OKLAHOMA CITY — It started with Paul George in the left corner skipping a pass to Andre Roberson, who popped it to Jerami Grant, who quickly swung it to Russell Westbrook. And for a moment, with the shot clock hitting 4 seconds, Westbrook held the ball, considering either a shot or an isolation opportunity.
Standing at the scorer’s table waiting to check back in for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Carmelo Anthony yelled “one more!” and Westbrook fired a bullet back into the corner to George, who splashed from 3.
“I think we all hold each other accountable when it comes to that, but in a good way,” Anthony said. “We all watch film. It’s something I’m pretty sure we’ll discuss tomorrow, even though he did swing it to him and Paul made that 3. It was something that we stay on each other about, about keeping it moving, trusting in the pass, trusting one another.”
From a likely iso to a catch-and-shoot corner 3, it was picture-perfect offense for the Thunder, the kind coach Billy Donovan has been begging for since training camp. It’s the kind of stuff that has been inconsistent as the Thunder wobbled through their first 30 games, but the kind of thing that could unlock their potential.
Against the Jazz on Wednesday, the Thunder finally flexed for the first time in almost a month, blowing Utah out 107-79. It started with a tone-setting first quarter from Westbrook on both ends, with him hitting his first six shots, while also decimating Utah’s offense with ball-hawking and second and third efforts on defense. The defense finally turned to offense, and the Thunder went above .500 for the first time since Halloween.
The Thunder have quietly won eight of their past 11 games, but before the game against the Jazz, none of those victories was all that convincing. They were scratching out crunch-time wins, some against good teams, but they mixed in baffling losses to bad squads. Even with all the stumbling and the head-scratching play, there was still some belief the Thunder could figure it all out. And Wednesday’s game, albeit against a tired and injured Jazz team, was another glimpse of what that might look like.
“My personal opinion is they’re really, really good. and they’re going to get better and better,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before the game. “Maybe it’s good that we have to play them like eight times in December [actually, three times], so we don’t have to play them in February.”
Internally, 30 games was marked as a telling point in the season, a reasonable amount of time for the necessary jelling and meshing to happen. It’s now been 31 games, and with too many sins in the Thunder’s past already, it’s premature to suggest there’s any corner turning happening. But there remains a tantalizing potential, with the blatant evidence being that they’re a dominant defensive team that just can’t work out being even a decent offensive one, even with three superstars. If the offense could ever catch up, the Thunder could actually be a problem for the rest of the league.
Some of what has changed has been Westbrook. Coming off an NBA MVP campaign in which he averaged a triple-double and showed up to the arena to play 35 exhausting minutes every night, he started the season in an obvious shooting slump. His percentage dropped as low at 38.4 percent. And he has struggled from the free throw line, hovering in the low 70s.
But during the past week, starting with the overtimes against the Philadelphia 76ers, he has found his jumper again. There have been a lot of issues that the Thunder have been dealing with, but some of it was easily distilled to “Russell Westbrook isn’t playing very well.” With a near-perfect performance against the Jazz — 24 points on 10 of 13 shooting, plus 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals to 1 turnover — he has now hit almost 60 percent of his shots in the past three games.
“I thought tonight was a great example of picking his spots, when to speed the game up, when to attack, when to slow it down, when to find others,” Anthony said. “I thought it was a complete game from him.”
All three stars aren’t going to click every single night. There will be games where one will carry the other two. Against the Jazz, there was a look of more connectivity, with Westbrook peeling off after his hot start to find Anthony for some catch-and-shoot looks, while George got the ball in his hands to attack downhill. Neither George or Anthony had gaudy lines or anything — each had 18 points on 5 of 12 shooting — but there was a clear rhythm and flow. Plus, George dropped a vicious dunk on Derrick Favors that had the whole Thunder bench, but mostly Westbrook, howling.
“About time,” Westbrook said. “I told him he ain’t dunked on anybody in a long time. So it’s about time he did something.”
Same goes for the Thunder.