To understand how Russell Westbrook emerged as a defensive stopper in the playoff series against the Mavericks, you only need to know the story behind his back-to-back steals in Game 4.
You remember those plays, don't you, Thunder fans?
I mean, there were a lot of big-time, late-game highlights in that series-clinching victory. James Harden driving to the basket. Kevin Durant draining 3-pointers. Serge Ibaka throwing down big dunks.
But those Westbrook steals in the fourth quarter disrupted a Dallas offense that was finding a rhythm and threatening to match Oklahoma City basket for basket.
They were the crowning moments in the re-emergence of the defensive dynamo that terrorized college basketball at UCLA and enamored Thunder decision-makers on draft day.
“We drafted him because he was going to provide us a tough defensive skill set,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He has the defensive toughness. He has the skill to be a good defender.
“I think the last two years, he's shown it with more consistency.”
And never was the Thunder point guard more consistent than against the Mavs.
What Westbrook did against Jason Terry throughout the series was as impressive as anything anyone in Thunder blue did. While Durant and Harden stole the headlines with their offensive heroics, neither would've had the opportunity to be heavyweights without Westbrook's defense.
He cut off Terry the way Marvin Hagler used to cut off a boxing ring.
Terry comes off the Mavs' bench, but he is their second-best offensive option behind only Dirk Nowitzki. He can heat up in a hurry. He can take over a game on his own.
Everyone saw as much early in Game 1 of the series. Terry hit the first six shots he took. He hit shots off screens. He hit shots from behind the arc. He looked like he might just hit anything he threw toward the basket during the series.
Harden couldn't guard him.
Thabo Sefolosha did better.
But in the fourth quarter, when Terry has a tendency to do some serious damage, the Thunder stuck Westbrook on him.
Terry touched the ball once on the offensive end in the last six minutes of the game.
And his one touch didn't even pose a threat to the Thunder. Terry used a screen to shake Westbrook for an instance, but Westbrook recovered, keeping his balance despite getting held a bit by the screener, and forced Terry to catch the ball on the midcourt logo.
Terry took a couple dribbles, then passed to Dirk and never touched the ball again in the game.
Never recovered his hot shooting touch either.
After those first six makes in Game 1, Terry hit only 14 shots the rest of the series. Westbrook, who also averaged 22.8 points a game in the series, wasn't the only guy who guarded Terry, but a vast majority of the responsibility was his.
“I was just trying to limit his touches,” Westbrook said. “He's a great scorer when he has an opportunity to do what he wants offensively.”
Westbrook didn't allow him to do much of anything. Go back and watch the game replays, and you'll see Westbrook picking up Terry at midcourt. He shadowed him. He hounded him.
Granted, he was helped by other players being able to guard Mavs point guard Jason Kidd. Derek Fisher could. Ditto for Harden. That freed Westbrook to concentrate on Terry.
“He made big play after big play,” Harden said. “When Jason Terry don't touch the ball during a possession, that really helps us.”
Durant said, “His activity was phenomenal, the way he was getting his hands on the basketball, getting some steals and getting some easy baskets for us.”
Durant acknowledged that there were lots of offensive stars in the series.
“But Russ' defense is the reason why we pushed over the top,” he said.
Which brings us back to those steals in Game 4.
The first heist was a pickpocket of Dirk. The Mavs star had the ball near the top of the key, but he was holding it a bit behind him. And since he had his back to half the court, he didn't see when Westbrook came up behind him.
“Dirk wasn't paying attention,” Westbrook said. “I got momentum and went for it.”
Westbrook snagged the ball, drove the length of the court and dished back to Ibaka for a dunk.
A moment later, he heard the Mavs calling out their next play and knew exactly what was coming. Brooks says that during the playoffs, when the coaches challenge the players to memorize their opponent's plays and sets, Westbrook is always one of the guys who does.
When Jason Kidd dribbled to the left side of the court, Westbrook knew Nowitzki would be coming through a screen from Terry trying to get to the left corner for a 3.
“I just waited and waited, and as soon as Jason Kidd threw the ball, I stole it,” Westbrook said. “I knew that play just from the scouting, and I just timed it perfectly.”
The first steal was toughness and instinct.
The second was experience and know-how.
Westbrook always had the toughness and instinct. That was obvious during his college days; he tormented then-USC star O.J. Mayo during his Pac-10 defensive-player-of-the-year season, forcing him into 10 turnovers and holding him to four points.
That type of grit is invaluable when you're chasing Jason Terry around for a couple hours.
But the experience and know-how that Westbrook showed on the defensive end against the Mavs have come with time in the NBA. When he came into the league and the Thunder asked him to be its starting point guard, there was a lot on his plate. There still is — “You have to orchestrate the team on both ends of the floor,” said Brooks, a former point guard himself. “You don't get a possession off” — but Westbrook better understands the madness swirling around him.
“You kind of have a sense of control,” Brooks said of how four years in the league has helped Westbrook. “He's controlling the game more so now.”
Good for the Thunder and scary for the rest of the NBA, more than ever before, he's controlling it on both ends of the court.