Russell Westbrook’s most impressive play Friday night came on a possession when he missed two shots and didn’t make any.
Westbrook pulled up from mid-range only one play after nailing a 3-pointer to break a tie with under a minute to go in Phoenix. He missed the ensuing 16-footer but believed he got fouled on a night when a Ken Mauer-led officiating crew let nearly any kind of contact go. So with his shot still in the air, Westbrook looked to the nearest official, waived his arms and mimicked getting hit in the hand.
It’s a move that’s gotten Westbrook in trouble before. Opponents have streaked by him in transition as he’s argued with officials. It’s led to open baskets. This time, he pulled off the ultimate type of multitasking.
He filed his complaint, then crashed to the rim, continuing the argument and getting his own rebound in traffic. He went back up for a putback but missed again. He got his own rebound for a second time and dribbled out to the left corner, calling a timeout with 22 seconds remaining before the Suns could foul.
He ended up getting to the line only a few game seconds later, putting the difference out of reach and helping Oklahoma City to a 124-116 win that never looked easy, even if it was against the tanking Suns. To get there, the Thunder needed Westbrook, who finished with 43 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists on 15 of 24 shooting.
"Me and [starting shooting guard] Josh [Huestis] on the bench, last game especially, we were talking about Gandalf, because he's never early or late," spot-up specialist Alex Abrines said of Westbrook, comparing him to the fictional character from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. "He's always at the right time. So yeah, when the moment of the game arrives, he's ready to show up."
Westbrook grabbed five offensive rebounds on top of the two he pulled down on the aforementioned possession. He relentlessly attacked the rim, even on a night when Suns center Alex Len gave the rest of the Thunder trouble near the basket. He finished one specific kind of layup over and over again, catapulting into rim protectors, elbows out, and flinging in line-drive layups.
The evening when referees were calling naught worked out well for him.
He dropped 16 points in the third quarter after the Thunder trailed by seven at the half and by as many as 13 in the game. He went scoreless for the first 10-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter, then scored eight over the final 1:32.
“He’s a special player," Paul George, who paired 20 points with five rebounds and five assists, said. "He came out with timely baskets, big plays. That’s what Russ does, he lives for those moments.”
Of course, how much the Thunder needed the reigning MVP against a team that’s now 19-45 is a reasonable concern. Oklahoma City has won five of its last six, downing Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando, Sacramento and Memphis with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors tossed in the middle there. Each one of the victories has come against teams participating in the Great Tank Race of 2018. And each one was close down to the end.
The Thunder now enter a brutal 18-game stretch, which includes 14 matchups against teams currently over .500, to close the season.
They needed these wins. And whether pretty or not, they got each one of them.
They squeaked out an overtime victory out against the Mavericks. Four bench players scoring in double-digits carried them vs. the Magic. Westbrook’s game-winner salvaged what would have been an ugly loss to the Kings. Hot 3-point shooting kept them afloat against the Grizzlies.
Now, there’s the Phoenix win, which included a 13-5 run from the bench to turn a 99-97 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter into a 110-104 advantage when Westbrook reentered. It included 11 points and seven boards from Steven Adams, reserve help from Jerami Grant, who scored 11 points, a second half that actually contained some amount of defensive effort. It would be difficult to say the same about the first couple of quarters, when the Suns dropped 67 points. They scored only 17 in the fourth.
"We played defense," George said of the second half. "Defense is really the only way to explain it. We played better defense. We played more physical."
It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t have to be. It was gritty. It didn't have to, but it turned out well.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.