There's a fundamental question the Los Angeles Lakers must ask themselves.
Is a playoff berth really worth it?
If it's Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder that await in a potential first-round matchup, the answer, regardless of what the Lakers are professionally obligated to say publicly, seems to be an overwhelming no.
Westbrook again had his way with his hometown team, the franchise which he grew up a fan of, in the Thunder's wire-to-wire 122-105 win on Tuesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder point guard scored a game-high 37 points with a team-high 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals against just one turnover. He made 15 of 29 shots in 36 minutes, continuing what has long been a troubling trend for the Lakers.
They just can't stop Westbrook.
In four games against LA this season, Westbrook averaged 28.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and nine assists. Most significant, the Thunder took the season series three games to one.
And in this final meeting Westbrook was as good as he's ever been, dismissing Lakers star Kobe Bryant as a supposed defensive stopper and destroying LA from start to finish.
“He was getting opportunities to get to his spot on the floor where he can make (shots),” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Westbrook took complete control of the first half, applying pressure with a steady stream of unstoppable slashes to the rim and post-ups that ended in turnaround bank shots. Westbrook scored 13 points in the opening period, marking the fourth straight game in which he's registered at least 10 points in the first quarter.
He's now scored at least 10 points in six of the last seven games and is averaging 12.9 first-quarter points over that same span.
If the Lakers, 2½ games out of the eighth playoff seed and just three games back of Houston for the seventh spot, do indeed clinch, they could be forced to deal with the wrath of Westbrook for, at the very least, another four games.
Led by Westbrook, the Thunder opened a 37-28 lead after one quarter Tuesday night, the most points the Thunder has scored in any first quarter this season. By halftime, Westbrook had dumped in 19 points with eight rebounds.
Kevin Durant, meanwhile, quietly wore out the Lakers just as much. He scored 20 points in the first half, making seven of 12 shots. He closed the half with a 3-pointer from straight away and a jump shot with 1.1 seconds remaining to give the Thunder a 71-55 advantage, the most points OKC has scored in a half this season.
Ball security and ball movement helped the Thunder build its 16-point halftime. Oklahoma City had just one turnover in the opening 24 minutes, a season low, and dished 12 assists that allowed 10 players to score.
The lone turnover — which stood until 5:06 remained in the fourth quarter — came on a disputed pass that the Thunder contended was deflected out of bounds by a Laker. The Thunder finished with just two giveaways, tying an NBA record.
The Lakers got as close as five when Steve Nash hit a corner 3-pointer off a feed from Bryant with 6:14 left to play. Westbrook split a pair of free throws at the other end, Serge Ibaka drained a corner 3 and Durant made a pair of foul shots to push the Thunder's lead back to 11 inside the final 2½ minutes.
LA didn't score the rest of the way.
It was all but over when Ibaka corralled a missed 3 by Westbrook before converting a putback layup and Westbrook followed by picking off a bad pass by Bryant and streaking the other way for a two-handed dunk.
“The Lakers came in with basically everybody saying this was a must win,” Westbrook said. “They needed a win, and we needed the win, too. So we came out with a sense of urgency as well.”