Oklahoma City Thunder's Road to NBA Title Goes Through Russell Westbrook

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 28, 2014

May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) warms up prior to action against the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook continues to be the Oklahoma City Thunder's most important player, bar none. 

Even though Kevin Durant is the best player on the roster, he doesn't undergo the production swings that make his point guard such a volatile—and such an important—figure. "Best" and "most important" aren't mutually exclusive descriptors, but they also don't have to go hand in hand. 

That was readily apparent during OKC's 105-92 shellacking of the San Antonio Spurs in a game that really wasn't as close as that final score would indicate. Even though Durant dropped 31 points of his own, it was Westbrook who stole the show. 

The dynamic floor general was a menace throughout the game, maniacally playing at 100 percent from start to finish despite spending 45 minutes on the floor. He ended up with 40 points, five rebounds, 10 assists, five steals and a block while shooting 50 percent from the field, allowing him to join some pretty exclusive company: 

But let's go even further than that. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, only 10 playoff games have ever been recorded in which a player hit at least 40 points, five boards and a dollar's worth of dimes: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan (three times), Tracy McGrady, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and now Westbrook. 

That's one heck of a list to be on. Oh, and Westbrook and MJ are the only two with at least four thefts in the same game. They each had five. 

One game doesn't make the road to the NBA title go through a certain player, though. That's a status earned over time.


The Volatility 

Westbrook's flaws are well-established at this point. 

While his constant state of aggression can often be highly beneficial to the Thunder's cause, his penchant for ill-advised shots can also do away with any chance of emerging victorious. Those mid-range jumpers off the bounce are wonderful when they go in, but the ones that clang off the rim lead to plenty of faces meeting plenty of palms. 

Dynamic as he is, Westbrook can take touches away from Durant when he isn't performing adequately, and he plays with a complete lack of a conscience.

In some situations, forgetting about previous misses can be a good thing; in others, it's detrimental. 

And that's exactly why there's such a huge disparity between good Westbrook and bad Westbrook. Take a look at the numbers from his five best and worst games of the regular season (sorted for sheer output in each stat, not using the same five games for each category), as well as his three best and worst of the postseason: 

Westbrook's Mood Swings
Best (Regular Season)
Worst (Regular Season)
Best (Playoffs)36.314.011.061.5
Worst (Playoffs)

Now, the same exercise for Durant: 

Durant's Mood Swings
Best (Regular Season)49.411.213.475.3
Worst (Regular Season)
Best (Playoffs)38.37.313.759.0
Worst (Playoffs)

And let's compare the differences: 

The Differences
Westbrook (Regular Season)21.69.811.041.8
Durant (Regular Season)32.010.410.843.3
Westbrook (Playoffs)
Durant (Playoffs)

At first glance, that last chart may help you draw the opposite conclusion. The disparity between Durant's best and worst games is even bigger, after all. 

However, context is important. Durant was able to put up a few monstrous scoring performances that came while his point guard was out of the lineup, and those are no longer happening as frequently while they play together. And they will be playing together throughout the rest of the title run, however long that may last. 

The biggest takeaway is that they're fairly comparable in terms of fluctuation between highs and lows, but only when it comes to the size of the discrepancies. The lows are much lower for Westbrook, and that's ultimately what the Thunder can't afford while going up against such an impressive opponent. 

A "worst" game from Durant involves shooting a poor percentage and only barely topping 17 points while failing to make a contribution elsewhere. The same for Westbrook has him shooting his team out of the game with a field-goal percentage just north of 22 percent, all while failing to make contributions elsewhere. 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - May 27: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder backs up to the basket against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 27, 2014 in Oklahoma City
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Which would you rather have? 

"Just don't expect anyone to have a clue if he'll save or destroy the Thunder," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes shortly after Game 4 concluded. "That's the beauty of Westbrook: You just never know."

The playoffs force off games, so it's important to identify just how bad that off game can be. 

But let's focus on the positives, especially since Westbrook is coming off such a stellar outing. 


The Upside

May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles for the media after the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeak

When Westbrook is playing like an MVP candidate, defenses just fall apart. 

He's one of the most athletic players in the NBA, capable of using a quick first step to burst by opponents before finishing at the rim with an athletic flair. He can outmuscle smaller defenders, use his quickness to get around bigger ones and finish over or in spite of just about anyone when he gets to the basket. 

On top of that, he's quite adept at hitting mid-range jumpers when he decides to start pulling up. That's the aspect of his game that clicks when he's really feeling it, and opponents may as well give up as soon as he hits a few consecutive shots outside the paint. 

"Sometimes he's going to go off," Manu Ginobili explained to The Associated Press after Game 4, via ESPN.com. "He's capable of doing that. If he makes a lot of jumpers, it gets really tough."

On the surface level, Westbrook is already quite valuable when he goes into good aggressive mode. He provides tons of points and assists when he's wreaking havoc throughout the half-court set. 

But his aggression also opens things up for his teammates, and that's where things are slightly different between him and Durant. 

While the league MVP can go off like no one else in the scoring column, he tends to create things for himself out on the perimeter, coupling that with quite a few drives, of course. Durant, when he's feeling it, doesn't entirely change how a defense plays because the opposition is already dead-set on stopping him by any means necessary. 

However, on a night like Tuesday, Westbrook can put an entire defense on its heels. The Spurs didn't know whether to prevent him from driving or to play tight on him so he couldn't knock down jumpers. 

There wasn't any solution, and the necessity of adjustments just opens things up for everyone else on the court. So long as he can keep his eyes up when he's driving to the basket, he's going to be able to find at least one open man when the entire defense collapses around him 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - May 27: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives baseline against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 27, 2014 in Oklahoma City, O
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Additionally, Westbrook can settle in on the less glamorous end of the court and uniquely affect the proceedings. Durant morphed into a shutdown defender at times during the regular season, but he still didn't force turnovers that led to fast-break points quite like a focused Westbrook. 

"Russell Westbrook sparked the Thunder's running game Tuesday as he scored or assisted on 17 of their series-high 29 transition points," ESPN Stats and Information reported. "Westbrook forced five turnovers as a primary defender Tuesday that led to nine transition points for the Thunder." 

That's special, especially when coupled with 40 points and 10 assists. 

Above all else, there's really no way to describe Westbrook in a nutshell. He'd use his excessive reserves of energy to break right out of it anyway. 

OKC still has its work cut out for it, with two more wins against the Spurs needed before anyone can even think about the NBA Finals. That's not an easy task, especially since the Western Conference Finals are shifting back to San Antonio for Game 5. 

But tough as it may be, it's possible. With the consistent excellence of Durant and the chance that Westbrook is impossible to stop, this Thunder team has more upside than the current opposition now that Serge Ibaka is back in the lineup. 

Ultimately, Durant will keep earning the biggest headlines. If the Thunder end up holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy above their heads in celebratory fashion, KD will probably get to shake hands with Bill Russell and add a Finals MVP to his regular-season version. 

However, none of that will be possible without Westbrook continuing to excel.