Last year’s league MVP set a new record this week, becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder’s all-time leading scorer (15,967 points). More importantly, Westbrook has led the team to six straight wins, posting a gaudy stat line of 30 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds on 56/40/84 shooting splits. These stats represent a stark improvement over his season averages: 24 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds on 42/31/72 splits.
Earlier this season, both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George said they wanted Westbrook to be Westbrook, and they would find a way to fit in. Well, it takes three to tango (okay, maybe not, but you get the point), and Westbrook has been dancing.
Melo has been a regular target of criticism in this column. In summary, his career-long habit of hogging possessions to hoist contested isolation jumpers has plagued the Thunder. Maybe a tiger can change its stripes, though. In the month of December, Anthony’s usage rate has dropped to 22 percent (vs. 25 percent in November). Over the six-game winning streak, the number of catch and shoot attempts for Anthony has spiked from 40 percent of his attempts to 44 percent — which is exactly the way that the Thunder needs him to play.
Anthony no longer needs to be the focal point of an offense, but rather a spacer who can hit catch-and-shoot jumpers from anywhere, and only when needed, create a shot. In this role, Anthony becomes one of the most lethal third bananas in basketball.
Though it’s hard not to focus on the offensive side of the ball, a player can have a significant impact even with pedestrian offensive statistics. Case in point, Andre Roberson. Roberson’s offensive stats are ugly, but he’s a critical part of the team’s identity. When Dre is on the court, he boasts a defensive rating of 95.7, which is good for sixth in the NBA among players who have played at least 20 games. Roberson also ranks ninth in the league in defensive box plus-minus.
Now, if numbers don’t thrill you, just watch how Roberson masterfully defend’s James Harden on the game-deciding play on Christmas:
The Thunder has won 20 games this season. Half of them have been over teams currently in the top eight of their respective conference (i.e., playoff teams). Those wins also include victories over the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Raptors, four of the best teams in the league. As frustrating as this season has been (with head scratching-losses left and right), it’s evident the Thunder can play with — and beat — anyone.
Stranger Than Fiction
In the midst of an explosive third quarter against the Raptors, where the Thunder scored 36 points and extended a three-point halftime lead to fourteen, Chesapeake Energy Arena literally caught on fire. “We were on fire, the roof was on fire,” Paul George said after the game. Yes, yes, they were. Oklahoma City shot 59 percent from the field in the third, including 67 percent from three. Hot.
Remember last season? When Russell Westbrook made approximately 300 game-deciding shots? Well, he’s back at it again. Though the Thunder let the lowly Atlanta Hawks threaten to steal one, Russ emphatically ended the Hawks’ hope of an upset with the game-winning three with 1.7 seconds left in the game.
AND ONE MORE MAKES SEVEN…
Throughout the game, Raptors’ big man Jonas Valanciunas tried to make things chippy. First, he attempted to pry the ball away from Westbrook during a dead ball when Westbrook was on the floor. Later, he body slammed Steven Adams to the floor when both players were jockeying for position on a rebound (a double-foul was called).
Adams exacted revenge in the sweetest way possible — posterizing Valanciunas on an epic throw-down.