NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news — It’s truly Russell Westbrook‘s team now in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is out indefinitely with no reasonable expectation that he will return this season, whether the Thunder make the playoffs or not. Whatever the circumstance, Westbrook is bringing the energy and effort needed to lead the charge for Scott Brooks‘ team, just as he did Friday night in the Thunder’s takedown of the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks. Love him or hate him, right now the underdog is on top after collecting his ninth triple double and pushing the Thunder up the ladder in the chase for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman explains:
The Thunder’s already wavering title hopes took a potentially fatal blow on Friday morning with the latest Kevin Durant injury setback.
But by late Friday night, Russell Westbrook and a patched together lineup had already reminded the basketball world that — while a championship run is now hard to fathom — high-level hoops entertainment will remain for the next month-plus in Oklahoma City.
The East-leading Atlanta Hawks came to town, packing a potent offense to feast on the Thunder’s slumping defense. Void of Serge Ibaka to clean up mistakes, OKC struggled on that end again.
But as has been common of late, even without double-double machine Enes Kanter on this night, the Thunder went all mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and succeeded in outscoring a scoring machine. The final: Thunder 123, Hawks 115.
“It was like an ABA game out there,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks joked.
With the win, OKC became only the fourth NBA team to ever go from nine games under .500 to nine games over in the same season.
And Westbrook, again, was at the center of it all, finishing with 36 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for his ninth triple-double of the season.
Instead of an emotional letdown after the latest Durant news, the Thunder came out energized and angry, jumping on the Hawks in the opening minutes. Westbrook had seven of his 14 assists in the first quarter. OKC, at one point, held an early nine-point lead.
But after the Hawks weathered that early storm, OKC’s faulty defense sprung leaks and Atlanta started splashing jumpers from all over the floor. On this night, reserve big man Pero Antic played the role of random dude to roast the Thunder’s perimeter defense, going off for 18 points in 12 first half minutes.
The Hawks led 68-61 at halftime. With two minutes left in the third quarter, that lead had ballooned to 12. Shorthanded, it looked like the Thunder would come up short, fittingly capping an emotionally tough day for the franchise.
But then Anthony Morrow got hot and the tone of the game changed.
With 7:54 left in the fourth quarter, Morrow splashed in his third three of the night, cutting the Hawks lead to four. It was the sixth consecutive game Morrow has hit at least three 3s, one of the hotter stretches of his storied shooting career.
But he was just getting started. Over the next four minutes of game action, Morrow drilled three more 3s, the crowd noise rising and the Thunder’s momentum building with each splash.
“I’ve never experienced (a playoff atmosphere),” Morrow said. “But (Westbrook) said that was close to it.”