For Russell Westbrook, a ferocious competitor with an insatiable desire to win, the regular season was bittersweet.
His team had 59 victories, one of his best friends won the MVP and the Thunder continued its extended run as one of the league’s elite. But for nearly half the season, the previously uninjured iron man sat at the end of the bench nursing some lingering knee issues.
“Positive thoughts can take you a long way,” Westbrook said of his time in basketball solitude.
Positive thoughts with a predatory eye on postseason detonation. The man who needed no extra motivation had plenty of it. And he delivered.
In 19 playoff games, Westbrook exploded for 26.3 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds per night, the first guy to average that 26-8-7 clip since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson in 1963-64.
Kevin Durant owned the regular season. But for the Thunder, Westbrook owned the playoffs. He had three triple-doubles in those 19 games. The rest of the NBA has zero in 87.
But none of those three landmark box scores — which included a 27-16-10 in Game 7 against Memphis and a 31-10-10 in a must-win Game 2 against the Clippers — ranked as his best game of these playoffs.
That distinction came in Game 4 against the Spurs, when Westbrook flashed the full arsenal. In 45 minutes, he finished with 40 points, 10 assists and five rebounds. He shot 12-of-24 from the field, 14-of-14 from the line and highlighted a huge win with a pair of strut-worthy 3-pointers.
But that game — and a handful of others during this eye-opening playoff run — will be remembered for what he did on the defensive end.
Facing the elusive Tony Parker and no longer spelled by the Thabo Sefolosha safety net, Westbrook bowed up to the challenge. He limited Parker that night and contained him the final four games of the series, with San Antonio’s leading scorer only able to average 10.7 points.
But the task of trailing Parker didn’t hinder him in other defensive areas. While slowing the head of the snake, Westbrook kept delivering blows to its body. He stayed active in the passing lanes, compiling 17 steals in the final four games, and acted as a weak-side deterrent, his mere presence jarring wary ballhandlers.
“People really be scared to handle against him,” Jeremy Lamb said. “Scared to make a soft pass.”
But it’s not always like that for Westbrook. Sometimes he can yield free lanes for potent guards. Or sometimes he’ll chase unobtainable steals, leaving his back line exposed.
“When Russ don’t gamble and he’s solid,” Kendrick Perkins said. “And he puts in his mind that he wants to be the most athletic point guard to play the position on the defensive end, he does it.”
And he did it for most of this sensational postseason, unleashing a side of this All-Star guard we had yet to consistently see. But it also places a burden of added expectations on Westbrook. Once you’ve shown it, now they’ll demand it.
“You saw it throughout this series how much it impacts the game and how it can help our team out,” Westbrook said of that ferocious end-to-end effort. “I’m definitely going to make more of an effort starting next year to do it throughout the season.”