Russell Westbrook was back at his best Wednesday as he led the Thunder to a blowout win over the Warriors.
There’s a symbiotic nature to the Warriors-Thunder rivalry, more so than most. The context isn’t new, but looms in the background of each meeting. The logic goes something like this: if the Warriors never rally to knock out OKC on their way to the Finals in 2016, maybe Kevin Durant never leaves, and then Russell Westbrook never wins MVP, then the Thunder almost certainly don’t swing deals for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony … and maybe the whole superteam arms race isn’t quite as pronounced. And so on and so forth.
But indeed those things happened, and as the two teams met for the first time this season Wednesday in Oklahoma City, it was also the first time anyone might have supposed the Thunder could earnestly feel great about how it went down. OKC took a lead five minutes into the first quarter and never gave it back, riding nearly rail-to-rail for a 108–91 victory. Hands down, this was the Thunder’s most convincing performance of the year as the three superstars clicked on all cylinders and the Warriors had none of their typical magic. And as with any good rivalry, that history and how-we-got-here was everywhere.
Oklahoma City’s great big experiment has largely missed the mark in the earlygoing: entering Wednesday, only two of the Thunder’s seven wins had come against the West (plus, they came against the struggling Clippers and Mavericks) and they had an 0–8 mark in games decided by a margin of eight points or less. So it meant something for everything to finally click, and came with a larger degree of validation given the circumstances. Westbrook rolled to 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, George poured in 20 to go with 11 rebounds and a substantive defensive effort and Anthony added 22.
In an offense where the ball can get sticky and the spacing cluttered, seeing Westbrook, George and Anthony all having fun at once was a flash of the Thunder’s substantial competitive ceiling. Twenty-four of OKC’s 33 first-quarter points were scored by those three players, all of whom hit multiple difficult shots to make it happen. The Warriors thrive off runs and running, but as the Thunder pressed and prodded there were few signs of life…unless of course, you count human emotion. “I don’t know if it’s a rivalry, but it's obviously going to be an overhyped game because of who we have and who they have,” Westbrook told ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth on-air after the win. It wouldn’t take much to venture a guess that he was lying.
Although anger and passion often subside as a function of time, the Durant-Westbrook stuff certainly has not. The feud between the two stars bubbled over briefly in midst of a game that was less competitive than it seemed. This time it was more aggressive than passive. Durant and Westbrook chirped after a foul in the second quarter, and things came to a head in the third, which, well, you can just watch for yourself.
But extracurriculars aside, Westbrook showed up at his most unstoppable. Triggered, (nearly) triple-double Russ was back. He snarled his way to all of his favorite spots on the floor and sank his teeth all the way in for a feel-good win at home, butting heads with Durant, Draymond Green and whoever else wanted some. His aggressiveness set the tone early, and Anthony and George fed off it as Golden State’s defense struggled to jell. In the end, he said most of what he needed to say with this dunk.
Good lord Russ, that rim has a family! pic.twitter.com/bSgWuwVi3c— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) November 23, 2017
Moreover, the visual of three All-Stars getting theirs at the same time is a rare and welcome sight. Westbrook, George and Anthony are who they are, which means there will be up and down nights, but also suggests an offensive showing like this is closer to par for the course than what most teams can muster on a good day. This will never be a team that zips the ball back and forth like its opponents, but the drive-and-kick creation and effective taking of turns with three guys this talented is a good place to start. Golden State looked oddly disjointed, sure, but it’s a clear touchstone for Oklahoma City at peak performance. Any sort of momentum they can gather from here is gravy.
Of course, in the context of the big picture, this result may not mean a thing. Such is the nature of the NBA’s grueling 82-game slate. It’s fun to think playoffs, but there’s still a sense of finality when Golden State is involved, no matter the opponent or score. We know the Warriors work because everyone buys in, we know everyone has bought in, and history suggests there’s no current team with the firepower to keep up in a seven-game series. After one massive win, it’s not clear what it will take for the Thunder to get back to this level and stay there, but we know it can work, and who the opponent was. Perhaps for the Thunder, that knowledge can be the first step.