OKLAHOMA CITY -- With about 90 seconds left in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 122-113 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday, Russell Westbrook walked to the baseline under his basket while pulling his white shooting sleeves off both arms and wadded them into a ball. He tossed them on the baseline and shook his head. Despite another triple-double -- his sixth of the season -- he struggled shooting the ball, hitting just 4 of 18 from the floor, 0 of 5 from 3 and 4 of 8 from the free throw line, a couple just barely grazing the front of the rim.
The Thunder cruised in their first meeting with the team that knocked out of the playoffs last season regardless, as Paul George scorched with 31 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including 5-of-6 from 3. George had 17 in the third quarter as the Thunder erupted with 42 points to build a 25-point lead heading into the final frame, picking up slack from Westbrook's off shooting night.
"I just talked to [Westbrook] in the back [of the locker room] and told him, 'It's an 82-game season,' and I told him, 'I got your back,'" George said. "He's had me on plenty of occasions where I had an off night and Russ took over offensively and put the game on his shoulders. I'm his counterpart, and I've got to do the same for him. It's a long season, there's going to be games like that. Special thing, good thing about this team: We've got two guys that can fill it up on a nightly basis. But he's fine, it's nothing he's gotta get coached through. He's been a scoring leader. He knows how to score the ball."
With the Thunder building a lead as big as 29, George sat the entire fourth quarter, while Westbrook checked back in with about seven minutes left after the Jazz cut the lead down to 15. Westbrook picked up a couple of assists and hit a tough layup and a few free throws to hold off any Utah comeback. But his jump-shooting has been notably spotty this season, with Westbrook hitting a career-low 21.8 percent from 3 and just 34.3 percent on shots from 15 to 19 feet, per NBA.com stats. Westbrook's 3-point percentage at 5.1 attempts per game would be the worst 3-point percentage in NBA history among qualified players to average five attempts per game in a season. He's also shooting a career-low from the line at 61.8 percent.
"His season to this point in time has been really choppy," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "Missing all of training camp, then coming back for a few games, then going out again for [six] games, then coming back. For him, all that stuff is just going to take time. I'm not really worried about it, that's just him coming back and getting back his rhythm."
Westbrook missed all of the preseason after undergoing knee surgery in September, then sprained his ankle in November and missed six games. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, his 22 percent from the field is his lowest mark of the season, and he is shooting 42 percent in his 10 games since coming back from the ankle injury, as opposed to 49 percent in his first seven games.
"When you miss as much time as he's missed, it'll take him some time to get back, but he'll be fine," Donovan said. "I'm not really worried about it."
The Jazz deploy a pretty demonstrable scheme to counter Westbrook's ability to attack the rim, trying to push him to midrange shots or off-the-dribble 3s, with length such as Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors stepping up to contest. Westbrook was visibly frustrated in the fourth quarter, shaking his head during a timeout and going through his shooting motion. Even with what appeared to be an off night, Westbrook had a triple-double (12 points, 10 assists, 11 rebounds) and played a part in sparking George.
"That's a big part of my game -- I do other things to impact the team and to win," Westbrook said. "I like to win, and whatever play needs to be made to win, that's what I'll do."
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double on the season -- again -- as the Thunder improved to 17-8 and moved atop the Western Conference with the win.