OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s just like Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti probably always envisioned it: a quality win over a current Western Conference playoff team, a balanced scoring attack across the board with Corey Brewer leading the way.
Wait … what?
It’s true, Brewer led the Thunder in scoring with 22 points in their 121-113 win to complete a three-game season sweep over the LA Clippers on Friday, even making the two biggest plays of the game: a corner 3 with 1:44 left to put OKC up 10, and a steal with 26 seconds remaining after the Clippers had cut the lead to six. The impact Brewer has made since joining the Thunder is real, and it’s been shockingly spectacular, with them going 5-0 since he was inserted into the starting lineup.
There’s a clear sense of normalcy and chemistry that’s returned to the team with Brewer’s activity providing a tangible spark. It was a shock to their system after Andre Roberson was lost for the season, and there was some clear wandering going on after it. Brewer has infused the Thunder with loads of energy, but it’s not just empty play-harding. Brewer is contributing in real ways, hitting corner 3s, slashing off the weakside, running the floor with Russell Westbrook, and playing quality defense.
“When you’ve got a guy out there doing everything he can to get extra possessions and energize the team, it’s contagious,” Paul George said. “We feel that energy. And you’ve got to match it. You’ve got to match how hard he’s playing. If a guy’s going to play that hard for you, you’ve got to play just as hard for him.”
Whatever it is, it’s come right on time for the Thunder. Capping the 5-0 stretch was especially important with what’s ahead — road games against the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics — with 10 of their final 11 against teams over .500 and in the playoff hunt. With the West logjammed in the middle with a loss potentially swinging you from fourth to ninth, the Thunder are in need of accomplishing what they’ve said they’ve been trying to do all season — come together and play their best basketball at the right time.
“Just knowing the importance of what’s going on, our situation, knowing that it’s coming down to crunch time, the end of the season,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Just kind of gearing up mentally and emotionally for the postseason. Now we’re just playing basketball, we understand how we need to win. When we lose games we understand why we’re losing, so it’s not like we don’t understand why we lose games. We control that.”
It’s been a process for the Thunder to get to that point, with the peaks and valleys coming in obvious waves, but if they’re going to be for real, this is their time to prove it. They can look at the schedule ahead and see a snake pit, or they can see it as an opportunity to rise to the occasion. They’ve played their best when their backs are pushed to the wall, and when they’ve played higher level competition. They’ve seen themselves as a sleeping giant, on the cusp of something great. Whether, ahem, Corey Brewer is what actually restores them to believing in that or not, there’s a true confidence emanating out of the locker room again.
It’s also (mostly) Westbrook. He’s triple-doubled in four consecutive games — 16-10-11 against the Clippers — and has gotten back to the kind of stuff that made him the MVP last season. He’s taking smart shots, attacking relentlessly, and accessing all the weapons he has around him.
The fun is back, and there’s some swagger. They’ve teetered over to unearned arrogance at times, but confidence is never a bad thing. Except when Westbrook is trying to hammer a lob from George, which he fired off the back of the rim in the third quarter.
“That was all Russ,” George said with a smile. “We’ve been trying to connect on lobs since I’ve been here. As powerful as he is as a dunker, you’ve got to tone it down just a little bit.”
Westbrook tone it down? Maybe there still are a few things to figure out apparently.
But if the Thunder are built for the postseason, like they believe they are, they’re going to get a preview of it the next few weeks. The road ahead is a gauntlet that could prop them up as a threatening 4-seed or 5-seed, or drop them to a ugly first-round matchup against one of the two juggernauts (or out altogether).
They’ve clearly found something again, with a rhythm and flow building among the starting five, and a second unit that has drastically improved over the past month. They look … good. Is this finally the time it sticks?