PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s not often that Russell Westbrook will admit to a game containing some extra level of motivation.
“I thought about that yesterday when I landed,” he said Friday. “Hell, yeah. So, it’s a personal thing for me.”
It had been so long since the Thunder had beaten the Blazers in Portland that you could say a fact like, “The last time the Thunder beat the Blazers in Portland, Derek Fisher played 15 minutes and scored six points.”
“2014,” Westbrook said, naming the year the Thunder won most recently in Portland. “We haven’t won in here in a while. I know Nick [Collison] is at home. If he’s watching, he’ll probably be happy we finally won here.”
With Paul George pouring in 37 points and Westbrook closing the door with 20 of his 31 in the second half, including six tough points in the fourth quarter, the Thunder beat the Blazers 111-109. Westbrook is always consistent when it comes to approaching every game the same way, about every game meaning the same amount. And while he didn’t mean to suggest he changed how he played, or cranked up to a higher level of the usual intensity, it was at least something he was thinking about. But it was something he kept to himself.
“I didn’t tell nobody,” he said. “I just kept it to myself. Some of the other guys may have won here, you know what I’m saying. Team is different, guys are different that’s been here. So I didn’t say much.”
George, who joined the Thunder last season, said he wasn’t aware of the long losing streak. But George did note that the Blazers swept OKC last season and had a six-game winning streak over the Thunder overall. That was on his mind.
“I don’t know when the last time I won here,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s been quite five years, but I know definitely last year they had our number.”
(For George, in fact, that was his first-ever win in Portland after six losses.)
It wasn’t exactly pretty, but that hasn’t really been the Thunder’s style.
Oklahoma City plays with a ground-and-pound mentality, digging in on the defensive side and finding enough points between the individual excellence of George and Westbrook, plus whatever other combination of players can contribute. That was rough in a first half that saw Portland lead by as many as 11 points, and players not named George and Westbrook combine for 25 points on 10-of-29 shooting from the field.
But Oklahoma City turned things around in the third quarter, when George and Westbrook scored 14 points each, as the Thunder had seven assists and only two turnovers. Westbrook shot 3-of-10 in the fourth quarter, but each bucket came in a huge spot as the Blazers pushed. The teams labored in the fourth quarter, grinding possession by possession.
The Thunder simplified to a smattering of Westbrook isolation post-ups, relying on his size to overpower Portland’s guards on switches. Once, with Damian Lillard on Westbrook, Portland sent center Jusuf Nurkic to double, and Westbrook read the play perfectly, hitting center Steven Adams on a dive for a dunk.
“I heard ’em, saying after a while I had a few one-on-one post-ups, they wanted to double,” Westbrook said. “So I heard ’em. So Steven was positioned in the right spot; it was an easy read.
“It’s tough to guard,” he said. “Teams don’t really want to double late in the game. And now it becomes a one-on-one game, and if I’m one-on-one on the block, I’m very, very comfortable and living with it.”
It’s not the most efficient offense in the world, and as the season progresses and games get bigger, it’s not hard to imagine late-game post-ups by Westbrook becoming a point of contention for observers. But they do provide OKC an outlet, especially when teams key in on George’s off-ball movement or try to force OKC into your-turn, my-turn isolations.
Westbrook has been trying to shake loose of a shooting slump that has become a bit of a pattern. After a 40-point game in Phoenix, he shot 4-of-22 against Dallas, then responded with 32 points against the Dallas Mavericks 24 hours later. Then on Wednesday, he went 3-of-20 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Westbrook bounced back again at the Moda Center, hitting 13 of 28 field goals, including a number of midrange swishes and 5-of-6 from the line. He’s trying to find something, to sustain a rhythm and turn the Thunder’s spicy rough-and-tumble identity into something more powerful.
Westbrook manifests motivation on a nightly basis, only needing the fact that there’s a ball, an opponent and someone keeping score to drive him. Adding a notion of disrespect to the mixture can make the conditions combustible, and Westbrook thrives when there’s a hint of contempt.
And as Westbrook searches for consistency, maybe breaking through in the Pacific Northwest can lead to a path toward sustained success.