SAN ANTONIO — Russ, you get Tony Parker now and the Spurs. What are your thoughts on that matchup?
That was a question posed to Russell Westbrook shortly after he had just helped the Thunder advance to the Western Conference Finals.
“Umm,” Westbrook responded. “The Spurs, or Tony Parker?”
Both, the reporter said.
“Well, the Spurs is a great team,” Westbrook answered. “They definitely have been on the road and done a great job of playing team basketball. I’m looking forward to it. It should be fun.”
No mention of Parker.
Westbrook will do his best to dismiss Parker again in Game 1 on Monday night, and by the time the series is over the Thunder point guard’s goal is to send Parker and the Spurs to the same place he sent Mike Conley and his Memphis Grizzlies and Chris Paul and his Los Angeles Clippers.
“Getting the best at somebody at our position is winning the game,” said Thunder reserve point guard Reggie Jackson.
Westbrook can continue his march toward the undisputed title of best player at his position if he can help lead the shorthanded Thunder past the Spurs and into the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.
He enters the West Finals playing the best basketball of his career, averaging personal postseason bests in points, rebounds, assists, free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage. He’s posted three triple-doubles already in these playoffs and on three other occasions has flirted with finishing games with that same feat.
“The numbers probably say that he’s right there,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks when asked if this is the best Westbrook has played. “Just the tempo of his game and the speed of his game and his leadership is obviously improved over the years. Like I said many times, Russell plays hard and he plays to win the game. And his leadership has really taken off the last three or four years.”
Westbrook’s will to win has been felt from the start of this playoff run. Opposing coaches have marveled at his ability to energize his team. Opposing players have been powerless to stop him.
After Westbrook captained the Thunder to a pivotal Game 2 win against the Clippers, Paul told a room full of reporters that Westbrook played harder than all of the Clippers combined.
In that six-game series, Westbrook averaged 27.8 points, six rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He shot 49.1 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from 3-point range and 87.7 percent from the foul line.
“Just trying to win, man,” Westbrook explained after the series. “I came out every night just trying to find a way to help us win games. My teammates gave me confidence to come out and be aggressive and play my game regardless of what was going on, and that’s all I tried to do.”
It’s the way Westbrook has played that has been so impressive.
He’s slowing down, playing smarter, scoring more efficiently and setting up teammates better. His defense, which has been spotty even in this postseason, has turned stellar.
Thunder forward Caron Butler compared Westbrook to a healthy Gilbert Arenas circa 2006 and 2007, when the former Washington point guard was a magician with the ball in his hands before injuries derailed his career.
“He has a lot of similarities,” Butler said. “But just his athleticism and his explosiveness, and he’s still developing. He’s still so young. He’s a helluva talent.”
But Butler also sees Westbrook’s growth.
“He’s doing a great job of facilitating and scoring and knowing the time when to do those things,” Butler said. “That just shows a lot of maturity on his part and a lot of unselfishness.”
Westbrook now gets to put two years of development on display against the Spurs in a rematch of the 2012 West Finals. The Thunder won the final four games of that series to knock off the Spurs in six games. But Parker, with averages of 21.5 points, on 48.1 percent shooting, and 3.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists, outperformed Westbrook, who averaged 18.2 points on 37.8 percent shooting, along with 5.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists.
Westbrook could benefit from Parker nursing a hamstring injury he sustained in San Antonio’s closeout Game 5 against Portland.
When he finally addressed Parker directly, Westbrook didn’t seem at all worried about the matchup.
“Just guard him. That’s it, man,” Westbrook said. “He doesn’t do anything special. You just got to guard him. That’s it.”