Thunder feed off 'catalyst' Russell Westbrook in his latest MVP-type performance

Thunder feed off 'catalyst' Russell Westbrook in his latest MVP-type performance

There was a time when Russell Westbrook’s gaudy numbers would make headlines around the league. But these days, with the Thunder point guard averaging a triple-double nearly halfway through the NBA season, his nightly spectacular box scores have become commonplace, if not expected.

There’s no real answer any of the other 29 teams can give on how to stop the MVP frontrunner, and the shorthanded Bulls became the latest team to realize just that. But where Westbrook is making his biggest impact of late – and perhaps the one attribute that makes him the likely candidate to take home MVP honors – is his ability to improve those around him, and it’s what allowed the Thunder to win in convincing fashion Monday in Chicago.

Westbrook was surgical in his 33 minutes against the Bulls, though he finished relatively short of his lofty averages with 21 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists. The league’s leading scorer could have done more damage against his primary defenders in Michael Carter-Williams and an ailing Jimmy Butler. But where Westbrook can be guilty of forcing too many shots at times – he attempted 31 and 34 shots in losses to Charlotte and Houston last week – he was patient against a Bulls defense that he realized early had no answer on the interior.

Westbrook routinely found himself in the middle of the Bulls defense, ready to finish (he went 3-for-4 in the paint), drop off a pass to one of his two talented bigs, or kick out to an open 3-point shooter. More times than not Westbrook made the right decision, and the end result was Oklahoma City shooting 57 percent from the field and handing out a season-best 30 assists in the runaway victory.

“I really felt like Russell was an incredible catalyst today from the start,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “Passing, getting everybody involved. It was good to see our ball movement like it was.”

Westbrook wasted little time initiating the offense from as many different spots on the floor as he could. His four first-quarter assists went to four different players, and by halftime he had attempted just nine shots while handing out seven assists. His most important sequence came in the third quarter, after the undermanned Bulls had cut the deficit to 10, 67-57 with a 7-0 run.

Westbrook responded on the following nine Thunder possessions – spanning just over 4 minutes – with five assists and a layup, part of a 17-7 run that pushed the lead back out to 20 and ended any real threat of a Bulls’ comeback.

In that nine-possession stretch Westbrook did his damage in the halfcourt, through pick-and-rolls and in transition. He picked his spots, getting out on the break against a Bulls defense they knew would crash the offensive glass. Westbrook also noticed the Bulls defense collapsing on him each time he drove to the lane off pick-and-rolls. That made it easy to drop passes off to Steven Adams, who had four of his team-high 22 points in that stretch.

“My head is always on the game,” Westbrook said of his third-quarter spurt. “I just find and pick my spots and see what’s open, see what’s not. And at that time (the Bulls) were collapsing a lot so I tried to make some passes.”

Westbrook’s heady decision making – he had just three turnovers, his second fewest in nearly a month – also put the rest of the Thunder offense on the same page. Oklahoma City spent much of the night playing out of the post, where Adams and Kanter combined to shoot 20-for-25 and hand out five of the Thunder’s 30 assists. The Thunder outscored the Bulls 60-36 in the paint, and also held a 25-4 advantage on fast-break points.

“That’s the type of dude he is, and it trickles down from there,” Adams said. “When the main dude on the team holds himself to that standard it trickles down on everyone else.”

It’s also resulting in wins. Whereas two years ago when Westbrook arrived in Chicago as a one-man wrecking crew in the wake of Kevin Durant’s season-ending injury, he’s now finding a balance of doing it all himself and relying on the talent he has around him. The results are evident, as Oklahoma City leaves Chicago with a 23-16 record that is just 2.5 games out of the No. 4 spot in the West. Performances like Monday’s also have given Westbrook the chance to go after his own personal numbers once a victory is secure.

Head coach Billy Donovan inserted Westbrook back into the game with the Thunder up 22 points with 8 minutes left, citing the Bulls’ come-from-behind victory over the Raptors two days earlier. Westbrook ultimately fell one rebound shy of his 18th triple-double, just missing out on another individual accomplishment in a season full of them.

But as Adams noted after the game, Westbrook is now getting everyone involved, and both he, Kanter and Victor Oladipo – his main supporting cast – are playing their best collective basketball of the year.

“What’s good is he’s really taking on the leadership role to where he’s getting everyone involved and he’s really trying to do that really well. Whether he does (put up a triple-double) we’re not gonna be like, ‘sign my poster’ or something like that when he gets a triple-double. It’s just another night.”

Dwyane Wade tweets apology to fans after Bulls' lopsided loss in Atlanta

Dwyane Wade tweets apology to fans after Bulls' lopsided loss in Atlanta

For the opening three quarters in Atlanta, the Bulls were off. 

So off, in fact, that Dwyane Wade tweeted an apology to Chicago fans after the game. 

Thanks to a furious run by the Bulls' bench, the final score ended at a respectable 102-93. In reality, though, the Hawks dominated. 

Wade and company trailed by 29 points at half and 30 at the end of three. The 35-year-old shooting guard finished with a minus-18 and just four points while All-Star starter Jimmy Butler posted a team-low minus-22.

The Bulls will look to shake off their lopsided loss against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. 


Fred Hoiberg after Bulls' embarrassing loss to Hawks: 'We're gonna look at everything'

Fred Hoiberg after Bulls' embarrassing loss to Hawks: 'We're gonna look at everything'

The bus was warm before the game started, as the Bulls looked like they wanted no parts of the Atlanta Hawks.

It was evident from the jump that playing with a full and healthy squad for one of the few times this season wasn't enough to arouse their competitive juices, as they put together arguably their worst 48-minute showing in a 102-93 loss at Philips Arena, dropping them to 21-23 in a game they trailed by as many as 34 points.

The practices have apparently been the sterling jewel of effort and competitiveness for the Bulls but it hasn't carried over through the season as the inconsistency continues to be maddening — one that seems to go beyond the "growing pains" mantra that's been fed by all involved so far this year.

"It could be things but I don't want to share it with the media," a sunglasses-clad Dwyane Wade said outside the locker room, in a rare mood of not being elaborative following a loss.

It appears even the professional's professional has gotten a bit more frustrated than usual — understandable considering the way the starters came out with a lack of energy, with more turnovers (eight) than field goals (six) in the first quarter.

"Continue to try to lead behind the scenes," Wade said. "Can't stop when it's bad, when it's good. You gotta be the same."

Fred Hoiberg, fed up with the starters, ran with the reserves for the fourth quarter and outscored the Hawks by nearly 25 points, bringing the lead to 95-90 with a minute left before a Dennis Schroeder jumper restored order with 52.6 seconds left.

Four Hawks scored in double figures led by Schroeder's 25 points and six assists and Paul Millsap scoring 14 while making all four of his shots in just 22 minutes of run.

[MORE BULLS: Dwyane Wade not buying into the Bosh to Bulls speculation]

Perhaps it's the Hawks being the same kryptonite to the Bulls that the Bulls are to the Toronto Raptors — except the Bulls simply frustrate the Raptors, not embarrass them.

"I have been, we have been, tired of this. I gotta come out better," said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 19 points in 29 minutes. "I gotta play better from the jump, 48 minutes. That's not the way we're supposed to play. 

"The way we practice is not the way we play in the game. Don't ask me why, I don't know. Starting with me and going down the line, we gotta be better as a whole. Otherwise we'll keep getting our asses beat and it's bad."

The Hawks shot over 60 percent for most of the night until the game devolved into what amounted to a pickup game late. After all, the Hawks seemed to be battling boredom by half, leading 65-36 and shooting 68 percent from the field and hitting 67 percent from three.

"We're gonna look at everything and we'll see how we go out and start tomorrow and a couple days after that, hopefully we figure some things out," Hoiberg said. "They shot over 70 percent in the first quarter and you dig yourselves a hole and it's impossible to get out."

Hoiberg said he would evaluate everything leading into Saturday's game at home against the Sacramento Kings, but Friday didn't seem to present any realistic lineup changes based on performance.

Bobby Portis scored 10 with seven rebounds off the bench, with Jerian Grant scoring 12 and Paul Zipser 10. Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic combined to shoot two for nine, so one wonders where Hoiberg can go.

"I don't know. Practice is good. Practice is great," Butler said. "Practice is not gonna win you games. We gotta take what we do in practice and take it over to the game."

The Bulls weren't about to make it any more suspenseful than it had to be, as they started off missing their first 11 3-pointers, often missing multiple open looks on the same possession.

It wasn't relegated to just shooting as the Bulls squandered easy opportunities in easy situations, like Denzel Valentine turning a three-on-one fast break into an airballed finger-roll attempt that he caught himself — a violation, of course.

"I don't know, I can't put a word on it. Because it's just talk," Butler said. "Doesn't matter what you say, if we don't go out there and do it, what the hell is talking gonna do? We've been up and down all year. If we don't guard and turn the ball over, games get out of hand very quickly."

This one was over a few minutes into it, as the Bulls looked like a lifeless squad with no direction and very little fight, short of a minor dustup between Dwight Howard and Robin Lopez in the third quarter.

At that point, though, all Howard had to do is point at the scoreboard, where a 30-point lead did all the necessary talking.

The Bulls trailed by 20 even before Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a 35-footer to end the first quarter, sending the Hawks off on a high and seemingly demoralizing the Bulls.

Even Butler's 19-point night, hitting six of his eight shots in 29 minutes, rang hollow. The Bulls could've trotted out a D-League team for the second half to gear up for Saturday's game against Sacramento and been better off than how they performed Friday night.

And for the Bulls, they can't simply just go back to the drawing board. There looks to be something fundamentally wrong with this bunch — either that, or the Atlanta night got the best of them Thursday.