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The Oklahoma City Thunder opened Tuesday night’s meeting with the Utah Jazz with an unbelievably hot team-wide touch, becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to knock down their first 12 3-point shots in a game. Such scorching shooting can only last so long, though, and as the Jazz started walking them down midway through the fourth quarter, you started to wonder what the Thunder had left in reserve now that they’d begun to cool off.
The answer, as ever: they had Russell Westbrook.
After the Jazz had come all the way back from 13 points down to take a 99-96 lead with 2:13 remaining, Westbrook entered beast mode, scoring 12 points in one minute and 50 seconds of game time capped by this wild running and-one bank shot that put OKC up 108-106 with 15.5 seconds left.
Utah point guard George Hill missed a 3-pointer on the other end that would have put the Jazz back on top, but Joe Johnson came down with the offensive rebound to get Utah a fresh possession after a timeout. Unfortunately for the Jazz, Johnson didn’t exactly make the most of that second chance:
The veteran drove baseline, hounded by Thunder center Steven Adams, got all the way under the basket … and then just threw the ball to Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant, who caught the ball standing in front of Jazz star Gordon Hayward for a critical steal that forced Utah to foul with 1.4 seconds left. Grant split his free throws, giving Utah one last opportunity to force overtime, but Oklahoma City forced Hayward to catch the ball nearly 40 feet away from the rim in traffic and his prayer went unanswered, allowing the Thunder to hold on for a 109-106 win.
Westbrook finished with 43 points on 13-for-28 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point range and 11-for-12 shooting from the foul line, against the NBA’s No. 3-ranked defense. He added 11 rebounds and 10 assists in his 39 minutes of work, marking his fifth 40-point triple-double of the season, tying him with MVP combatant and close friend James Harden and the 1953-54 version of Oscar Robertson for the most such games in a single campaign. It was his fourth triple-double in a row and his 30th of the season, putting him just one behind Wilt Chamberlain for a share of second place on the all-time single-season triple-double list.
He bounced back from a brutal mid-fourth-quarter stretch that saw him miss seven of eight shot attempts in a 6 1/2-minute span, and commit a costly turnover on a crossover gone awry with just over three minutes remaining, as Utah ripped off an 18-2 run to seize control of the game. As he’s done so often during this ludicrous season, he hit the gas late, coming through in crunch time with a closing kick that including buckets on five straight possessions in the final two minutes to leave the Jazz in the dust and continue his remarkable rampage through the record books.
“I just try to put myself in a position of, ‘Don’t panic, [you’ve] been there before,'” Westbrook told reporters after the game. “As a leader [my] job is to make sure my team is calm as well, and that’s what I try to do, is make sure everybody is level-headed and make sure we concentrate on executing down the stretch. Because many years, that was our problem, being able to execute and get the shots we wanted to, but I think that’s a part of my job, is make sure we execute down the stretch.”
For all the knocks on the wild nature of his game, Westbrook and the Thunder have tended to do a damn good job of that this season. Oklahoma City is now 21-11 in games featuring “clutch” time — defined as the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points — which is the league’s fourth-best record. The Thunder own far and away the league’s best net rating in such situations, outscoring opponents by 28.4 points per 100 possessions in the clutch.
The reason for that, simply, is Westbrook.
No NBA player has scored more points in “clutch” time than Westbrook’s 196. He’s now averaging 63.3 points per 36 minutes of clutch time — no, that’s not a typo — shooting 51.3 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from 3-point land and 86.5 percent from the free-throw line in the game’s highest-leverage moments.
Nobody’s got a better plus-minus in such clutch situations than Westbrook’s +95. No player who’s seen at least 10 minutes of clutch playing time even comes close to dominating as large a share of his team’s crunch-time possessions (a staggering 60.9 percent usage rate) or contributing as large a share of his team’s points in those situations (61.8 percent).
Everybody knows he’s coming, and how he’s coming, and when he’s coming, and it just doesn’t matter. Who needs the element of surprise when you’ve got the atomic bomb?
“We have a player in Russell that has great internal belief in himself and great internal belief in his teammates,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told reporters after the game. “He’s always playing with a great deal of optimism, a great deal of enthusiasm and a never-say die attitude.”
That combination of optimism, enthusiasm and attitude, along with sheer relentlessness and remarkable athleticism, has made Westbrook arguably the game’s most effective late-game killer this season. Even on nights where the Thunder don’t shoot 15-for-22 from 3-point land — and, given that OKC entered the evening dead last in the league in 3-point accuracy, it’s a safe bet more of those will come — his ability to boss the game in its most critical moments gives the Thunder a puncher’s chance damn near every night, and stands as the biggest reason that OKC sits at 35-25, just two games out of the West’s No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Whatever else the Thunder don’t have or can’t always rely on, they’ve got Russell Westbrook. When you need to win a basketball game, that’s a pretty freaking good place to start.
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