OKLAHOMA CITY — With an emphatic 124-107 win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the Oklahoma City Thunder have won six straight games and 12 of their past 15. They’ve turned around an 8-12 start to move to 20-15, good for fifth in the West and only a couple of games back of fourth.
At the heart of their long-awaited transformation to an apparently good team has been the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook, who plastered the Raptors for 30 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists, and is averaging 30 points per game on 56 percent shooting during their win streak.
Both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George talked early in the season about wanting Westbrook to be himself and fitting in alongside that, but after some bumps in the road, Westbrook has begun to sort out how that should look. As Anthony said, the Thunder fully understand Westbrook is the engine and elevates everyone else.
“I think the fact that Russ is just playing — not trying to defer to anybody, to any one of us — just playing his game and letting us play off him … I think he’s much more effective by doing that rather than deferring to myself or Paul,” Anthony said. “We know what we bring to the game. We understand it. We accept it. And by that, he’s able to just play his game, relax and do what he does best. We need that. We need that Russ out there. Not the one who defers to us. Let us figure it out.”
In November, Westbrook’s shots, scoring and usage rate were all down, but as he has reacted to what his role should be within the context of this team, all three have come up, coinciding with the Thunder playing better.
“No question, 100 percent,” coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook setting the tone for the rest of the team. “That’s important to us. His energy level lifts our team.”
A clear change in Westbrook’s play recently has been in shot selection. He has made more of the midrange and deep paint shots he has gotten, but the significant adjustment has been in his almost completely forgoing 3-pointers. In the past 10 games, Westbrook is attempting only 2.3 3s per game and only 1.7 during the win streak. In the first 20 games of the season, he was averaging 5.6 per game.
“He’s taken really good shots. He’s getting to his spots on the floor,” Donovan said. “He is really confident in those shots, and I think he missed a lot of those shots early in the year, and I do think a lot of that had to do with him trying to incorporate these other guys and thinking less of himself. But there’s no question he’s the catalyst to our team, both offensively and defensively.”
The Thunder have remained one of the league’s top defensive teams all season, and their struggles have come, surprisingly, on the offensive side, where they’ve ranked in the bottom half. But over the past two weeks, the Thunder have begun to find a rhythm offensively, with Westbrook, George and Anthony all playing well. Anthony has slid into a more auxiliary role, George is the secondary option, and Westbrook leads the charge.
“It takes time to get used to one another,” Anthony said. “I said this early in the season: Nothing happens overnight. It takes time for everybody to figure it out. This was all new, and it’s still all new, but the more time that goes by, the more we’re able to figure it out. Learning each other, figure out each other’s tendencies. But I think the most important thing is we’re starting to accept what we bring to the game and what we bring to the team, and everybody’s honoring that.”
During the six-game streak, the Thunder are scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Rockets are No. 1 in offense this season at 113.6 points per 100 possessions. Against the Raptors, for the first time this season, two Thunder players scored at least 30 in a game, with Westbrook’s 30 and George’s 33 (on 11-of-17 shooting and 7-of-10 from 3), with Anthony and Steven Adams each adding 18.
“I think they’re getting more and more comfortable with each other, how we’re trying to play, things we’re trying to do, where their shots are coming from,” Donovan said. “Hopefully there’s less thinking and more playing for them.”