While OKC's defense clamped down on a lineup missing superstar Carmelo Anthony to back spasms, the offense got a jolt from a familiar friend. Three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook returned from a fractured right hand he suffered in just his second game of the season, and he quickly proved there was no lasting impact.
The 26-year-old tallied an impressive 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while converting on 12 of his 17 field-goal attempts.
And he did it all in 24 minutes, a historically efficient rate of production.
The seventh-year veteran won't officially be subjected to a minutes restriction, but his services weren't in especially high demand after the Thunder raced out to a 59-33 halftime lead with help from 20 of Westbrook's points. It's fortunate that head coach Scott Brooks could ease him back into action in his first appearance since Oct. 30, but all indications are that Westbrook is just fine.
"It feels great [to be back]," he told reporters before the game. "I feel great. Rested. So I'm happy to be back and ready to go out and try to win."
Since the broken hand didn't keep him off his feet, staying on the floor shouldn't be a problem.
"I've been able to run around, run and jump to keep my legs conditioned to be able to play throughout a game," Westbrook added. "So hopefully I'm conditioned enough to be able to go through a game."
The bigger question was whether his shot would be rusty.
The answer came via a 3-of-4 performance from three-point range.
Westbrook's rapid return to form couldn't come at a better time for the 5-12 Thunder. This club won't be back to full strength until reigning MVP Kevin Durant returns from a foot fracture (likely sometime in December), but his sidekick appears to have stopped the bleeding for the time being.
"The great ones make their teammates better," Brooks told reporters after the game.
Though often characterized as a shoot-first floor general, it's become increasingly hard to deny Westbrook's willingness to distribute the ball. It's even harder to dismiss the extent to which his energy and focus can become contagious.
"Russell has a great passion for the game, and he's been a tremendous leader for us," Brooks told media before Friday's contest. "He understands what he brings to the team. He brings a toughness, an emotional part that it takes for our team to be successful. And he's obviously one of the best players in the league, so we're all excited to have him back."
Given the possibility that it will take 50 wins to qualify for the playoffs out West, the Thunder could ill-afford many more games without both of their superstars. Though Reggie Jackson has filled in admirably during Westbrook's absence, OKC has been desperately short on firepower.
Around the Association
Clippers Make Much-Needed Statement
Six of the Los Angeles Clippers' first nine wins came against sub-.500 clubs. Their 10th victory, however, was a 102-85 win against the now 12-4 Houston Rockets. While those Rockets were playing without starters Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones, L.A. can still take some pride in the outing—arguably its best alongside early wins against the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns.
Blake Griffin took advantage of the Rockets' short-handed interior, tallying 30 points for the first time since Nov. 3 and helping secure a 12-point halftime lead.
"I tried to be more aggressive early—getting to the lane," Griffin told reporters after the game. "We just did a good job of moving the ball early. Even though they were banged up, I thought it was a good test for us."
Both of these teams are looking to establish themselves as the heir apparent to the San Antonio Spurs' grip on the Western Conference, particularly in the wake of Oklahoma City's early injuries. We probably shouldn't overreact to one meeting, but the Clippers will take whatever confidence they can get.
Mavericks Snap Raptors' Six-Game Winning Streak
Thanks to Monta Ellis scoring 15 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Toronto Raptors 106-102. Kyle Lowry's team-high 25 points weren't enough to keep Toronto's six-game winning streak alive, but the club still sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 13-3 record.
Meanwhile, the Mavs are leading the league in offensive efficiency with 116.4 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. And having added Chandler Parsons and old friend Tyson Chandler to a frontcourt led by the iconic Dirk Nowitzki, this team is proving it now has the talent to contend out West.
Timberwolves Rookie's Season High Helps Hand Lakers 13th Loss
Kobe Bryant's last-second three-point attempt clanked off iron as the Minnesota Timberwolves, led by rookie Zach LaVine and his career-high 28 points, edged the Los Angeles Lakers 120-119.
It was an encouraging sign from a Minnesota team missing starters Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. Though Kevin Love's departure signaled an inevitable rebuilding process for the organization, outings like this one point toward progress.
Now 3-13 on the season, the Lakers could use some progress of their own.
Warriors Getting Some Unexpected Help off the Bench
By now, we've come to count on the kind of outings Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had in Friday's 106-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets. They combined for 43 points and 10 assists.
But it was Marreese Speights' 27 points off the bench that gave the Golden State Warriors the edge on a night when Curry and Thompson only made 16 of their 42 field-goal attempts. Speights collected his buckets in just 24 minutes of action, raising his average to 12.6 points per contest through 14 games this season.
"I figured he was a guy who could give us a spark off the bench every now and again, but I didn't see him as our full-time backup center," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters after the game. "But Mo has been way better than I expected."
It was the 27-year-old's third game with at least 24 points since Golden State's 136-115 win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 16. He's become a consistent weapon and helped compensate for the fact that David Lee (last season's starting power forward) has only played seven minutes so far this season.
Draymond Green is getting the starts in Lee's place, but Speights is certainly doing his part as well.
"We were struggling to find a rhythm and he came in and dominated, took over the game," Curry added on Speights' performance. "He basically won us the game. Without him tonight, our team doesn't even come close."
No Hibernation In Sight for Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies handed the Portland Trail Blazers just their fourth loss this season with a 112-99 victory on Friday. Led by center Marc Gasol's 26 points and nine assists, Memphis strengthened its early grip on the top seed out West and improved to 14-2.
Though Gasol's transcendent play has been key to the Grizzlies' hot start, he's had help. Point guard Mike Conley added 21 points and came within one assist of a triple-double. Six players scored in double figures.
The win marks Memphis' fourth in a row and means the Grizzlies already have three winning streaks of at least four games, including the team's 6-0 start.
Quote of the Night
Kobe Bryant posted 26 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in the Lakers' losing effort on Friday. But it was the Timberwolves rookie swingman Zach LaVine who made 11 of his 14 field-goal attempts and stole the show.
Teammate Corey Brewer would like to officially rub it in.
LaVine himself was more modest about the contest, telling reporters after the game, "Crazy...caught myself couple times watching him, going 'damn thats Kobe Bryant.'"
The 19-year-old may have been a bit starstruck, but you wouldn't know it from his performance.