OKLAHOMA CITY — It was the perfect finish, the ideal answer to the first crunch time test for the new look Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook remained the clutch-time king, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the final five minutes.
But in the biggest spot, after Karl-Anthony Towns put the Minnesota Timberwolves up two with 8.9 seconds remaining, Westbrook did what many within the team claimed he’d do, but many outside were skeptical of — he found the open man. He drove right at Carmelo Anthony‘s defender, and dropped a pass off to an open Anthony, who splashed the go-ahead 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left.
Then, Andrew Wiggins went and messed it all up.
Using a hard screen on the sideline set by Towns on Paul George to get free, Wiggins crossed midcourt and let fly on a running jumper as the buzzer sounding. As Paul Pierce once said, Wiggins didn’t call bank; he called game as the Wolves stunned the Thunder, 115-113.
“Everyone was scrambling. Taj [Gibson] made a good pass, he was patient and found me, and KAT had a great screen to get me open,” Wiggins said. “And I let it go and it felt great.”
A night after a frustrating performance against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, the Thunder struggled with a lot of the same issues against the Wolves. Westbrook started slow, missing a number of shots in the paint and at the rim. George didn’t shoot the ball well — just 14 points on 6-of-20 shooting — and there were a rash of defensive breakdowns.
But after another steady comeback from the second unit, led by Raymond Felton, Westbrook found his clutch-time gear and took over. It was the Thunder’s maiden voyage into the clutch, and with plenty of curiosity over how they’d manage it with Westbrook, George and Anthony all vying for looks, it appeared to go near flawlessly. Westbrook was electric, George got solid looks (shots that he missed), and Anthony hit the big one after being set up by Westbrook.
“I thought Russ did a great, unbelievable job of shouldering that, kind of getting us going,” George said. “That’s who we have to be. Russ has to continue to be himself, he’s special when he’s at that level and we’ve just got to play up to his level and keep it going.
“That’s why he’s the MVP,” George said. “He’s going to make the right plays. At the point position, it doesn’t get any better at that position to me.”
In the same situation last season the Thunder found themselves in on Sunday, Westbrook took 13 of the team’s 17 shots, hitting four. He didn’t have a single assist in that spot. Against the Wolves, Westbrook made the simple, direct play. He always says the game tells him what to do, and in this case, it wasn’t a hard choice.
“His man helped,” Westbrook said. “Once you do that, you can’t leave a Hall of Fame guy like that open.”
(Relevant footnote: Anthony took the second most shots down two with less than 10 seconds remaining last season, hitting five.)
“I thought we won the game,” Anthony said. “I thought we were going to pull that out, and I thought Russ did a great job penetrating and attacking and somehow, someway I got open and made the shot. But Wiggins got open, got a screen and then hit a shot.”
There was, however, some discussion among the Thunder about the legality of Towns’ screen on George, whether it was moving or that he stuck a leg out.
“I ain’t looked at it but I’m pretty sure, it looked like it,” Westbrook said. “I haven’t seen it but I think it is, just based on the conversation we had in the locker room.”
Said George: “I don’t know if it was illegal or legal. The officials are human like we are, they make mistakes. Like we turn the ball over. It’s part of the game. Give Wiggins credit for making a big shot.”
Carmelo Anthony brought the home crowd to their feet by hitting a go-ahead 3 with under five seconds left. Look at the mad scramble that led to Andrew Wiggins’ dramatic game-winning shot at the buzzer.
Wiggins’ banker wiped out what would’ve been a early crunch time triumph for the Thunder, but there was conversation from the OKC locker room about why they were down at all. With his final five minute flurry, Westbrook finished with 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting, plus 10 assists. But it took do-or-die crunch time to bring that out of him. Westbrook finished as a minus-17 for the game, and his backup Felton a plus-23. In a complete reversal from a year ago, the Thunder were better with Westbrook… sitting?
That all changed in the final five minutes, largely because Westbrook went to takeover mode. The Thunder’s potential rests in Westbrook co-existing and lifting the games of Anthony and George, and they will crash and burn if his usage rate teeters into 2016 levels. But Westbrook is the team’s leader, and its best player. He’s the one that drives them. The first three games have been awkward at times as he searches for the right balance, and while the result of Sunday’s game left the Thunder stunned, they also may have found the beginnings of an identity.
“There are a lot of positives to take from it,” George said. “It just goes down to us not digging ourselves in a hole. We’re too talented for that, to put ourselves in that position. But again, the way we finished this game is, I think, what this Thunder team is all about.”