Last night’s performance by Russell Westbrook officially solidifies his return to full-time work. Last night’s 4th quarter performance by the Thunder defense was certainly a welcome change from the previous two 4th quarter outings, which I found rather surprising seeing that not only was Kendrick Perkins out after straining his left groin, but Thabo Sefolosha didn’t play either after acquiring a left calf strain. All in all though, it was a showing the Thunder really needed to regain their “scare factor”. Sure the win against Memphis came against a far tougher team, but this was the type of close-out we needed to remind ourselves of the dominance we displayed before the All-Star break.
The Bobcats started the game with two quick buckets in just under a minute, only for both to be answered in a full minute even. The second answer resulted in an “and 1” for Kevin Durant, giving the Thunder their first lead of the game at 5-4 less than two minutes into the opening period. The Bobcats quickly reestablished what would end up being their last lead of the game at 6-5 with just over two minutes of game clock expired. That’s when a Westbrook 3-pointer took the lead for the Thunder for good, and began an 8-2 Thunder run to establish a 5-point lead (13-8) with 8:25 to play in the 1st quarter. The Bobcats actually played quite well up to the 5:20 mark, when they were only down 17-14. However, an energizing dunk by Durant sparked a 14-6 Thunder run to give them their largest lead of the game to that point, 31-20 with 1:12 left in the 1st. The Bobcats would then end the 1st with 5 unanswered points, cutting the Thunder lead to 6 (31-25) after 1 quarter of play.
A couple of free throws would extend the Bobcats’ run to 7, which cut the Thunder lead to a mere 4 (31-27) with just over a half-minute expired in the 2nd quarter. The Thunder would then hit on a very quick 8-2 run to push the lead back out to 10 (39-29) less than two minutes into the 2nd. A foul-filled period that saw both Serge Ibaka and Gerald Henderson each go 3-for-4 from the foul line ended with the Thunder reestablishing an 11-point lead (46-35) with an even 6:30 to play until halftime. Then a quick 8-2 Bobcats run cut the lead to 5 (48-43) while only taking an even 1:15 off of the game clock. The game stayed pretty close for the rest of the first half, as the Thunder could only push the lead out to 6 (61-55) at the break.
Charlotte opened the second half scoring the first 5 points, cutting the lead to 1 (61-60) until just over two minutes into the 3rd quarter. That’s when a 16-7 run pushed the Thunder lead back out to double-digits (77-67) with just under 5 minutes to play in the 3rd. A quick 6-0 run was able to cut the lead to 4 for the Bobcats (77-73) while shaving less than a minute off of the game clock, but another strange foul-filled period would occur. This one allowed the Thunder to pull off a 6-1 run that featured nothing but made free throws as the scoring buckets, reestablishing a 9-point advantage (83-74) with 1:43 left in the 3rd. The Bobcats had no intentions of going away quietly however, as they ended the first on a 7-2 run that was still active, once again cutting the lead to 4 (85-81) as the 4th quarter began.
If there’s one thing I’ve definitely noticed about this team, it’s that a win seems like more of a guarantee if the Thunder are either barely ahead, or slightly trailing heading into the final quarter. It’s like that’s what they need to keep their blood pumping up to the final whistle. If they’re too far ahead, they tend to fall asleep and give games away they should have already locked down. If they’re too far behind, they’ll stop playing entirely, and the look of defeat becomes all too noticeable. If they’re in a dogfight heading into the 4th, they tend to respond with their best basketball, and close games in the most dominating fashion the Thunder can achieve. This close-out was no different, leaving no room for doubt who the better team was on the floor last night.
The 4th opened with the Bobcats run that closed the 3rd ending at 10-3, pulling within 2 (86-84) with just under ten minutes to play. Sadly, that was the closest the Bobcats would get again, as a 6-0 Thunder run not only pushed the lead back out to 8 (92-84), but began one of the most impressive close-outs of the season. The Thunder would build on the 6-0 run to outscore the Bobcats 30-12 all the way up to the game’s closing few seconds. This scoring burst culminated in what would be the most impressive run of the night, starting with 14-0 run that would end at 18-4, giving the Thunder a 20-point lead, 116-96. This would have been the final, except for the fact that a meaningless Bobcats 3-ball fell through with 3.5 seconds remaining, only allowing the Thunder a 17-point victory, 116-99. This victory puts the Thunder at 45-15 for the season, while dropping the Bobcats to 27-32. This win also completes a 2-0 season-series sweep for the Thunder, as well as marking the first time in four games the Thunder have held the opposing team to less than 100 points.
Durant didn’t have all that good of a shooting night, but his 28 points still led all scorers to take the floor for the 2nd-straight game, including a 12-for-12 performance from the charity stripe. It was actually Westbrook’s performance that stood out, as his 26 points made him the #2 scorer to take the floor for the 2nd-straight game as well. The more impressive stat is that those 26 came off of 10-for-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from downtown. Although let’s not forget the lone double-double posted by Ibaka (15 points, 10 rebounds) that marks his 21st of the season. Add Reggie Jackson’s 17 points from the bench, and there was just too much firepower for the Bobcats to surmount.
Al Jefferson’s 25 points made him the only Bobcats starter to reach double figures in any stat category, as the more inspired performances came from three bench players who combined for 39 points. Anthony Tolliver led the group with his 17 points, followed by Gary Neal’s 12, and ending with Cody Zeller’s 10.
The Thunder will now try to focus on their third-straight win as they prepare for the end of a 6-game home stand. The Thunder will be looking to sweep another season series as they welcome the 76ers to Chesapeake Energy Arena tomorrow night. The first, and so far only matchup of the season series saw the Thunder claim a 103-91 victory back on Jan. 25th. With Westbrook back to form, you would think the 76ers are in for a long night. Strange things happen everyday however, so I wouldn’t chisel this victory in stone as of yet. Tip-off is scheduled for 7pm CST, and the game will be brought to you via Fox Sports Oklahoma, WWLS The Sports Animal, and NBA League Pass.