After an early-season stretch marred by injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a 4-12 record, the Oklahoma City Thunder needed a glimmer of hope. The return of Westbrook was not just a glimmer, but an explosion of belief that the Thunder might be able to salvage this season.
Westbrook was masterful against the New York Knicks on Friday night, scoring 32 points, dishing out eight assists and grabbing eight rebounds in 24 minutes as the Thunder won, 105-78. He was also a record setter: Westbrook became the first player in the shot-clock era with 32 points and eight assists in 24 or fewer minutes according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Missing 14 games seemed to have no impact on Westbrook, who immediately asserted himself. His first bucket back was an emphatic two-handed dunk, and he outscored the Knicks in the first quarter. He wore a protective cover on his right hand, but it didn't affect his game. He sliced through the Knicks' defense at will, playing with the same attacking relentlessness he's known for.
Last season, Westbrook returned from a knee injury and his minutes were monitored closely. With this injury, however, Westbrook was able to stay in shape aerobically, so his minutes didn't need to be capped. He played just 24 minutes because the Thunder were never in any trouble. Westbrook left the game in the third quarter to a rousing ovation from a fan base that hasn't had much to cheer about this season.
When Westbrook and Durant returned to practice a week ago, Nick Collison said it gave the team "a little energy boost." Westbrook's return to game action seemed to do have the same affect. Sure, the win came against the lowly Knicks (who were without Carmelo Anthony due to back spasms), but Oklahoma City was dominant even when Westbrook wasn't on the floor. Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson put up 13 and 10 points off the bench, respectively, and Serge Ibaka had 14 points and six rebounds in 21 minutes.
The story of the night, though, was Westbrook. And with Durant's return expected in the coming days, the focus will shift to whether Oklahoma City can make a playoff push or not. At 5-12, it will likely need to go roughly 45-20 over the rest of the season to finish top eight in the West. That's no easy task, but with Westbrook looking like he is in mid-season form, a strong season finish is not out of the question.
Regardless of whether the Thunder salvage their season, this was nice to see:
Welcome back, Russell Westbrook.
Three other things we learned
The Warriors can win even when Stephen Curry has an off shooting night -- especially if Marreese Speights takes over. The Charlotte Hornets took an 82-74 lead with 11:19 to play against Golden State, but then an unlikely hero emerged for the Warriors: Speights. The big man scored the team's next 16 points to give the Warriors a 90-88 lead with 4:54 to play, a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Speights finished with 27 points and was the leading scorer for Golden State, who needed a big night from a role player with Curry shooting just 1-10 from behind the arc. Even though he struggled from deep, Curry still put up 26 points and the Warriors picked up another win, their eighth straight, to improve to 13-2.
The Clippers appear to be back on track. After a slow start to the season, the Clippers have won five of six to climb to 10-5 after a convincing victory over the Dwight Howard-less Rockets. It was a Clippers performance reminiscent of last year's team that took Oklahoma City to six games in the Western Conference semifinals. Blake Griffin had 30 points and 10 rebounds, Jamal Crawford scored 21 off the bench, DeAndre Jordan pulled down 13 boards and Chris Paul had 10 points, seven assists, five steals and no turnovers.
The Grizzlies won thanks to a balanced attack again, ho-hum. Memphis went into Portland and thoroughly outplayed the Blazers to move to 14-2 on the year. All five Memphis starters scored in double figures with Marc Gasol netting 26, and Quincy Pondexter added 10 off the bench to give the Grizzlies six double-digit scorers. A big second quarter for Memphis gave it a nine-point lead at the half, and it never relinquished it, letting Portland come within four points with 7:26 to play before pulling away down the home stretch. The Grizzlies have yet to lose to a Western Conference team, and, at this point in the young season, appears to be the best team in the league.
Play of the night
Bismack Biyombo doesn't often throw down ridiculous, that-only-happens-in-video-games dunks, but it's quite nice when he does.
4 fun things
Giannis Antetokounmpo can Eurostep from ANYWHERE (the three-point line).
The Celtics warmed up for the their game against the Bulls by playing football with a basketball, keeping the Thanksgiving spirit alive and well in Boston.
The Warriors' late-night plane rides seem fun.
Chicago Bulls 109, Boston Celtics 102 (Blog a Bull recap | Celtics Blog recap)
Golden State Warriors 106, Charlotte Hornets 101 (Golden State of Mind recap | At the Hive recap)
Atlanta Hawks 100, New Orleans Pelicans 91 (Peach Tree Hoops recap | The Bird Writes recap)
Milwaukee Bucks 104, Detroit Pistons 88 (Brew Hoop recap | Detroit Bad Boys recap)
Dallas Mavericks 106, Toronto Raptors 102 (Mavs Moneyball recap | Raptors HQ recap)
Los Angeles Clippers 102, Houston Rockets 85 (Clips Nation recap | The Dream Shake recap)
Oklahoma City Thunder 105, New York Knicks 78 (Welcome to Loud City recap | Posting and Toasting recap)
Indiana Pacers 98, Orlando Magic 83 (Indy Corn Rows recap | Orlando Pinstriped Post)
San Antonio Spurs 112, Sacramento Kings 104 (Pounding the Rock recap | Sactown Royalty recap)
Denver Nuggets 122, Phoenix Suns 97 (Denver Stiffs recap | Bright Side of the Sun recap)
Memphis Grizzlies 112, Portland Trailblazers 99 (Grizzly Bear Blues recap | Blazers Edge recap)
Minnesota Timberwolves 120, Los Angeles Lakers 119 (Canis Hoopus recap | Silver Screen and Roll recap)