The Oklahoma City Thunder knew they'd have to fight to even their Western Conference Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs, so it's a good thing Russell Westbrook played like violence incarnate on Tuesday.
Thanks to his incessant assaults on the rim and boundless energy, the Thunder cruised to a 105-92 win that tied up the series and sent a serious message to San Antonio. Whatever happens from here on out, the fact that OKC clawed back from a seemingly insurmountable 0-2 hole—distinguished by two blowout losses—is remarkable.
But you get the sense the Thunder won't be satisfied with leveling the series. Having now felt the rush of playing at their absolute peak on both ends of the floor, they'll look to pull off the much tougher task of beating the Spurs in San Antonio.
To win this series, OKC must take a game on the road, and it'll get its next shot in Game 5 on Thursday.
From the looks of his performance in Game 4, Westbrook probably wishes the NBA would bump up the start date of that critical contest to, oh, I don't know, right now.
This is the best game Russell Westbrook has ever played.— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 28, 2014
Despite playing 46 minutes (and these are "Westbrook minutes," which are kind of like dog years in that they're seven times more intense than regular human minutes), he hardly seemed tired after the contest came to an end.
In addition to looking fresh, he also sounded pretty modest:
"I think I did all right" – Russell Westbrook in his post game interview— Jared Wade (@Jared_Wade) May 28, 2014
That's understating things a bit, don't you think?
Westbrook shredded San Antonio's defense all night, and though we frequently use aggressive terms to describe the way Westbrook plays, it's almost impossible to overstate the ferocity with which he performed in this one.
The stats are fine enough indicators: He piled up 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals on 12-of-24 shooting, figures that put him in exceedingly rare postseason company:
Russ Westbrook joins Michael Jordan as just the 2nd player in the last 30 years w/ 40 points, 10 assists, 5 Rebs & 5 steals in a playoff gm.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 28, 2014
Further evidence of his relentless play: his 14-of-14 effort from the foul line. From the opening tap, Westbrook grabbed hold of the proverbial edge in intensity and refused to let go.
Whether staring down the Spurs, dancing some kind of celebratory jig or dusting off his shoulder after finishing through contact with the hulking Aron Baynes, Westbrook punctuated every eye-opening play with sneers, scowls and smirks—depending on the exact manner in which he wanted to communicate his badness in each particular instance.
Emboldened by Westbrook's animalistic play and swaggering confidence (a weird combination, I know), the Thunder put a strangle hold on Game 4 by halftime, surging out to a 58-43 lead.
It's hard to know if Westbrook's unparalleled aggression caused San Antonio to play with an uncharacteristic listlessness. It's possible the Spurs just had a rough night and the way their opponents (and Westbrook specifically) were playing had nothing to do with their sluggish pace and oddly disjointed play.
Everything San Antonio is doing is hurried, panicked, forced....— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) May 28, 2014
But the fury with which Westbrook attacked clearly had a spillover effect on the Thunder. As a team, OKC harnessed its athleticism to get into the passing lanes, dig down on post-ups and scurry all over the floor to recover on closeouts.
The Thunder fed off of Westbrook's tone-setting demeanor and simply harassed the Spurs into mistakes with their athletic superiority.
On the night, OKC scored 21 fast break points and allowed zero. It got up and down the floor far faster than the Spurs in both directions.
And thanks to the hyperactive pace and dogged pursuit of every loose ball, the Thunder forced 13 San Antonio giveaways, capitalizing with 21 points off turnovers. Usually, that kind of end-to-end intensity results in sloppiness from both teams—even the aggressor.
But OKC kept things remarkably efficient on offense:
92 points on 92 poss for SAS. 105 on 91 poss for OKC. Only 8% turnovers for OKC.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 28, 2014
Plus, Kevin Durant got a rare breather as the Spurs scrambled to contain his seemingly possessed teammate.
Thanks to the reduced defensive attention brought about by the five-alarm fire Westbrook set, Durant cruised to 22 first-half points, finishing with 31 on the night. And neither he nor Westbrook committed a single turnover in the first half.
After the break, Westbrook kept attacking and the Spurs pulled their starters midway through the third quarter. It was clear both sides knew the outcome was no longer in question.
Westbrook had decided the outcome for everyone involved.
But let's get back to the tougher query: Can the Thunder maintain the frenetic pace they set in Game 4 when they head out on the road?
We know OKC is practically unbeatable at home, as it posted a 34-7 mark during the regular season that topped the Western Conference. And against the Spurs, the Thunder have been even tougher:
The Thunder have won their last nine in OKC against the Spurs, and 12 of 14 against them with Serge Ibaka in the lineup.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 28, 2014
But the road is another story. San Antonio posted an offensive rating of 109.9 at home this past season, a figure that was 3.4 points better than their road mark and would have been good enough to lead the league, per NBA.com.
After the postgame screed Gregg Popovich is sure to administer, it's a safe bet the Spurs will come out highly motivated to execute, meet OKC's intensity and, you know, put the ball in the basket once in a while.
There's no way the Spurs go home for Game 5 and duplicate the 39.8 percent shooting mark they posted in Game 4 at Oklahoma City.
Of course, it's also worth noting that the Thunder scored at a breakneck pace (116.7 points per 100 possessions) in posting a net rating of plus-9.4 in two games at the AT&T Center during the regular season, per NBA.com. And maybe we can write off those two losses in Games 1 and 2 as predictable results of a Serge Ibaka-less lineup.
As for Westbrook maintaining the maxed-out intensity he displayed in Game 4, well, that's a tougher question.
Drag racers run out of fuel eventually, or worse, they crash into the wall. That's really the danger with Westbrook, if you think about it.
Passion and fierceness are never in short supply, but they often work against him as powerfully as they work for him. We've all seen the bad shots, the forced drives and the ill-advised forays into trouble. Those are as much products of Westbrook's always-on attack mode as what we saw in Game 4 were.
That's the narrative with him: He carries the Thunder most of the time, but he also occasionally buries them.
And whatever animal we're using these days as a comparison for Westbrook (cheetah? genetically enhanced wolverine? velociraptor?) has to ease off and rest eventually.
For a guy who endured three knee surgeries this past year, it's hard to imagine Westbrook won't eventually slow down.
He can't redline it forever, can he?
The Thunder certainly hope he can, and in a hostile environment, to boot.
Expect the Spurs to adjust because they're the Spurs. Expect OKC to come out with the focus and fight befitting a team that now genuinely believes it can win this series.
And expect Westbrook to play with the same unbridled wrath he always does.
Just don't expect anyone to have a clue if he'll save or destroy the Thunder. That's the beauty of Westbrook: You just never know.