OKLAHOMA CITY — About a second separated the shot and game clocks, and Russell Westbrook stood a step over the half-court line casually dribbling the ball as T.J. McConnell stood in front of him, halfheartedly in a surrendered defensive stance.
With a 122-112 win over the Philadelphia 76ers secured, Westbrook watched the clock drain, eyes blinking fast — a tell that his blood is rising — and shooting looks back and forth between it and the Sixers’ bench. As it closed in on zero, he dropped the ball and locked onto the Sixers’ bench. As the Sixers inbounded to run off the final seconds, Westbrook walked toward his tunnel, keeping his eyes on the Philly bench. It wasn’t subtle.
As time expires in Oklahoma City’s 122-112 win over Philadelphia, Russell Westbrook appears to be eyeing down the Sixers’ bench.
After a triple-overtime marathon in December between the teams, in which plenty of trash talk was exchanged, ending with Westbrook telling Joel Embiid to “go home,” to which Embiid — obviously — responded in his own way postgame, Westbrook had his eyes on this game. It’s standard Westbrook to say he approaches every game the same way, but it was clear he wanted to put away The Process and the Sixers. With 37 points, 9 rebounds and 14 assists — 23 points and 9 assists coming in the second half — Westbrook relished slamming the door, turning to the crowd and shooting glances at the Sixers’ bench at every opportunity.
It’s the way of Westbrook to take any grudge, whether real or perceived, and amplify it on the court for a little extra juice. Anything for an edge, and with the Thunder playing an early tipoff a day after winning in Detroit, an emotional game where they lost glue guy Andre Roberson for the season with a brutal injury, Westbrook was ready to turn up. It’s what he does best.
“I thought midway through the third quarter our energy changed,” coach Billy Donovan said, “and I thought Russell had a lot to do with that.”
The last time the Thunder and 76ers squared off, Russell Westbrook waved to Joel Embiid at the end of the game. On Sunday night, Embiid drops monster dunk against Westbrook.
The atmosphere intensified early, with Embiid throwing a vicious dunk over Westbrook in the first half as Westbrook tried — and spectacularly failed — to draw a charge. (Which Embiid, naturally, posted about on social media.) And again when spark plug Justin Anderson finished a tip dunk off a missed free throw over Westbrook’s back. Anderson flexed and posed under the basket, but seconds later, Westbrook was in the process of going coast-to-coast for his own monster slam, preening, posing and yelling “I’m coming m—–f—–” as he stomped his way back up the court.
“I play the same way,” Westbrook said. “I can’t really give you another answer because I do the same thing every night, regardless of what’s going on.”
Westbrook took 20 shots in the first half, hitting only six, and teetered on the edge of flying out of control. But as much as Westbrook has improved at anything the past few years, it’s at self-correcting and re-aligning his emotions to channel them properly. He cranked up the energy a little bit more, refocusing it to bring out the best from Paul George.
George was a two-way demon in the second half, snatching passes, ripping ball handlers and stepping into smooth jumpers. He finished with a “quiet” 31, as Donovan called it, but with Westbrook egging him on, met the energy level in a burst late in the third. George, typically calm and cool, erupted after a momentum 3, hopping his way to courtside fans with both arms up.
“It’s Russ, it’s this arena, it’s the fans, kind of everything collectively, it gets me to a level where I explode,” George said. “But it’s just that energy as a group that we create and sometimes you can’t hold it in.”
There have been moments where the Westbrook-George duo seems to have found something, and the second half on Sunday was another one. The chemistry within the entire team has been growing all season, but specifically with Westbrook and George, there’s a connection being built. They are learning how to play off each other, feed off one another’s emotion and energy, and lift the other to a higher place. Plus, they have each other’s backs, with another example being George’s attempt to poster Embiid a few minutes after Westbrook got dunked on.
“Oh, absolutely, yeah, yeah, absolutely,” said George, who will team up with Westbrook on Team LeBron against Team Steph and Embiid at the All-Star Game. “I was trying to finish that one on him.”
Russell Westbrook discusses how he is finding his groove, the competitive history between the 76ers and Thunder, and Paul George participating in the All-Star Game after DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury.
And with the Thunder still a little shell-shocked over the loss of Roberson, Westbrook was ready to respond. Leadership is something he takes pride in, and maybe it was coincidental that he showed up in a plaid bathrobe to the arena — teammates call Roberson “Robes” — but he was intent on pushing the Thunder forward.
He repeated it again — he plays the same way every night, did you know that? — but it’s rare to see him play 40-plus minutes in a game. And sitting at 31 with the Thunder’s fourth-quarter lead slipping early, he wanted back in the game. He instantly threw down a two-handed dunk, and was on his way to playing 41 minutes and getting a win — Oklahoma City’s 18th in a row against the 76ers, the longest active winning streak against one team in the league. It might be a regular-season game, but there’s always something on the line for Westbrook, especially if someone was talking on the other side.
“Obviously triple-overtime there, kind of picked up that and leading into this game after a little talk after Game 1, leading into this game, I was looking forward to it,” Westbrook said of the intensity. He paused for a second.
“But,” he said, eyes blinking fast, “Oklahoma City, 2-0.”