HOUSTON — Carmelo Anthony kept smiling, playing A$AP Ferg’s “Nasty (Who Dat)” at a reasonable but exuberant volume. A song from Cardi B’s new album came next, and the speaker then migrated with Anthony to the showers — but not before Andre Roberson briefly danced across the locker room to the beats.
It was a somewhat normal locker room scene, especially for a team that just beat the Houston Rockets 108-102 on Saturday, but it was a telling one. Imagine what it would look like if they had lost.
Not like that, for damn sure.
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered Saturday with a ridiculously wide range of outcomes. A win, and the right set of results across the league, could have put them just a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 4 seed, with the Thunder owning the tiebreak. A loss? Depending on the rest of the Western Conference’s playoff hopefuls, Oklahoma City could have slipped to No. 9. Or, to put it another way: outside the playoffs and praying the teams ahead of them lose.
But the Thunder did win. They beat a Rockets team that had virtually nothing to play for, but one that still played normal rotations all the way until the final buzzer. It was a must-have game, one that ensured the Thunder would control their own destiny. Their future rides on Monday’s clash against the Miami Heat, but they had to get this game first. (They’ll then close the season by playing the Memphis Grizzlies, who have been trying to lose for months.)
There are still several scenarios in play, but the win means that the Thunder should make the playoffs in some manner.
With so much riding on this game, the team’s mindset was simple, Paul George said:
“We just better not lose.”
More complicated was accomplishing that, and Oklahoma City even trailed by a point with 7:09 left in the game. But the Thunder didn’t fold. They responded with an 11-0 run, a stretch lasting about four minutes that featured some of Russell Westbrook’s best defensive work all year, plus nine points he directly set up.
Westbrook's defense on Harden down the stretch: pic.twitter.com/yxzCyE3CBz— ESPN (@espn) April 8, 2018
In the most Westbrook way possible, he indirectly confirmed that he asked to guard Harden, who finished 0-of-4 with two turnovers after the Rockets took that one-point lead.
“When the game’s on the line, I knew what needed to be done,” Westbrook said. “I told Paul and Corey [Brewer] to take somebody else.”
Westbrook’s defensive effort has come and gone throughout his career, but he’s a totally obnoxious pest when fully engaged. All season, Westbrook led the charge saying that the Thunder would be fine when it mattered. They beat the “best teams,” he claimed, even if those “best teams” only included the Warriors, the Rockets, and the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors.
Well, this was one of those “best teams.” Because of that, the Thunder clearly felt the sense of urgency that’s necessary in a must-win scenario that could determine playoff seeding.
“Our level of focus tonight was incredible,” Carmelo Anthony said. “The past two, three days, even in practice, we had incredible days. And when you have days like that, it trickles down to the actual games.”
Anthony started hot and finished with 22 points on 14 shots. A slumping George still managed 24 points despite 6-of-17 shooting himself. And then there was Westbrook, whose 24 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds stood out mostly for their timeliness rather than their efficiency. Plus, his stellar effort on the other end.
There were other contributors — Alex Abrines held his own even while his shot wasn’t falling, and Jerami Grant will be a secret playoff weapon for the Thunder that raises their ceiling — but the stars bore the weight on Saturday. That was the entire reason why general manager Sam Presti brought this trio together, after all. It was a test of Oklahoma City’s culture, but one that made these changes possible.
It was interesting that this crucial playoff win came against Houston, a team that was seen as Oklahoma City’s peer before this season. Some folks even thought the Thunder’s new Big Three might propel them ahead of Houston in the end.
Those predictions fell through in a major way, but Oklahoma City still remembers what they were brought together to do. Can they accomplish it? That’s another matter altogether.
“We came together for that reason, thinking about the bigger picture,” said Anthony, long after his Beats Pill had quieted down for the evening. “We had some bumps and bruises along the way, but we know what we have to do, what we expected, the level of focus that we have to have closing the regular season out, going to the postseason. Tonight, we showed that.”