Russell Westbrook no longer could contain his emotions.
So he stopped trying.
When the time was right, he let loose, celebrating unlike we’ve ever seen him, jubilantly yet violently swinging his arms, one at a time, through the blissful air inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
There couldn’t have been a more appropriate celebration.
After all of the Thunder’s big runs and all of its big shots, it was Westbrook’s improbable three-point play with 4:09 remaining in the third period that will stand as the defining play of this series.
The Thunder is moving on to the Western Conference Finals for the second straight season after closing out the Los Angeles Lakers 106-90 in Game 5 on Monday night.
And in the clincher, it was Westbrook and fellow All-Star teammate Kevin Durant who carried the Thunder.
Westbrook scored a team-high 28 points, while Durant chipped in 25.
None, however, were bigger than the three by Westbrook that caused that passionate celebration.
The play started with Westbrook intercepting a Ramon Sessions pass to Kobe Bryant at the top of the key. As Westbrook raced the other way, Sessions intentionally fouled Westbrook, wrapping him up in an attempt to prevent a shot attempt.
But Westbrook powered through the contact and banked in 15-foot runner, sparking pandemonium inside The Peake.
“That was an amazing play,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Obviously, there was a lot of luck to that. But he put himself in that position to get a little lucky there.”
Luck or not, it was a message-sending shot.
It confirmed, once and for all, that the Lakers indeed can not guard the Thunder. It showed, once again, that this team, in this round, would not be stopped.
The basket broke a stalemate at 70 and put the Thunder ahead for good.
“I thought from that point on, we really played with great energy on the offensive end,” Brooks said. “We moved the ball and we made shots.”
The Thunder immediately went on a 23-7 run, including a 10-0 spurt to start the fourth quarter, that broke open the game and eventually lead to a 17-point lead from which the Lakers could never recover.
“Sessions grabbed me kind of early,” Westbrook said, “and I just tried to throw it to the rim and luckily it went in. That kind of sparked us, and everybody else kept it going from there.”
Westbrook led the way.
He scored 12 of the Thunder’s points during that surge, capping the run with a scooping layup with 9:28 left to play. Before that, Durant drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to help extend the lead.
The Thunder will now move on to face San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs have won 18 straight games dating to the regular season.
Game 1 is Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in San Antonio.