OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook faced up on the left wing, sizing up Patrick Beverley. With a violent swing over his head, he moved the ball to his left and exploded with two dribbles at the rim. He blew past Beverley and softly laid the ball off the backboard.
As the ball bounced back up at him, Westbrook cradled his arms and rocked them back and forth, rocking the proverbial baby. It’s a new celebratory move he has pulled a few times this season, and busted it out earlier in the game after scoring over Avery Bradley even. This one, with the defender being Beverley adding some likely emphasis, Westbrook rocked an extra little bit, even topping it off with a goodnight kiss at the end.
“Yeah, you got little kids, you got little babies, put ’em to sleep,” Westbrook said. “That’s what happens. Little guards, you gotta rock ’em.”
Westbrook is an experienced rocker with a 17-month-old son plus two twin girls on the way this fall. He put the Clippers to bed as the Thunder overcame a 13-point halftime deficit, setting the tone in the third quarter. The Thunder used hyper-energetic defense and transition offense, coming out of the locker room on a 20-0 run that turned into a 39-10 quarter and a 74-43 second half en route to 128-110 win.
“He’s the engine, he’s the leader and he gets us going,” Paul George said. “You see him getting after it and our job is to back him up. That’s all it is. We see him turning that notch and going to another level. Our job is to match that.”
Westbrook constantly attacked the Clippers downhill and in the paint, resisting midrange pull-ups and 3s in favor of drives at the rim. He finished with 32 points on 13-of-25 shooting, plus 4 rebounds and 9 assists.
“Any time I’ve got small guards on me, any time the point guard’s guarding their position,” he said, “I’m gonna punish them.”
After an 0-4 start, the Thunder got on the board Sunday against the Suns, a likely lottery-bound team missing its biggest star in Devin Booker. The game against the quality Clips was a more straightforward test, and after a choppy first half that featured a bunch of whistles and a pile of free throws, the Thunder were facing another flat, disconcerting result.
Everything changed in the third quarter and, though it’s still early in the season, there was a feeling in the locker room after the game that the Thunder have unlocked a little something. They shot the ball miserably in their four losses — two being without Westbrook — and lacked a certain edge. Westbrook, who missed all of training camp after September knee surgery, was still shaking off some rust and George was not playing to his expected superstar level.
But the second half against the Clippers looked like what the Thunder want to be. Westbrook drives everything the Thunder do emotionally, George fills in the efficiency gaps with smooth, steady scoring, and the defense swarms and creates running opportunities. George started slow Tuesday night, but once Westbrook revved his engine, George came to life with 22 of his 32 in the second half.
The Thunder spent the offseason tweaking the roster, with a key subtraction and key addition, fine tuning to try and fit the identity Westbrook dictates and the one coach Billy Donovan prefers. They want to play with speed and tempo, making quick decisions and relentlessly attacking defenses. It’s not that Tuesday’s game is the formula, but it is a glimpse into the logic.
“I’m not saying it’s sustainable to hold a team to 10 points a quarter, but you have to play,” Donovan said. “That’s what it takes.”
Emotions spilled over in the fourth quarter with Beverley diving for a loose ball after a whistle and crashing into Westbrook’s knees, setting off double technicals between the two and a flagrant foul 1 for Beverley after a review. There’s a long, known history between them and Westbrook made sure to break out the rock-a-baby celebration after scoring on him. Beverley mimicked it back in Westbrook’s direction after scoring over Dennis Schroder at one point, which was received about as well as you might expect.
Westbrook checked out with about three minutes left and the Thunder up 20, walking to the bench with a smug grin and satisfied nod — the baby was down and it was time to rest himself.
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