OKLAHOMA CITY — After this powerful series-squaring stand Tuesday night, right when the San Antonio Spurs’ proven champions fully believed they would just do what they do, it’s fair to imagine:
For the heartfelt Durant, perhaps it’d be similar to Michael Jordan’s first in 1991, deep emotion coming out with a tearful embrace of the gold ball in a quiet pocket of the locker room.
For Westbrook, probably more like Kobe Bryant’s fifth in 2010—the Game 7 stress erupting in a primal pressure release and unapologetic roar up on the scorer’s table for all to see.
With the way the Thunder have won all six games over the Spurs this season with a Serge Ibaka who is now saying: “Every day I’m feeling better,” it’s valid to ponder if Oklahoma City can take two of these final three in the Western Conference Finals without home-court advantage—and do more after that.
Ibaka’s emotional Game 3 return from his calf injury provided a lift, yet this was different: Game 4 saw the Spurs come in and begin to cut up the Thunder just the way they expected after Tim Duncan was as mad after Game 3 as longtime Spurs observers had ever seen and Tony Parker flatly announced: “I can only repeat myself: I have to play better.”
It was Spurs 12, Thunder 4, with Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson having limped off with a sprained right ankle, and that feeling of control that Parker, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich know so well from all their championship runs was mushrooming.
The beauty of this particular game, though? We’re here to find out who has the championship stuff this year.
Winning a title isn’t everything to a man, but it will change him. It can teach him what it takes, and in the hands of the right guy it’s a precious commodity that absolutely can become future confidence and poise.
The confidence could be seen in an early second-quarter moment when Derek Fisher was very clearly telling Durant what he should be doing differently on the court. Or in a late-game moment when Fisher dared openly joke with notoriously fiery referee Joey Crawford.
The poise? That came in the game’s first timeout—with Jackson limping off, everything for the Thunder spinning out of control and even the dependable Oklahoma City crowd hushed.
Fisher, whose jersey number signifies that sixth NBA championship he is seeking, stalked in front of the Thunder bench with pursed lips and simply clapped his hands.
It wasn’t the slow clap that you see in a fictionalized moment of truth on the big screen. It wasn’t meant to be dramatic; it was basic championship poise to convey that this can still be simple and still be ours.
Both Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Durant can’t say enough about how valuable Fisher’s guidance is to this team even as he plays limited minutes. But there’s a reason why Fisher’s locker is right next to Westbrook’s.
Midway through the third quarter of Game 1 in San Antonio, right before Westbrook single-handedly jerked the game into Oklahoma City’s favor for the moment, he had walked off the bench to the scorer’s table with Fisher in his left ear the whole way.
Fisher has so often in the past helped Bryant find that balance, but ultimately the equilibrium has to be established from within. On this night, Westbrook maintained his inferno level of intensity and wielded his torch with a steady hand. He kept the primary focus on defense and disrupting Popovich’s “head of the snake” Parker, and Westbrook wound up with a preposterous stat line:
In 45 ½ minutes, he scored 40 points (one more than San Antonio’s five starters combined) on 12-of-24 field-goal shooting and 14-of-14 free-throw shooting, with five rebounds, 10 assists, five steals and one block.
Even though Brooks says without joking that “Russell has energy to play back-to-backs in the same night,” Westbrook was weary enough after this one to declare he absolutely wanted the golf cart to shuttle him across the arena to the interview room—and kidded he also wanted it to take him all the way home.
It was the first playoff performance the NBA has seen with at least 40 points, 10 assists and five steals since Jordan, and that was actually the not-yet-crowned Jordan doing it in 1989.
“Russell, obviously…” Brooks said with a sigh, “He had a monster game.”
Durant was clear in which were his favorite parts of Westbrook’s stat line.
“His focus on every possession on the defensive end and his poise on the offensive end,” Durant said, “I think that’s what’s fun to watch. People outside of our team don’t really look at that type of stuff, but that’s something that we can definitely build on as a group—watching him wreak havoc on the defensive end and offensively playing with such patience.”
Durant was awfully good, too, with the Thunder taking over the game while he was in one of those grooves where he hits only the bottom of the net on his shots. The NBA MVP has set his standard, but this was championship-caliber Russ, which is also better than anything any of the accomplished, established Spurs can offer in the now.
With as unfettered as he already is, playing so often in what-the-bleep, chip-on-the-shoulder, guns-blazing mode toward anyone and everyone, it’s crazy to imagine what a championship-winning, emboldened Westbrook might become.
The world might not be ready for that kind of thunder.
Or maybe becoming a champion would help him make better sense of his powers…and more consistently become this championship-caliber Russ.
Magic Johnson, a five-time NBA champion point guard, offered on Twitter afterward: “That was the best game I’ve ever seen Russell Westbrook play, regular season or playoffs.”
Knowing what they know and being who they are, the Spurs will regroup and bring it anew in Game 5 Thursday night. But it might just be that Durant and Westbrook have the championship stuff now.
“My job is to play both sides of the ball,” Westbrook said. “If you want to win a championship, those are the things you have to do.”
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.