Russell Westbrook raced up the court with the ball in his hands, attacking the New York defense with his familiar frenetic pace. Two Knicks defenders were in retreat, in the unenviable position of backpedaling as Westbrook barreled full speed ahead with his sights set on the basket.
After dishing to Serge Ibaka for a two-handed dunk, Westbrook's right foot landed on the tip of Knicks guard Iman Shumpert's sneakers, resulting in a rolled ankle.
It's the only thing that's been able to slow down Westbrook lately.
The Thunder point guard is now playing the best basketball of his career, a fabulous stretch that began at the start of February and one he's been able to maintain into March.
In the 16 games since the Thunder's first February game, Westbrook has averaged 26 points in just 33.3 minutes while converting 49.7 percent of his field goal attempts. He's added 4.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists over that same span.
Over the first 46 games, Westbrook averaged 22.5 points on just 41.6 percent shooting, though his assist and rebound averages were both higher.
“He's had a lot of growth this year,” said Nick Collison. “He's seeing the game better. He's maturing and his decision-making has been better.”
It'd be impossible to isolate one area of Westbrook's recent production as the most impressive. His spike in efficiency, though, has been most encouraging.
A noted volume shooter — one thing that hasn't changed — Westbrook is now maximizing his shot attempts like never before. He's driving instead of dialing up 3-pointers and getting to the foul line as frequently as he takes the pullup jumper he so fancies.
Through the first 46 games, Westbrook attempted 4.1 3-pointers per game. In the past 16 contests, that tally is down to 2.6, a much more acceptable figure for a career 30.4 percent 3-point shooter.
“I think it maybe goes along with the decision-making,” Collison explained of Westbrook cutting down on his 3s. “Our offense also has been better so he's not having to have the ball late in the shot clock and having to force something.
“The 3s he is getting seem to be off a skip pass when he's in a rhythm shot … He's not stuck out there a lot. That's what's happened in the past is we haven't been very good offensively. We've had possessions and he's stuck with the ball up top and he's got to force something. So we've had less of those possessions.”
Replacing those shots from beyond the arc have been blazing bursts to the rim, where Westbrook finally has started to finish more consistently — his botched fast break layup against the Knicks notwithstanding. According to hoopdata.com, Westbrook is shooting a career-high 62.1 percent at the rim this season. A sample of the past 16 games likely would shatter even that.
“He's not forcing plays,” Collison said. “He's making the correct reads on when to attack, draw guys and get it to someone else, and also when to attack and look for shots for himself.”
When Westbrook hasn't finished at the rim, he's gotten fouled and earned trips to the free throw line. His foul shooting is up to 7.9 per game in the last 16 games, which is 1.1 per game more than the first 46 contests and would be a career best if protracted over the course of the season.
Where Westbrook has made his biggest impact lately, however, has been the opening period.
He's scored at least 10 points in seven of the past nine games, averaging 11.9 points in the last nine. Before the Charlotte game, a contest that he played on that gimpy ankle, Westbrook was averaging 13.2 first-quarter points in the previous eight games.
It's first-quarter dominance that both applies immediate pressure to opposing defenses and allows Westbrook to shine before Kevin Durant takes the reins down the stretch.
“It's usually an advantage with him in the post against a lot of guys he plays so sometimes we run some stuff to get him going that way,” Collison said. “But it's not necessarily that we're setting out to run a lot of plays for him. I think he's just aggressive early and he's talented so he's able to score.”
Perhaps we're witnessing Westbrook warming up.
If so, with only 20 games remaining before the start of the playoffs the Westbrook we're watching now could be the version we see when it matters most.