The Oklahoma City Thunder officially clinched a berth in the 2017 NBA playoffs Wednesday with a 114-106 overtime win against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center that was buoyed by a 57-point triple-double from Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder came into the season with uncertain expectations following the high-profile departure of Kevin Durant. His decision to join the Golden State Warriors left Westbrook as the sole superstar on a roster otherwise filled with complementary pieces.
Westbrook has responded with an MVP-caliber season that's on pace to conclude with him averaging a triple-double. His nightly stat-sheet-stuffing combined with timely contributions from the likes of Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo kept Oklahoma City afloat.
Fred Kerber of the New York Post passed along comments from OKC head coach Billy Donovan in mid-March about the point guard helping the franchise turn the page.
"When I spoke to Russell in the summer, his whole thing was: 'What are we doing next?'" Donovan said. "He set an incredible tone for our team. ... Even in summertime, the guy has always been all-in on the team and doing what he can to help."
The Thunder bolstered their roster at the trade deadline by acquiring Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in a deal with the Chicago Bulls.
Gibson's arrival gave OKC a frontcourt that can compete with anybody the team may face during the Western Conference playoffs. His well-rounded post play paired with Adams' defense and Kanter's offense should allow Donovan to create some matchup problems.
When you pair that potential advantage with Westbrook's massive impact, there's certainly reason for optimism within the Thunder fanbase.
Just how far the team goes will depend on the other perimeter players, though. Oklahoma City is going to need the likes of Oladipo, McDermott, Andre Roberson and Alex Abrines to step up in order to make a deep run.
That's true for the entire game, but especially during those typically short stretches where Westbrook heads to the bench. Bleacher Report's Michael Pina illustrated why:
Ultimately, the Thunder can still improve their playoff seeding during the stretch run of the regular season, but the most important thing is avoiding a late slide. They don't want to get pushed into a Round 1 matchup with Durant and the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs.
Everything would need to fall perfectly into place for OKC to represent the West in the NBA Finals, but Westbrook and Co. sure look like a tough out on paper.