Russell Westbrook appeared to be in a message-sending mood Tuesday night.
Still wondering about the status of his surgically repaired right knee?
He showed you how over that he is by playing a game-high 45 minutes.
Still saying he’s a detriment to league MVP Kevin Durant?
He proved, perhaps once and for all, that he’s every bit as valuable.
But the biggest message Westbrook delivered in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals was not to his detractors but to the San Antonio Spurs. With every dazzling drive, every stop-and-pop jumper, Westbrook showed the Spurs that this series is far from over.
In one of his best playoff performances yet, the Thunder point guard scored a game-high 40 points with five rebounds, 10 assists and five steals in the Thunder’s 105-92 win over the Spurs inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. He powered the Thunder to its second straight win, which knotted this series at two games apiece as it shifts back to San Antonio for Game 5 on Thursday night.
“He had just a monster game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Westbrook became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1989 to score 40 points with 10 assists and five steals. It was Westbrook’s second career 40-point playoff game, this one eliciting memories of his playoff career high 43-point effort in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against Miami.
The big difference this time, of course, was the Thunder came away victorious, and with the win the Thunder avoided what would have been an almost insurmountable 3-1 series hole. Now, rather than heading back to San Antonio staring at a must-win situation, the Thunder has an opportunity to play more freely in Game 5 and put all the pressure on the Spurs to avoid a repeat of the 2012 West Finals, when San Antonio lost four straight after winning the first two games.
“We should not think like that,” said Spurs guard Tony Parker, one of many Spurs who constantly has been reminded about the surprising finish to the 2012 series.
Judging by Tuesday night, Westbrook has figured out something about these Spurs.
He barreled to the basket whenever the mood struck. Once there, he finished at the rim or got fouled and went to the free throw line, where he made all 14 of his attempts. When he wasn’t breaking down the Spurs defense with his dribble penetration, he was splashing in jumpers from all over the court.
And then there was his playmaking.
By halftime, Westbrook had eight assists, helping the Thunder shoot 51 percent while taking a 15-point lead into the locker room.
There wasn’t a single player that matched his energy all night.
“Russell does a great job every single game of just playing with that fire and that force,” said Kevin Durant, who added 31 points, five rebounds and five assists.
But on this night, Westbrook wasn’t solely a ball of energy. His efficiency and steadiness helped the Thunder control the game. He made 12 of 24 shots and had only three turnovers. The Thunder finished with a series-low seven turnovers, which lead to only 11 Spurs points. In the first three games, San Antonio scored 63 points off 48 Thunder turnovers.
And for the second straight game, Westbrook’s defense was equally critical as his offensive aggression. Parker was limited to 14 points and four assists on 7-for-12 shooting, and the Spurs were held under 40 percent shooting for the second straight game, only the second time that’s happened since the 2008 postseason.
“Russell was all over the floor,” Brooks said. “He has energy to supply the whole room, and that’s how he plays. That’s when we’re at our best, when he is locked in defensively.”
These types of performances are becoming the norm for Westbrook.
And that’s making them expected out of the Thunder’s star point guard.
“It’s something you’ve got to do if you want to win,” Westbrook said. “If you want to win a championship, those are the things you have to do.”