Oklahoma City Thunder Prove They Can Win Ugly Too
You wouldn't normally expect a team to pull out a victory on the road when it tallies 22 turnovers and one of its star players misses 15 of his 22 attempts from the field.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't your ordinary NBA team, nor is Russell Westbrook your ordinary superstar sidekick. For all of their pop culture appeal and penchant for exciting play, Westbrook and the Thunder know full well how to win when they're not at their best.
They served a reminder of as much on Thursday night with a gritty 97-91 win over the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
Turnovers are nothing new for the Thunder. They ranked among the league's most mistake-prone teams last season and have only seen the sloppiness increase in 2012-13. As such, OKC's 22 giveaways amidst Chicago's stifling defense are hardly worth writing home about.
What was surprising, though, was how few miscues came by way of the usually wild Westbrook. Just two of OKC's turnovers were deemed Russ' responsibility.
Even more surprising was how the Thunder prevailed despite Westbrook's inability to put the ball in the basket. He managed a relatively modest 16 points, but missed 15 shots along the way. Usually, when Russ doesn't score efficiently or effectively, OKC loses.
Except, Westbrook did more than look to score. With his shot out of sync, Russ opted to play like an actual point guard, delivering pinpoint passes and setting up his teammates for easy hoops on the way to a 12-assist evening.
Might this be a sign of things to come for Westbrook? Has he figured out that an appearance by "Bad Russ" doesn't necessitate the absence of "Good Russ," that he can consistently impact the outcome of a game in more ways than one?
That might take some getting used to if that's the case.
Though, really, it'd require no more of an adjustment than OKC's ongoing growth in the aftermath of James Harden's jarring exodus.
Which, by the way, the Thunder seem to be dealing with just fine, thanks. Serge Ibaka looked like a viable third option at times in Chicago. He led all scorers in the first half and finished the game with 21 points on 15 shots, along with a typical tally of nine rebounds, four blocks and a steal.
OKC's second unit hasn't exactly dried up, either. Kevin Martin, The Beard's de facto replacement as the Thunder's sixth man, continued his sublime start to the season with a 15-point (on just five shots!), six-rebound, two-assist effort. Eric Maynor, who missed all but nine games last season with a torn ACL, chipped in 10 points (on just four shots!) and three assists in 12 minutes of backup duty.
Whether or not Thunder head coach Scott Brooks squeezes such productivity out of his reinforcements going forward, he can always count on one constant: Kevin Durant coming through in the clutch.
As he did against the Bulls. Durant finished with a team-high 24 points, including eight in the final 3:16 of the fourth quarter. It seemed as though every time Chicago tried to sneak back into the lead, the Durantula had a response of his own.
Not this time.
An answer he's given many times and will have to turn to plenty if OKC is to hang on in the West this season. The Thunder, as a whole, have the pieces—two perennial All-Stars, a third youngster poised to break out, a productive bench—to win games in which they don't necessarily play well. The Bulls took 11 more shots and ripped down more rebounds than did the Thunder, including a 12-8 advantage on the offensive glass.
But the mark of any great team is its ability to eke out wins against quality competition, even when the shots aren't falling and the passes aren't particularly crisp.
To be sure, these Thunder aren't great right now and may not be by season's end. There will still be nights when Westbrook tries too hard, when Durant is too passive and when K-Mart's scoring isn't facsimile enough of the all-around creativity that made Harden such a crucial part of OKC's success.
Keep in mind, too, that these Bulls were without Derrick Rose, he of the well-documented recovery from injury. Tom Thibodeau's team came into Thursday's action with a 3-1 record, but had played an early schedule comprised exclusively of the NBA's bottom feeders.
Can the Thunder contend for the title without James Harden?
But a win is a win, regardless of how it's won or against whom it's achieved, especially when it comes away from the raucous confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
And if Westbrook can be an all-around threat (and not just an attacker), if the Thunder can grind out victories on off nights (and sprinkle in some resplendent results along the way), they may yet find themselves back atop the West, with team-wide greatness not just a thing since jettisoned to Houston.
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