Down by one entering the fourth quarter, the Charlotte Hornets scored 36 points in the fourth to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder, 123-112.
Kemba Walker’s magical season thus far may have solidified his status as the Big Man on Campus around Charlotte, but all eyes were on his point guard counterpart, Russell Westbrook, as his Oklahoma City Thunder took the floor of the Spectrum Center to play the Hornets Wednesday night.
Westbrook came into the game averaging a 30.9 point, 10.4 rebound and 10.5 assist triple double, so the game plan was clear going in: Stop? Westbrook??
The Thunder set a rapid pace from the get go, it appeared the Hornets were just a step slow as the visitors put up six quick points. Kemba Walker fed the ball to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a play that looked designed for him and gave the Hornets their first bucket of the game. It looked like the coaching staff wanted to get him involved early, having come off a brutal assignment against the Chicago Bulls where Jimmy Butler put up a good majority of his 52 points on the Hornets swingman.
The plan may have worked, MKG played one of his best games in recent memory, contributing 14 points and 11 rebounds and generally doing what he does best- filling in all the holes on offense and defense.
The Thunder’s twin tower attack of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter gave the Hornets a lot of trouble throughout the game. Both centers frequently overpowered the depleted frontline of the Hornets, combining for 40 points and 20 rebounds. Charlotte desperately missed Cody Zeller low post toughness against the tandem, and backup Roy Hibbert looked overwhelmed much of the time. Kidd-Gilchrist did his best on help defense, crashing the boards and scrapping with the bigs when they'd bring the ball down, generally making their lives as uncomfortable as possible.
The main story was the relative “containment” of Westbrook. The MVP front runner had a poor shooting night, going 10/31 from the field and often settling for low percentage long range shots rather than attacking off the dribble. The Hornets seemed more than content to allow Russ to chuck threes, where he is shooting only 32 percent on the season. Just to give you an an idea of how insanely good Westbrook is, he finished the game with 33-15-8, and I thought he had an off night.
Westbrook went back into the locker room late in the first quarter after an awkward drive to the basket that featured an even more awkward block-attempt-at-100-Mph-followed by-weird-landing-followed by-flying-12-rows-into-the-stands by, you guessed it, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Russ returned minutes later but he did seem off, or at least rattled, the rest of the night. He received a technical foul early in the game after beaning a referee in the head while trying to toss him the ball. It wasn't malicious, and you had to feel for Westbrook as he was genuinely just trying to return the ball. Still, it was pretty hilarious.
Frank Kaminsky finally had a good game, scoring 16 surprising points in the first half to lead all scorers. OKC wasnt giving him much respect, and Frank made them pay over and over again.
The Hornets are becoming known as a 3rd quarter team, but struggled in the period on Wednesday night; it was the only quarter that the Thunder out scored the host team. The Thunder grabbed the momentum late in the third on the backs of their overpowering frontcourt, and down the stretch it seemed like anyone's game.
Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum decided to take control. Batum was superb throughout the night, scoring 28 for the Hornets and getting buckets when they needed them most. Batum has sneakily become one of the best players at drawing fouls in the league; the swingman got to the line a James Harden-esque 15 times, and appears to have figured out how to create contact at the most opportune moments.
Kemba did what he does best: close. Standing at the free throw line for two shots with the game in hand, the Hive started a fervent “M-V-P” chant for the star guard. While the guy he was matched up with for much of the night may end up getting that award, on this night he deserved it.