The ‘T’ word
Trusting each other is essential for the Thunder.
NEW YORK — Paul George scored so many points, with such fury and variety at the Barclays Center on Wednesday night, that it was easy to overlook the most important possession of the Thunder’s season.
In the midst of George combusting into flames during the fourth quarter of the Thunder’s 114112 win against the Nets, he was cool enough to pass to Jerami Grant for a wide-open 3-pointer. On the same play, Russell Westbrook was on task enough to slot a backdoor pass to a cutting George to set up his drive.
This was not with a healthy lead. This was trailing by five with less than three minutes to go — the game in the hands of two ball-dominant All-Stars, then handed off to Grant because it was the right play.
Because George trusted in Grant.
The “T-word” has been thrown around as a necessary development if the Thunder will ever get back to the apex of the NBA. Even in George’s individual brilliance at the Barclays Center on Wednesday, trust was there.
“Trust. Trust. Trust,” George said, cutting into the question when asked what that play said about the Thunder. “We trust each other.
“Everybody in that arena knew I had the hot hand and expected me to make the shot. I trust JG. He was wide open.”
The only possession better than that for the Thunder on Wednesday was George’s game winner, Westbrook drawing the attention of the defense, then selflessly flipping back to George for the go-ahead 3-pointer.
As recently as two weeks ago, the Thunder’s dedication to seeking the right shot has disappeared in a seven-point loss to Denver. Instead, on Wednesday the Thunder became the last team this season to have a game decided by three points or fewer.
This season’s been a combination of the Thunder punishing good and bad teams alike — 10 of its 16 wins have been by double digits — and OKC occasionally playing itself out of chances to close games because of a lack of trust.
For all the Thunder’s success this season, it hasn’t come in the fourth quarter of close games — a juncture in which Westbrook has seized control for better and worse in the previous two seasons.
The bad finishes tend to stand out more — 43 shots against Utah in Game 6 of last season’s Western Conference first round, questionable late game 3-point attempts earlier this season against Boston, 0-of-5 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter against Denver two weeks ago, including an ill-advised 3-pointer in a two-possession game late. Those games still pop up during what’s been a predominantly controlled season from Westbrook thus far.
Look between the cracks and you’ll find the Thunder is playing a better version of basketball.
Westbrook was at the front of comebacks against Charlotte and Brooklyn in which he racked up a combined 27 assists to five turnovers. He laid waste to Golden State by getting off the ball early in possessions to get Dennis Schroder, the hot hand Oakland, frequent touches.
The Thunder’s trust factor tends to get magnified when the shots go in, but it’s been there in games they weren’t falling, too. Even before George detonated in the last 7 ½ minutes Wednesday, the Thunder came out of halftime with the intention to chip away through Steven Adams touches rather than jack up mindless shots.
“I don’t think any of it is on Russ or Paul,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said before Wednesday’s game when asked about the cause of the Thunder’s poor shooting percentages. OKC is last in 3-point percentage (31.2 percent) and 20th in field goal percentage (45). “The bottom line is our shooting hasn’t been great, but when you look at the metrics, we’ve generated really good shots.
“Russell and Paul have done a good job, as has Dennis, of generating shots for other guys. As long as we continue to take the kind of shots we’re getting, I think you’ll continue to see guys’ shooting percentages start to raise and get better. I like the things we’re doing and how we’re trying to play offensively.”
For the Thunder, it’s always been a matter of sustaining that style of play, that trusting mentality. Wednesday was another step in the right direction because it continued at the game’s most critical time.
“That’s what we’ve got to do to get the championship,” Schroder said. “We’ve got to be unselfish, we’ve got to trust each other.”
Thunder forward Paul George said team members trust each other when it comes to shooting the basketball.