The New Orleans Pelicans looked to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third time this season Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center.
All-Star guard Russell Westbrook wouldn’t let that happen.
Taking advantage of tormentor Jrue Holiday being out injured, Westbrook scored a career-high-tying 45 points. And Oklahoma City, playing without reigning MVP Kevin Durant, took a crucial 102-91 victory.
With Westbrook leading the way, the Thunder ended the game on a 13-0 run.
“His will to win is at a high level, and his will to prepare to win is what makes him a great player,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He obviously has the talent and the skill set, but his heart and desire to win every possession, that’s what makes him great.”
The win enabled the Thunder, 25-24 and in 10th place in the Western Conference playoff race, to stay within striking distance of ninth-place New Orleans (26-23) and the idle Phoenix Suns (28-22), who are in the eighth and final spot.
The loss left the Pelicans with a 4-2 record in the six-game homestand they used to get back in the race. They trailed Phoenix and Oklahoma City on Jan. 21 but went into Wednesday’s game having won six of seven games, while Oklahoma City and the Suns both had gone 3-4.
The Thunder, now one game behind the Pelicans, host them Friday in Oklahoma City. Phoenix plays a tough game at Portland on Thursday.
Westbrook scored nine points in the fourth quarter and seemingly broke the Pelicans’ will, particularly after his teammates became more involved. The Thunder had just eight assists at halftime but finished with 20. Westbrook had one at halftime but ended with six.
“He was coming hard off the screens, and by the time he’s coming off, he’s already shooting that quick jump shot, and he shot a lot of ’em,” said the Pelicans’ Eric Gordon, who guarded Westbrook much of the game. “We just need to mix up what we do. It’s tough for any guard to come off screens (guarding him) as fast as he is. He’s a good player, and when you get it going like that, you’re hard to stop, regardless.”
Westbrook had seven points during a stretch of the fourth from 6:51 to 4:24. Then teammates got baskets playing off him, such as a dunk by Serge Ibaka on a screen-and-roll. Sensing victory, the Thunder came up with late steals, such as Dion Waiters’ against Tyreke Evans that led to a layup and a 96-91 lead with 3:25 left.
Playoff-tested Oklahoma City, now 22-12 in its past 34 games, held the groping Pelicans scoreless the last 5:39 of the game, after a 3-pointer by Ryan Anderson produced a 91-89 lead. New Orleans missed its last nine shots and finished the game shooting 38.9 percent. They were outscored in the lane 66-46.
“We shot a lot of jump shots, and the shots we took around the paint didn’t fall for us,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “We had a couple of guys who made plays in games in the past, and we just didn’t make them tonight.”
The Pelicans entered the fourth quarter trailing 77-76, as Oklahoma City came to its senses and started sharing the ball. The Thunder had eight assists in the quarter.
The Pelicans are 4-17 when trailing after the third quarter.
The Pelicans turned the ball over five times and lost a 66-55 lead they had built by the 8:56 mark. The Pelicans led 57-51 at halftime, committing just four turnovers.
While Westbrook was a one-man gang for Oklahoma City with 25 first-half points, he had just one assist and the Thunder eight, continuing a trend from the first two games that resulted in Pelicans wins.
New Orleans had 14 assists, and nine Pelicans had scored, led by Anthony Davis with 12 and Quincy Pondexter and Ryan Anderson off the bench with 10 and nine.
In the previous two games, Westbrook had shot 16-of-47, including 1-of-10 on 3-pointers while being guarded by Holiday. However, Westbrook scored 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first quarter to set the tone. The Pelicans, though, trailed just 31-29 at the end of it.
Durant has a sprained left big toe and did not make the trip, sitting for the fourth time in five games. … The Pelicans signed point guard Toney Douglas to a 10-day contract on Wednesday. Douglas, 6-foot-2, appeared in 35 games this season with the Jiangsu Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association, averaging 19.1 points, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals. Known as a good defender, he has played five seasons in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets, Kings, Warriors and Heat. He will wear No. 16.