught a few more for him and maybe he would have had his career high in assists tonight. But he still had 13 of them. He's doing a great job of just facilitating and making our offense work. Coach is trusting him with the ball and he's making the right plays.”
Durant scored a game-high 31 points on 10-for-14 shooting. Serge Ibaka scored 18 points with 11 rebounds, and Kevin Martin added another 18 points off the bench. Thabo Sefolosha chipped in a season-high 15 points. But it was Westbrook's playmaking that provided the balanced scoring that allowed the Thunder to lead by as many as 24 points before bumping its record to 19-4, the franchise's best start to a season in the Oklahoma City era.
Following its point guard's lead, the Thunder finished with 29 assists and improved to 6-1 when Westbrook has at least 10 assists.
“I thought Russell did a terrific job to start the game and in that first half (with) his passing,” said Brooks. “He was getting guys easy shots. He was demanding a double team and kicking it out quickly.”
With less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, Westbrook sat on 11 assists — the same amount the entire Kings team had at that juncture. It would have been more if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins held onto multiple passes Westbrook made after slicing into the lane and drawing a secondary defender only to see his setups slip through the hands of his big men.
“Our bigs are going to have to continue to be ready to catch the ball because he's looking and he's finding,” Brooks said. “And we've done a good job with our spacing and I think that's helping him and helping all of our players.”
Westbrook was charged with three turnovers, but at least two of them were the result of catchable passes that fell out of bounds. That perhaps partly explained why he was in a foul mood even after one of his most encouraging performances this season as a floor general.
“I'm not (satisfied),” Westbrook murmured. “I can do better.”
The Thunder ran away in the second quarter. A 22-4 run in a seven-minute span was the difference. It turned a two-point lead into a 56-36 advantage with 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the half.
There perhaps couldn't have been a prettier spurt.
Oklahoma City built its lead with a beautiful blend of basketball that relied on defense turning into offense and ball movement leading to open shots. Four Thunder players scored during the run, led by Martin's nine points. Durant scored seven, Ibaka had four and Westbrook added two points.
The Thunder during the run turned four turnovers into eight points — a theme on the night as OKC scored 28 points off 18 Kings turnovers — and had seven assists on eight made field goals. Westbrook had four of those helpers.
“I thought our defense was really good. They had 16 points in that second quarter,” Brooks said. “They weren't getting a lot of good looks because we were defending. Give our guys credit, they came in in that second quarter and defended and Russell was making it really … he was leading the charge, both ends of the floor. And that's what he does. That's what I've always loved in him.”
OKC entered the final period with an 82-68 lead which swelled to 99-75 with 7:53 left to play. It appeared as if Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka would comfortably be able to take another fourth quarter off. But the bench promptly allowed an 18-4 Sacramento run that allowed the Kings to pull within 103-93.
Sacramento got as close as 103-98 after Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka returned. But to no one's surprise, it was Westbrook who finished off the Kings, with two assists naturally, both to Ibaka. The second dish led to a layup that put the Thunder back on top by 11 with 1:53 remaining.
“It's good,” Westbrook softly offered when asked his satisfaction level when his assists numbers match his point total. “But we just need to do a better job of finishing games.”