When the worst defensive team in the NBA rolled into town Tuesday, it didn’t take long for the Thunder to realize it could do just about anything it wanted offensively.
Russell Westbrook then decided to do something that’s never been done before.
Westbrook set a Thunder record by registering 11 of his game-high 14 assists in the first half as the Thunder pummeled Philadelphia, 125-92, inside Chesapeake Energy Arena to extend the Sixers’ losing streak to 15 games.
It was the third straight win for the Thunder, which wrapped up its six-game home stand at 3-3.
Westbrook added 13 points and 10 rebounds in just 20 minutes, giving him his second triple-double this season and the eighth of his career. According to The Elias Sports Bureau, it was the second-fewest minutes in which a player recorded a triple-double since 1955. That year, Jim Tucker of the then-Syracuse Nationals needed just 17 minutes to do it.
“It’s crazy, man,” Westbrook said of the feat. “I’m just trying to get my groove back. I’m blessed to be able to do that in such a short amount of time.”
Kevin Durant, who notched a triple-double in the first meeting with Philadelphia this year, poured in a game-high 42 points with nine rebounds. It was his 10th 40-point game this season. He added three assists but jokingly said he deserved one more for Westbrook’s big night.
“I would like to take all the credit for that one,” Durant said. “I told him to try to get 20 assists, and that’s what he did. He made everybody better tonight. He was moving the basketball and was aggressive to the rim. I think that’s why everybody got open, because of his aggressiveness. He just set the tone for us.”
The Sixers, who haven’t tasted victory since Jan. 29 at Boston, entered the game giving up a league-worst 110.7 points per game, 4.2 more than the 29th-ranked Lakers. The Thunder’s point total was two shy of tying its season best.
Oklahoma City led by as many as 37, matching its largest lead of the season.
Westbrook did the early damage, picking apart the holes in the Sixers’ defense with his passing before finishing two shy of matching his career high for assists.
Westbrook chuckled when asked if he entered the game with a “pass-first” mentality, perhaps because that’s been the stigma that’s followed him throughout his career. But on Tuesday, he played a brand of ball that looked much closer to John Stockton than Allen Iverson, recording eight assists in the opening period while going scoreless in his first 6 1/2 minutes.
“That’s just how the defense was playing,” Westbrook said. “Guys were open and my job was to get them the ball. I just play off my instincts, man. I never come in looking to shoot first, pass first, rebound first. I just play off instincts. (If) some guys help, I hit them. If they don’t, I keep going.”
Fueled by Westbrook’s big start, the Thunder had 10 assists on its first 10 field goals. OKC had 12 assists on its 14 first-quarter baskets.
Westbrook dished seven straight assists during a 21/2-minute stretch, accounting for 15 points as the Thunder turned a six-point lead into a 13-point advantage.
“Russell understands what makes us work,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “There’s going to be nights where he gets nine shots. There’s going to be nights where he gets 19 shots … He understands. The game is at a good pace for him, and he’s put a lot of work into his game and he’s battled a lot of adversity this season.”
Only now does Westbrook appear to be overcoming the obstacles. He’s performed better in each subsequent outing over the past four games. He had a 24-point, nine-assist night against Cleveland, a 21-point, six-assist showing against Memphis and dropped 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting Sunday against Charlotte, setting a personal best for shooting accuracy.
As he continues to recover from a third operation on his right knee, Westbrook said he’s trying to prove only one thing to himself.
“Just being smarter, that’s about it, man,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn the game. I sat out enough to be able to learn and see different things. And every game is different. So my job as a point guard is to learn the game and try to find a way to keep us winning.”