Thunder fall to lively Hornets

(Photo by Sam Murch)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — For most of the season, Russell Westbrook’s chase of the triple-double record and his team’s success coincided. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s success rate when he reaches those magical double-digit numbers made the historical ride beyond reproach.
However, the luster is starting to come off as the Thunder have dropped three of their last five games in which Westbrook earned a triple-double. The latest came Sunday afternoon, when the Charlotte Hornets beat Oklahoma City 113-101 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Westbrook registered his 40th triple-double of the season as he posted 40 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. He is now one triple-double away from tying the record held by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (1961-62).
But when asked what he feels about potentially tying the record, Westbrook didn’t want to talk about it.
“We gotta win,” Westbrook said. “That’s my thoughts.”
Kemba Walker scored 29 points to lead Charlotte (36-41). He shot 10 of 20 from the field and 6 of 12 from the 3-point arc. Frank Kaminsky came off the bench to post 18 points. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 16 points and six rebounds as the Hornets pulled within 1 1/2 games of Miami for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot pending the Heat’s night game against the Denver Nuggets.
Thunder guard Victor Oladipo scored 19 points while Andre Roberson added 12. No other player scored in double figures as Oklahoma City (43-33) dropped its second straight game. The sixth-place Thunder are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference standings.
Oklahoma City didn’t help its efforts with 24 turnovers.
“We were just making bad mistakes, bad decisions,” Westbrook said. “Starting with myself, we have to take better care of the ball.”
Oklahoma City used an 11-1 run to cut the Hornets’ lead down to 102-91. A three-point play by Cody Zeller halted the Thunder momentum.
Leading by 12, Walker drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Westbrook answered right back from the same location.
After getting a stop, Westbrook had an opportunity to cut the deficit, but he missed a layup in traffic. Marvin Williams then hit a pair of free throws to give Charlotte a 110-96 lead.
However, Westbrook knocked in a 3-pointer and was fouled. He missed the free throw and Oklahoma City trailed 110-99.
That was enough to put the game away for Charlotte.
“Every guy who played today contributed,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “Starters got off to a great start. … Then, really, it was the guys coming off the bench that really got the cushion there early in the fourth.”
The Hornets began the afternoon by spreading the wealth around. Nine different Hornets scored in the first half.
But it was the bench players who sparked the Hornets. Kaminsky and Marco Belinelli combined for 17 points in the first half.
“When our level of play off the bench is very high, we just play with a lot of energy,” Kaminsky said. “Then the starters can get more rest when we are playing well. If we can play like that going forward, I think we will be in a good spot.”
Oklahoma City turned to Westbrook and Oladipo to carry its scoring load. The backcourt duo had a slow start, but picked up the pace in the second quarter as they posted 34 points, but the Hornets still led 59-54 at halftime.
Charlotte picked up its defensive presence in the third quarter and took apart the Thunder. Oklahoma City didn’t score until 6:24 left in the quarter when Westbrook drove the lane and scooped in a layup.
Westbrook scored 13 straight points as he tried to take over the contest. Yet Charlotte still held a 14-point advantage going into the fourth.
“This is one of the best defensive games we played in a while,” Charlotte’s Steve Clifford said. “I know (Westbrook) had 40 and we didn’t make a lot of mistakes on him. He is such a great shot maker. He had 40, but I feel our defense on him was good.”
After the Thunder reserves cut the Hornets’ lead down to 12, Jeremy Lamb hit a string of baskets to get Charlotte’s lead back up to 21.
“It was great. We were on a string on both ends of the floor,” Lamb said. “Played good defense, did good gang rebounding. Even though Russ still had 40 and still had a triple double, we made him take a lot of shots to do it. That was good. Just an overall great win for us.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com

Westbrook explodes in 4th to take down Pelicans

(Photo by Torrey Purvey)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook has the ability to hurt opposing teams in a variety of ways. But regardless of which way the Oklahoma City point guard chooses to rip apart clubs, the foundation is his aggressive nature.

This was on display Friday when he scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Thunder to a 118-110 victory over the slumping New Orleans Pelicans at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The 21 points is the most Westbrook has ever scored in the fourth during his career.
“I think throughout the game, I try to find ways to pick my spots,” Westbrook said. “Tonight was the fourth quarter. Some nights it may be early, some nights it may be late. I just play. The game will tell you what to do. If something is working, I keep doing it.”
Westbrook ended the night with 41 points on 14-of-29 shooting from the field. He also posted 11 rebounds, 11 assists and nine turnovers to notch his 29th triple-double of the season. It was also his seventh career 40-point triple double, which tied Wilt Chamberlain for second most in NBA history.
“I just stay in attack mode,” Westbrook said. “I did a terrible job of taking care of the basketball. But I stayed in attack mode and tried to help us win.”
Enes Kanter came off the bench to score 20 points and grab nine boards. Steven Adams and Alex Abrines each scored 13 points for the Thunder (34-25).
Anthony Davis led the Pelicans (23-37) with 38 points and seven rebounds. DeMarcus Cousins added 31 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out. E’Twaun Moore was the only other player to hit double figures (10). It was the third straight loss for the Pelicans since acquiring Cousins in a trade last week.
“I thought we played well,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I thought we did a good job. We started the game the right way. At the end of the day, Russ made all the plays down the stretch. You have to give them credit.”
With the Thunder leading 94-93, Westbrook hit back-to-back 3-pointers before Kanter added two free throws.
That forced Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry to bring Cousins off the bench with five fouls and he promptly was fouled and hit two free throws.
Westbrook came right back down and nailed another 3-pointer. Davis scored four straight points, Moore drilled a corner 3-pointer and the Pelicans were back to within three points with 3:50 left.
A Westbrook jumper pushed the Thunder lead to 107-102. But Cousins responded with four consecutive free throws to cut the lead to one.
Westbrook ended Cousins’ night when Jrue Holiday let him drive straight down the middle of the lane for a tomahawk dunk on Cousins, who picked up his sixth foul on the play. The three-point play gave Oklahoma City a 110-106 advantage.
“Obviously it changed the game from the standpoint of we were able to throw the ball inside and he was playing well,” Gentry said. “It took all of that away. Like I said, Russ made all the plays at the end of the game.”
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With 1:41 left, the Pelicans had the ball and trailed by four. But Holiday missed a 3-point attempt and that set up two free throws on the other end for Westbrook. He hit two more on Oklahoma City’s next possession and that was enough to close out New Orleans.
The Thunder won the rebound battle 53-26 and owned the points in the paint 56-40.
The night started very spotty for Cousins as he and Adams picked up double technical fouls 32 seconds into the game on what appeared to be light jostling for position. One minute later, Cousins was hit with his second foul and had to sit on the bench the rest of the quarter.
“I have to fight through the adversity and ignore the negativity and just do what’s best for the team,” Cousins said.
Despite that, Davis was able to have his way with the Thunder defense. Whether it was Adams, Kanter or Taj Gibson, no defender had an answer for him as he posted 24 points in the opening 12 minutes.
“He had two fouls at the 10:30 mark,” Davis said of Cousins. “It’s tough when he goes out. I tried to make shots and get other guys involved.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com

Thunder revamp lineup with 5-player trade

 

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – While most of the teams in the NBA have a timid approach when it comes to making trades, the Oklahoma City Thunder never have been in that category. 
As the 2016-17 trade deadline approached Thursday, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti once again showed he is not afraid to make moves. 
Presti sent guard Cameron Payne, forward Anthony Morrow and forward Joffrey Lauvergne to the Chicago Bulls for forward Taj Gibson, forward Doug McDermott and a 2018 second round draft pick. 
This was the third major trade the Thunder have been involved in since the end of last season. Only seven players remain from the unit that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. 
The move strengthens the Oklahoma City bench and provides more consistent scoring around MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. 

Russell can help both of these guys, and both of them complement him,” Presti said. “I think we’re a better team this evening than we were this morning.”

Gibson leaves Chicago averaging 11.6 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. McDermott is posting 10 points a night while shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. 
Gibson, who had been with the Bulls for eight years, says he didn’t find out about the trade until after Thursday’s practice. 
“We were joking about (trades),” Gibson told the Daily Herald. “Nobody really took it seriously the whole practice. When (Jimmy Butler) heard the news, he texted me because everybody just left and didn’t know what was going to happen. 
“He texted me that he loved me of course and he’d see me in the summer. Continue to keep doing well and go get the bags. That’s his words.” 
The Thunder return back to action Friday night for their first game since the All-Star break. It is doubtful Gibson or McDermott will be in uniform when they host the Los Angeles Lakers at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. 
The Lakers are still feeling the impact of the takeover of Magic Johnson, who was named president of Basketball Operations Tuesday. 
The Hall of Famer met with his team for the first time Wednesday in the Lakers’ first practice since before taking off for All-Star weekend. It didn’t take long for Johnson to sell the talented, but young Lakers on where he wants to guide the franchise. 
“The Lakers organization isn’t a losing organization,” guard D’Angelo Russell told NBA.com. “He wants to get back to where we were.” 
Johnson led the Lakers to five NBA titles in his 12-year career. Along with Larry Bird, he is credited with turning around the NBA in the 1980s. 
But Johnson might have an even tougher challenge doing the same for the current Lakers (19-39), which sit one game out of last place in the Western Conference. 
Johnson’s first move as president was to trade sixth-man Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and an unprotected first-round pick. Los Angeles also showed interest in trying to pry Paul George away from the Indianapolis Pacers, but was unsuccessful. 
“Everything happened so fast,” Lakers coach Luke Walton ESPN.com. “The initial thought is why do it right before the trade deadline, but Magic came in and we got to work right away.” 
However, whether the Lakers made any trades or not, Westbrook really wasn’t concerned. He made it clear, he doesn’t care what changes are made to other teams. 
“Like I’ve always said, I never worry about other teams,” Westbrook said. “I don’t care if the Lakers have Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Kobe (Bryant), it don’t matter. All my job is to worry about my team and who we got here and we go out and compete.” 
One of the pleasant surprises for Oklahoma City was having center Enes Kanter return to practice for the first time since he fractured his forearm Jan. 26 in a game against Dallas when he slammed it into a chair. 
The Thunder have been without his 14 points and almost seven rebounds a game and it has showed. 
Kanter took part in drills Thursday and Friday, but coach Billy Donovan hasn’t said whether he will be available when the Thunder host the Lakers at Chesapeake Energy Arena. 
“Him being out there with the team, it’s just good to have him back,” Thunder center Steven Adams said of Kanter. “Just a lot of energy.” 
Oklahoma City (32-25) has 25 games left on its schedule. Only seven of those are against teams with winning records. As they fight to move up in the standings, the players admitted to looking at the standings and talking about what they have to do going forward. 
“We want to try and create some rhythm, some momentum going toward the right direction,” Westbrook said.

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com

After slow start Thunder dismantle Knicks

(Photo by Torrey Purvey)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City wasn’t just carrying a simple two-game losing streak when it came into Wednesday night. Both losses to Golden State and Washington were blowouts in which they were never in contention to win.
Russell Westbrook wanted to make sure the Thunder were able to put those games behind them before heading into the annual All-Star weekend. Spearheaded by his 27th triple-double, Oklahoma City defeated the New York Knicks 116-105 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“You always want to have a good feeling, a good taste in your mouth going into the break,” Westbrook said. “And then you make sure you come back ready to play.”
Westbrook scored 38 points to go with 14 rebounds and 12 assists. He now sits alone in third place all time for most triple-doubles in a single season.
Victor Oladipo poured in 21 points on 9 of 17 shooting. Jerami Grant came off the bench to score 13 points while Steven Adams added 11 points and eight rebounds to raise the Thunder to 32-25.
Oladipo was particularly impressed with what the Thunder got from Grant.
“He played great today,” Oladipo said of Grant. “He needs to play like that every night.”
Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 30 points on 11 of 20 shooting. Derrick Rose collected 25 points and Courtney Lee scored 16 as New York dropped to 23-34.
With the Thunder leading by seven, Rose came up empty on a layup with under six minutes left in the game. The Thunder got the rebound and passed it ahead to Westbrook, who was fouled attacking the basket.
Westbrook sank two free throws to put Oklahoma City ahead 101-92. Anthony came back down the court and drained a turnaround jumper on Andre Roberson.
Westbrook was fouled again and he made 1 of 2 from the line. However, he grabbed his own rebound and then knocked down a 3-pointer for the four-point play and a 105-96 advantage.
“I did know I missed it,” Westbrook said of the free throw. “Good thing I know when it’s going to be short. I can usually go back and get it real quick. It’s good for our crowd, it’s good for our team. It hurts the other team, obviously. That’s a good play for us.”
After Courtney Lee hit a midrange jumper, Westbrook and Grant hit back-to-back 3-pointers and the Thunder pushed their lead to 111-96.
That was enough to close out the Knicks for the night.
Oklahoma City hit 12 of 23 shots from 3-point range and outrebounded New York 48-39.
“It’s a strange thing, but when you’re not scoring, your defense slacks off,” Thunder coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I think that’s what happened to them in the first quarter and to us almost the rest of the game.”
Anthony was on the attack from the opening tip. Despite the defensive-minded Andre Roberson guarding him, he hit his first six shots of the night.
But it was more than Anthony, who helped the Knicks grow its lead to 17 in the first half. As a team, they knocked down 6 of 9 from 3-point land and it looked like they had taken the Thunder out of the game early.
But Oklahoma City found renewed energy on the defensive end and started forcing New York into turnovers. This allowed Oladipo and Westbrook to get out on the breaks for easy scores.
The Thunder backcourt combined for 20 points in the second quarter as Oklahoma City held a 62-60 halftime advantage.
“Just being aggressive,” Oladipo said. “Being aggressive and shooting the ball with confidence and going out and protecting the win.”

Thunder run past Trail Blazers in 4th

(Photo by Torrey Purvey)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — Portland had a specific game plan when they came into Oklahoma City. Damian Lillard wanted his Blazers to match the physical prowess and intensity of the Thunder and their best player, Russell Westbrook.
However, when the Thunder are playing at home in front of a raucous crowd, that can be a difficult task to perform. The Trail Blazers learned that Sunday during a 105-99 defeat to at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“They won the effort battle,” Lillard said. “Not that our effort wasn’t there. They got a lot of offensive rebounds. If the ball was loose, they got to them before we did. They out-aggressived us down the stretch. It felt like they wanted it a little bit more than we did. In that situation, we have to fight harder. We have to want it more.”
Westbrook scored 19 of his game-high 42 points in the fourth quarter to lead Oklahoma City. He hit 16 of 34 shots from the field to go along with eight assists and four rebounds. It was the eighth time this season in which he reached 40 points, tying him with Houston’s James Harden for the NBA lead.
“He doesn’t stop,” Lillard said of Westbrook. “As a group, we love the challenge. You know he’s not going to stop. He is a hell of a player having an MVP season.”
Victor Oladipo added 24 points and 13 boards for the Thunder (30-22). Andre Robertson may have had his best game of the season with 11 rebounds and 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
Oklahoma City center Steven Adams finished with 13 rebounds, nine of them on the offensive end. The Thunder outrebounded the Blazers 56-44.
Lillard led Portland with 29 points on 9-of-22 shooting. CJ McCollum posted 19 points and eight rebounds for the Trail Blazers (22-30).
With the game tied at 85-85, Westbrook knocked down back-to-back jumpers in transition to give Oklahoma City an 89-85 lead with 5:37 left.
The Blazers wasted an offensive possession, and Westbrook made them pay with another midrange jumper. After Oladipo made a pair of free throws, the Thunder lead was up by eight points.
Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu broke the scoring drought and closed the gap to 94-90. McCullum drained a 3-pointer, and Oklahoma City’s lead was only three points.
After Portland got a defensive stop, it had a chance to close to at least within one. However, the Blazers turned the ball over, leading to a pair of Oladipo free throws.
Lillard was forced into an off-balance shot, which he missed. The Thunder got the rebound, and Westbrook took over. With Aminu guarding him, he faked right at the top of the key and came back left. Aminu got turned around and headed toward the basket. Westbrook was still standing behind the arc and calmly buried a 3-pointer to push the Thunder lead to seven.
As he went back upcourt, he was stomping on the court yelling, “Where are you going?”
That pretty much closed out the game. The Thunder made their free throws to put the contest to bed.
“They outplayed us in the fourth quarter,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “The bottom line, it came down to that. We didn’t do the things in the fourth quarter that you have to do. Westbrook played great.”
The Thunder started the afternoon as if they were in a hurry to get their Super Bowl parties. Adams had three offensive rebounds in the first two minutes of action.
“It was a huge tone that we came to play,” Westbrook said. “It shows that we are fighting. We want to be the team that hits first. Regardless of how many misses, but we played hard all game.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com

Westbrook paving a new path, on and off the court

(Photo by Torrey Purvey)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — More than three hours before each game, Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook can be found in the same place. Whether he is on the road or at home. Whether it’s a late West Coast start or even early afternoon in the east. The routine never changes
Before any other players have arrived and almost two hours before the fans are even let into the building, Westbrook is going through warmups on the court.
For close to 30 minutes, Westbrook goes through an assortment of drills while joking, laughing and talking trash with Oklahoma City assistant coach Maurice Cheeks and anyone else who happens to be in his vicinity. His laugh can be heard throughout the nearly empty arena before he scolds assistant coach Royal Ivey for even trying to guard him.
It’s a side of Westbrook seen by very few outside the Thunder organization.
Hours later, as game-time approaches, that side of Westbrook has faded away. In its place are the scowls, the ferocious dunks and the stare-downs — all features of one of the most competitive and unique players in today’s game.
“I just go out and have fun. I don’t know if it’s the most fun I’ve had, but it’s definitely at the top because the group of guys we have,” Westbrook said. “Everybody is so unselfish. Everybody is willing to do great things, and everybody wants to get better. We’re young and blessed to be able to play this game. You can’t do anything but have fun.”
It can easily be said that this NBA season has been all about Westbrook. While many believe the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are destined to meet for a third straight NBA Finals, the Thunder point guard has stolen his share of the headlines with his exploits.
In his ninth year in the league, Westbrook is on the verge of doing something that has only been done once before by averaging a triple-double for the entire season.
That feat is now solely owned by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson during the 1961-62 campaign. But Westbrook is charging his way up the mountain to not only join the Big O, but do it in a much more spectacular way and in less time on the court. Robertson played more than 44 minutes a game while Westbrook is right at 34.
Westbrook’s stat line looks like something you would see only on video games. Heading into February, he had already compiled 24 triple doubles and was averaging 30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.2 assists per night. He leads the league in scoring and is second in assists.
Even more impressive, Westbrook is 11th in the NBA in rebounding. He is hauling in more boards than DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Vucevic and Tristan Thompson, who are all 7-foot centers. No other guard is ranked inside the top 20.
This season alone, Westbrook has already passed up LeBron James, Fat Lever and Larry Bird on the all-time list for career triple doubles. He sits in fifth place by himself, trailing only the likes of Wilt Chamberlain (78), Jason Kidd (107), Magic Johnson (138) and Robertson (181).
Yet, Westbrook doesn’t want to focus or elaborate on the historical milestones he is reaching.
“I definitely don’t take that for granted,” Westbrook said. “Like I’ve said before, every night I step on the floor I try to compete at a high level and I am thankful that I can play the game that I love every night.”
More often it’s opponents of the Thunder who are more impressed with what Westbrook is doing than the man himself.
“He is putting up phenomenal numbers, I think it really just comes down to heart, passion and will,” Phoenix Center Tyson Chandler said. “Every second he is going full speed, giving 100 percent. He is just putting his will into the game. I have the utmost respect for Russ because at the end of the day, you know what you are going to get. He is going to give you everything he has got every time he steps on the floor, and I really respect that.”
One of the coaches who has faced Westbrook the most during his career is the Dallas Mavericks skipper Rick Carlisle. From regular-season matchups to postseason battles, he has had a front seat view to Westbrook’s exploits.
But even Carlisle is amazed how much Westbrook has elevated his game.
“It’s historic,” Carlisle said. “He is averaging a triple-double. It’s amazing. He has boundless energy and never seems to lose it. The team is playing well. They are a load to deal with because of his greatness as a starting point. The question is whether he can continue it. I don’t see any reason he can’t. To this point, it’s been an amazing accomplishment and should probably be talked about more than it is.”
Westbrook has always been a talented player. There has never been any question about that since he was drafted fourth overall by the Thunder in the 2008 draft.
What Westbrook had to prove is that he was capable of being the type of leader franchises are built around. Up until this season, he’s shared leadership duties with Kevin Durant. But when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State, the Thunder fortunes fell on the shoulders of Westbrook.
As the season has gone on, the questions regarding Durant have become fewer and fewer. Even most visiting media have moved on.
But that will change with the Warriors coming to Oklahoma City on Feb. 11 and the All-Star game right around the corner, where both Westbrook and Durant will be on the same team.
Yet, Westbrook contends the only players he thinks about are the ones in a Thunder uniform.
The first thing Westbrook did to solidly himself as the face of the franchise was to sign a contract extension in the offseason that will keep him here through at least next season.
The next step was to transform himself into a player that can not only be great, but make those around him better. It’s a task he looks to be getting a handle on.
“I remember my first game was at Charlotte, and from the first game he gave me so much confidence. I mean whenever I am out there on the floor with him, he just gives me so much confidence,” Thunder forward Enes Kanter said. “He makes the game so much easier for everyone around him. That is what a really special player does. And then you see him on the court, and he’s not just cool on the court, but off the floor too he is a really good friend and a really good locker room guy that is always talking to players and tries to get the young guys involved too. He’s amazing.”
Off the court, Westbrook has never hidden from his responsibilities to his organization or community. Whether it’s appearing at various team-wide community events and Christmas shopping sprees, or using his foundation to build reading rooms at elementary schools and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for underprivileged families, he doesn’t shy away from his responsibility.
That includes speaking up on tough topics. Earlier in the year, he stated strong opinions against the election of Donald Trump as President. Friday, he said current players in the league need a better understanding of the importance of Black History Month.
“A lot of people may not know. We’ve got a lot of younger guys in the league that may not understand African-American culture,” Westbrook said. “For me I know that was important, that’s something I studied in college. To be able to know your history, know your background, know where you’re from, and how we’re able to do the things we do today, I think it’s important, not just for people in the NBA, but everybody across the world to have a good understanding of what Black History Month is.”
These are comments fans would not have heard two or three years ago.
The 2016-17 season has in many aspects been a new start for Westbrook. While he isn’t reinventing himself, he is providing more glimpses of who of who he is and who he can become.
“It’s the things off the floor,” Westbrook said on the fun he’s having. “Being able to chat with guys, not just on the basketball court but in the locker room, taking guys out to dinner, and having team events. To be able to do that and to see another guy do well and you are happy for them, that’s a blessing to be able to do that inside of a team. Nothing can break that bond.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer at Eyeamtruth.com

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