Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.
Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.
While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.
There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.
• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).
• Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…
• Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.
• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.
• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.
• Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.
• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.
A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.
Utah and Houston met in a battle of the disappointing early season Western teams — predicted by most to finish 2/3 in the West, they came into the night 10th and 13th — and in the tight West these kinds of games matter.
So James Harden turned it up a notch.
The reigning MVP looked every bit that guys scoring 47 points and adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in what was a Houston win, 102-97. It was Harden that sank the dagger into Utah.
That’s four wins in a row for Houston as they try to climb out of the hole they dug themselves early this season.
He picked it up, ran to the other end with one shoe in hand, and then defended a Bjelica drive well enough that Karl-Anthony Towns would come over and get the block on the play.
Somehow, Tom Thibodeau is going to get credit for this new defensive style.
At 18-10 to start the season, the Thunder went into Monday night’s action in third place in the tight Western Conference, pulled there by the best defense in the NBA and enough offense from Russell Westbrook and Paul Gorge to get by.
That the team is doing this with a thin roster, and by putting some role players in strong positions to succeed, and by playing so cohesively has guaranteed coach Billy Donovan one more year as coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Donovan has done well to help the Thunder find a new, winning identity after Kevin Durant left a few years back.
Next season (2019-20) will be the final one on Donovan’s contract. Teams often extend a coach before that, feeling that a “lame duck” coach may have trouble getting some players to fall in line (or the team will struggle recruit free agents, because a good player with options doesn’t want to walk into uncertainty). It will be interesting to see how the Thunder handle that.