OKLAHOMA CITY – The NBA last summer invited the Timberwolves to its 2016 Christmas party for the first time in their 27-season history because of what they were expected to be and might someday become.
Oklahoma City’s 112-100 victory over the Wolves on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena was all about what league MVP candidate Russell Westbrook and the reconfigured Thunder are right now.
The Wolves made their Christmas debut wearing NBA-issued snowflake socks and special-edition uniforms, while the Thunder played on Dec. 25 for a seventh consecutive year but the first without superstar Kevin Durant.
The Thunder used a 29-22 third quarter and a decisive second half in which Westbrook imposed his will as the game progressed. Oklahoma City won its third game in a row and for the 19th time in its first 31 games.
The Wolves, meanwhile, lost their second consecutive game after they had seemingly approached some kind of corner after winning three of their previous four games.
Coach Tom Thibodeau searched for some answers Sunday by giving seldom-used veteran Jordan Hill meaningful minutes in each half (18½ total). Thibodeau said he wanted to see how Hill’s offense and rebounding would fare against an opponent Hill knows well.
Ultimately, the Wolves were outdone on the NBA’s big holiday stage, in the fourth game of a televised morning-to-night holiday quintupleheader.
“Games like this happen,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Unfortunately, it happened on Christmas. We’re going to be better.”
Durant’s new Golden State team lost in the final seconds of an NBA Finals rematch at Cleveland in a marquee day game two slots ahead of the Wolves-Thunder evening meeting.
Westbrook didn’t reach his 15th triple-double this season, nor did he score 40 or more points for a fourth consecutive game. The NBA’s leading scorer finished with a mere 31 points (his season average), seven rebounds and 15 assists, making 11 of 25 shots from the floor.
Thibodeau employed a variety of defenses and double-teams, and nearly every wing defender he had — Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and finally Kris Dunn all got a shot — in an unsuccessful attempt to slow Westbrook’s statistical rampage through the league this season without Durant beside him.
“You try not to give him a steady diet,” Thibodeau said. “But when you’re a player like he is, he has seen every type of defense there is. So you try to make him work. Anytime you commit two [defenders] to him, you’re leaving someone else open and I think that’s where he has really grown. He’s readying the game well and he is making everyone around him a lot better.”
When the Wolves forced him to work for his shot, Westbrook turned playmaker, finding big guys Steven Adams (22 points) and Jerian Grant running ahead for alley-oops and threading a gorgeous bounce pass ahead to 7-footer Enes Kanter (20) for a dunk while Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 20.
Afterward, a guy known for his angry face on the court talked about having fun with a team forging ahead without Durant.
“I don’t know if this is the most fun I’ve had, but it’s definitely near the top because of the group of guys we have,” Westbrook said. “Everybody is so unselfish. Everybody is willing to do great things and everybody wants to get better.”
Before the game, Thibodeau said he didn’t want his team to get lost in the spectacle of playing on the big Christmas Day stage.
“You don’t really think about it,” LaVine said. “You know it’s a big stage. We live for those types of things. I don’t feel like anyone gets nervous around here about that. We wanted to put ourselves in a position to win, but we didn’t do that.”