Russell Westbrook Coming on at Perfect Time for Oklahoma City Thunder

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Russell Westbrook Coming on at Perfect Time for Oklahoma City Thunder
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Russell Westbrook has impeccable timing.

If there was ever a time the Oklahoma City Thunder needed Westbrook to be Westbrook, explosive and excitable, productive and potent, it's now.

Postseason basketball is fast approaching, and the Thunder are—well, were, but we'll get to that—locked in a battle for second place. The sense has always been Kevin Durant can do it alone, but it's preferable he doesn't.

Enter Westbrook.

The real Westbrook.

Lucky for the Thunder, he's privy to their ticking title clock. The regular season is winding down, and he's coming on, catching fire at the exact time they need him to set their backcourt ablaze.

 

Red Hot in Tinseltown

The Thunder are no longer locked in a battle for No. 2. Second place is theirs.

Mathematically, sure, the Los Angeles Clippers can still make up the 2.5 games Oklahoma City has on them. But it's not going to happen. Their time to strike was Wednesday night in Los Angeles, when they had the opportunity to move within a half-game of second place by dispatching the mighty Thunder.

Only they didn't win.

Westbrook wouldn't let them. 

In just over 33 minutes of action, Westbrook went for 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on 50 percent shooting. It was just his seventh 30-point game of the season, and the first time he's eclipsed that plateau in successive appearances.

More impressively, Westbrook is now the only NBA guard to record at least 30 points, 11 boards and six dimes on 50 percent or better shooting in a single game this season, and he joins Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge as the only three players to post such benchmarks in under 35 minutes. 

The perfect Westbrook moment came late in the fourth. Off a Durant miss, Oklahoma City's point man came soaring in for a thunderous—pun slightly intended—putback, extending the Thunder's lead to four with just over two minutes remaining.

Point guards don't make that play. At least, they're not supposed to. Not at 6'3". Maybe the 6'7" Shaun Livingston should be able to hit the glass hard. The 6'6" Michael Carter-Williams is quite the rebounder. But Westbrook? Nah. He shouldn't be.

And yet, he is.

Westbrook's athleticism is rivaled by some, exceeded by no one. His attitude off the court isn't always camera friendly, but his on-court resolve is why you tolerate the bad shots, missed opportunities and unsavory temper tantrums. It's why he's the superstar he is—the sometimes brash, always committed superstar.

Daily Thunder's Royce Young put Westbrook's most recent effort in nice perspective:

First, Westbrook: He has his flaws, and we all still see them on a nightly basis. In this game alone where he went for 30-11-6, he took some bad shots and made a few poor choices. But what you saw is why he’s so damn valuable. Those two rebounds he hauled in, he’s the only point guard in the world that pulls them off. His competitive spirit, his never-say-die attitude, his willingness to compete until the end of every play, especially in critical moments, is what separates him. It’s what allows me to entirely overlook and often dismiss those flaws he has.

Dismiss them he should. Right now, we all should.

Despite Durant shooting a season-low 30.8 percent from the floor, the Thunder won. They beat the Clippers, a team they were 1-2 against previously, and a team that remains one of the Western Conference's elite powers. They maimed Los Angeles' second-place chances. Destroyed them.

And they did so thanks to superb team defense and an empowered and inspired Westbrook. 

 

Making It Last

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One game. Westbrook's performance against the Clippers was one game.

Taper your optimism accordingly.

But only after you acknowledge this is one game in a span of other similarly dominant, equally encouraging and well-timed displays.

Boost your elation accordingly.

Over his last five games, Westbrook is averaging 25.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, six assists and 1.4 steals on 49.5 percent shooting. His three-point touch has been off—15 percent conversion rate on four attempts per game—but he's counteracted that with rim attacks and near-perfect free-throw shooting (91.4 percent). 

Westbrook Unleashed
When FG% FT% PTS REBS ASTS STLS TOs Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg.
Last 5 Games 49.5 91.4 25.4 5.2 6.0 1.4 3.9 116.6 103.2
2013-14 Season 44.0 82.5 21.7 5.7 6.9 1.9 2.8 110.9 103.1

NBA.com.

There's nothing the Thunder should want more than to see Westbrook flirt with 50 percent shooting. When he's hitting shots, they're beating all kinds of opponents. Let's just call the Thunder what they are under those circumstances: unbeatable.

When Westbrook hits at least 49 percent of his field-goal attempts, the Thunder are 14-2 this season. That means they're 18-9 when he doesn't, which, let's face it, isn't too astounding by Thunder standards.

It's always been like this. Since Westbrook was drafted, the Thunder are 109-41 (72.7 winning percentage) when he shoots 49 percent or better, compared to 158-129 (55.1 percent) when he doesn't.

Oklahoma City has won at least 61 percent of its games every year since Westbrook arrived, so this isn't a sample size that's skewed by onset awfulness. It's an accurate barometer of how dangerous the Thunder are when Westbrook is efficient.

If he keeps shooting at this rate come playoff time, the Thunder are in great shape. They are 6-2 in playoff games during which Westbrook goes for 25 or more points on at least 49 percent shooting. So this is all about making it last, because if this Westbrook is a lasting Westbrook, then the Western Conference is in trouble.

 

Brutal West Demands Polished Westbrook

Sue Ogrocki

Making it out of the Western Conference isn't a feasible goal for the Thunder without Westbrook. It never was.

As good as Durant is, the West isn't a field won by teams with one superstar and a simplistic offensive system. In lieu of a well-oiled, difficult-to-figure-out system, the Thunder need every bit of star power they can muster. They need Durant, and they need Westbrook.

This Westbrook.

Easy matchups don't exist out West. The Thunder will see the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies or Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

Each of them are opponents the Thunder can beat and will be favored against. But they're dangerous. As are the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and to a lesser extent, Portland Trail Blazers.

And if the Thunder have NBA Finals aspirations, they'll also be tasked with going through the San Antonio Spurs and/or Clippers. In order to have an edge, this version of Westbrook is paramount, a serious, playoff-turning boon for their title stock.

How far will the Thunder go in the playoffs if Russell Westbrook keeps playing like this?

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Regular-season series mean nothing. In a short time, records will be wiped clean. Blank slates will be handed out. The pace changes, the stakes increase. Playoffs are a different game.

"To win big games, you got to do the little things. We did all those things," Westbrook said after the win over Los Angeles, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "We're an older group. We've been together for some years. Once these guys get their legs under them, we're going to be in good shape."

Great shape. Ideal shape, even. It's tough to be in any better shape when Westbrook is playing the way he's playing, dominating the way he's dominating, arriving in other-wordly form just in time for the Thunder to push their season as far as it can possibly go. 

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).


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