What makes a championship team? The average NBA fan may give cliché answers like talent and hard work, but it goes much deeper than that. As the Oklahoma City Thunder swarmed the court after an unlikely 23-point comeback on the road, there was an air surrounding the organization that hasn’t been felt since the 2011-2012 season where they reached the NBA Finals.
Amidst an impressive shooting night by the Brooklyn Nets in their Barclays Center, Paul George dropped 47 points, including an Oklahoma City record 25 in the fourth quarter alone. To cap a historic night off, George hit the game-winning three to solidify the game for the Thunder, breaking another record for the largest comeback in Thunder history.
“When you’re able to sit back and watch and see the time he’s put in and how much it’s been so much better for him this year and see it pay off in a moment we much need it, it’s great. I’m just happy that he’s on my team,” said Russell Westbrook.
What if this wasn’t the biggest takeaway from this game? What if there was an underlying message from this game that doesn’t directly involve George’s gaudy stat line? That happens to be the case. Something Thunder fans haven’t seen much of is, Westbrook opting to deferred to another player late in a game. After just two attempts in the fourth, one being a forced three and the other a justified missed layup that should’ve been a foul call, Westbrook differed to George.
Five of Westbrook’s 17 assists came in the fourth quarter on passes to George, so not only did he defer to George, he helped set George up for high percentage shots once he witnessed how hot George was getting offensively.
George was making things happen on both ends of the floor in the fourth. He shot 9-of-12 in the quarter and 4-of-6 from three. In addition to his offensive output, he exerted the same energy on the defensive end and collected six of his 15 rebounds down the stretch.
Every NBA team has off nights. Even the historically great Golden State Warriors team of 2015-2016 that went (73-9) on the season had off nights. What separates good teams from championship caliber teams are how they respond to their off nights and how they adjust.
Resilience is one trait every championship team possesses. When the Thunder entered the fourth quarter down by 18 points, it would have been understandable for Billy Donovan to throw in the white towel and rest his starters for their Friday night matchup against the Chicago Bulls but something told him to fight a little longer, which turned out to be a genius idea.
“Everybody in that arena knew I had the hot hand and expected me to make the shot,” George said. “I trust JG.”
With 2:52 remaining in the game, while George was in the middle of his barrage on the Nets, he drove towards the basket with the anticipation of connecting on a high-percentage shot. Instead, he kicked the ball out to Jerami Grant on the far-left corner for a wide-open 3-pointer, cutting the Brooklyn lead to two.
Along with resilience, trust is equally as important in the makeup of a championship team. George had every reason not to trust a career 30 percent shooter from long distance but the fact that he did tells a story about this Thunder team.
“That shows how connected we are, how we trust each other and the bond that we have,” said Raymond Felton. “That play right there defines our team.”