Russell Westbrook came into Wednesday night on as hot a run as any player in the NBA, but he opened the Oklahoma City Thunder’s meeting with the Washington Wizards — and his old head coach, Scott Brooks — about as frigid as can be. The do-everything All-Star point guard missed seven of his first eight shots — including four layups and an attempted dunk — and the Wizards capitalized on his sluggish start, taking a 13-point lead after the first quarter.
You’re not going to believe this, but the man who wore this ensemble to the Teen Choice Awards did not suffer from a crisis of confidence after that rough beginning.
“Just keep going, man,” Westbrook told FOX Sports Oklahoma’s Lesley McCaslin after the game. “I never stop. My mentality is to keep going, and my job for this team is to keep staying in attack mode. I missed some easy shots early, but one thing about me: I won’t ever stop.”
That’s a good thing for the Thunder, because while it resulted in an unsightly stat line through the first 43 minutes of Wednesday’s contest, it also allowed Westbrook to remain bold enough to keep striking rocks together until he finally caught fire, and just in the nick of time:
With the Wizards holding a 105-102 lead and 17.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Westbrook created enough space against Wizards guard Bradley Beal to step back behind the 3-point arc and fire a game-tying triple. He hadn’t made one all night, but this one splashed through the net with 8.5 seconds left, sending Chesapeake Energy Arena into hysterics and knotting the game at 105.
The Wiz had a chance to end it, but after throwing a killer crossover to work around Jerami Grant and earn his way into the lane, Washington point guard John Wall decided to look for a pass rather than his shot, leading to a deflection, a scramble for the ball and a juuuust off try by Otto Porter, sending the game to overtime:
Damn, Everywhere Otto almost saved this. But why didn't Walll go harder to left side, maybe earn a foul? Baffled. pic.twitter.com/WKu3tQnhDQ
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) December 1, 2016
That would be the Wizards’ last, best chance, as the Thunder came roaring out of the gates in OT, scoring the first eight points of the extra session — four by Westbrook, one by Grant (after offensive rebounding a Westbrook miss) and three by Victor Oladipo (assisted by Westbrook) — as part of a 13-2 run that broke the game open and sent OKC to a 126-115 win.
After dropping three straight to the Pacers, Lakers and Kings, the Thunder have now won four in a row. In what might be a related story, Westbrook posted his fourth straight triple-double on Wednesday:
Westbrook finished with a game-high 35 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists — his league-leading ninth triple-double of the season, in just 20 games, and the 46th of his career — to go with two steals in 41 minutes of work. Those outsized numbers maintain his triple-double average; through 20 games, Westbrook is now putting up 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 11.3 assists in 35.7 minutes a night. As impressive as the bottom line is, though, the “finish” is the most important part, in this case.
With five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Westbrook had 14 points on ghastly 5-for-24 shooting. Over the next 10 minutes of game time — the final five of the fourth, and the overtime session — he scored 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting. (That’s three more than the Wizards managed during that entire stretch, by the way.)
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It would be overly simplistic and reductive to say that Westbrook won this game by himself. The defense that his Thunder teammates played down the stretch to hold Washington to 18 points on 6-for-20 shooting over the final 10 minutes played a huge role, and his screeners got him open, and Oladipo scored eight of his 25 points (to go with six rebounds and six assists) in that same span. All that mattered plenty, too, and if OKC hadn’t come back from the seven-point deficit they faced with five minutes remaining in regulation, it certainly would’ve seemed fair to suggest that Westbrook, with 19 misses and five turnovers, had done as much as anyone to lose the game for the Thunder.
With the game in the balance, though, Westbrook cranked his level of play up a notch and finally found his level. It’s a level at which Westbrook has operated for most of the last month, one matched by few competitors in NBA history, and one that the Wizards simply couldn’t meet on Wednesday.
“Never stop believing in yourself and your capabilities of doing what you’re able to do on the basketball floor,” Westbrook said after the game, according to Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press.
The closing kick on Wednesday night — and really, this whole first quarter of the 2016-17 NBA season — proved that pairing talent as titanic as Westbrook’s with the kind of unfettered opportunity that allows you to post the highest usage rate of all time and utterly unshakable self-confidence can create something truly remarkable … even if it sometimes takes a while to show up.
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