Game 3 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs will be remembered as the night Serge Ibaka—left for lost following a calf injury in the Western Conference Semifinals—beat back both the doubters and his team’s certain doom.
All the while, the demons defeated by Russell Westbrook may prove just as tide turning.
Westbrook’s stat-stuffing performance in OKC’s 106-97 win Sunday night (26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block) was everything Thursday’s much-maligned meltdown wasn’t: controlled when the context called for it, cool when tensions were taut, spectacular in constant spades.
In San Antonio’s 112-77 Game 2 dismantling, Westbrook too often played a part many have come to critique. The shots came early and errant, the errors fast and furious, with the poise—a point-guard must have—left, it seemed, back at the hotel.
Oh, there was the occasional miscue and cavalier chuck Sunday night. But with Ibaka back in the lineup and OKC’s top-tier offense firing on all cylinders, Westbrook’s baser instincts seemed trumped by those of a team finally finding its groove.
In his post-game press conference, OKC head coach Scott Brooks acknowledged the noticeable shift in demeanor from his two stars, saying the following about Kevin Durant and Westbrook’s self-professed desire to get their troops back on track:
Just their ability to continue to lead us. What they do on the practice floor, in the locker room, in the huddles, is growing day by day—year by year they’ve done a good job of leading us. You know, they’re great players. And they’re going to be great players for a lot of years. But the thing that I love about their improvement over the years is their leadership. They have to continue to empower and continue to make their teammates better. That’s what the great ones do, and I thought they did a great job of that tonight.
And not a moment too soon: No team in NBA history has beaten back a 3-0 series deficit. Against these Spurs, that kind of hole would be better served by last rites than a Game 4.
Without Ibaka to bolster the back line, Tony Parker and the rest of the Spurs wings were able to probe the paint with impunity.
Now? Not so much: With his team’s best shot-blocker behind him, Westbrook can freelance defensively in a way that would’ve spelled certain doom in Games 1 and 2.
How Westbrook responds to San Antonio’s inevitable adjustment—imploring his point guard to draw OKC’s defenders in before kicking to open shooters—could prove one of the bigger bellwethers for how the series ultimately unfolds.
NBA history is rife with polarizing figures. But seldom have the controversial and the cosmically talented dovetailed to a more potent nexus point than with OKC’s rage-fueled floor general.
Many a pixel has been spent in an attempt to codify why the Thunder desperately need to rein Westbrook in. To that, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller has penned perhaps the most succinct, straightforward retort, and an authoritative defense of what's become known on Twitter as "#LetWestbrookBeWestbrook":
This isn't Lego. You can't take the Russell Westbrook set and rearrange the pieces to get Rajon Rondo or Chris Paul. There's no making a bakery out of a spaceship set. All you would do if you tried to force Westbrook not to be Westbrook is end up with a neutered version, a less effective, less confident Westbrook. What's the point? He's RUSSELL WESTBROOK because of that confidence and lack of conscience. It'd be like telling Allen Iverson to stop dribbling so much or Jason Williams to ease up on the no-looks. If you want a different player, go get a different player. Don't hack away at the one you have.
This is the curse of Russell Westbrook: Lose, and lazy fingers too easily point in your direction. Win, and your contributions are worthy simply of second shift.
Fair or unfair, the fate of OKC could conceivably decide whether the Westbrook-Durant duo remains a league linchpin, or whether the next few years will become an endless cycle of handwringing and rumors of trades.
Which is what makes this series and these playoffs so impossibly important, for Durant and the Thunder, sure, but for Westbrook especially.
At his best, Westbrook is a top-10 talent with top-five potential—a basketball prodigy with the quickness of a pinball and the on-court instincts of a poorly reared pit bull.
At his worst, well, we’ve all written and read it enough times to know.
Heading into Game 4, the Western Conference Finals have a far, far different feel than they did just three short days ago. In part because of Ibaka, who lent his team the 10-gigawatt jolt it so desperately demanded.
In part because of pure momentum, which tends to shift most where the forces are greatest.
In part because Oklahoma City remains in sole possession of the league’s MVP, teeming and seething as he is to scale that last, wind-whipped peak.
And in part because the Thunder boast the biggest X-factor of any remaining team.
Russell Westbrook has spent the better part of the past decade trying to squash the notion that his basketball instincts are too often the bane of his better basketball brain. That he’ll never be able to quite quell the rebellion that compels him to contested jumpers.
Until a teammate's unlikely return rendered all of that—for a night, anyway—mercifully moot. The result being a borderline brilliant outing from a player who might just be at his best when he knows his brothers are, too.