BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The next test for Russell Westbrook is Deron Williams, the biggest and arguably best point guard he will have faced this year.
On paper, it's a matchup of top flight talents who have led their teams toward the top of the standings in their respective conferences.
Then again, if Westbrook keeps up what he's been doing lately the matchup might not be much of a contest.
Westbrook's play over the past 10 days has been game-changing, so effective it has elicited unsolicited praise from coaches and teammates in recent days.
“I think Russ deserves a lot of credit. He's really locked in,” said Nick Collison, for instance. “He's getting everybody involved and we just keep building. He's kind of been the catalyst for (success).”
Westbrook leads the Thunder into Brooklyn on Tuesday night to face Williams and the relocated Nets. Oklahoma City enters the game on a five-game winning streak and winners of 13 of its past 15.
More and more, the Thunder's traveling party is crediting Westbrook's all-around game for this current hot streak.
“Russell's had an impact on both ends of the floor it seems like every game the last week and a half,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “That's always a good thing for us when Russell plays as hard as he has on both ends of the floor.”
Over the past five games, Westbrook is averaging 19.4 points, six rebounds and 9.4 assists while shooting 43 percent. Perhaps even more impressive is that over that same span he's held opposing starting point guards — Greivis Vasquez, Mo Williams, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker and Jrue Holiday — to combined averages of six points, 1.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, two turnovers and 29 percent shooting.
Those averages by opposing point guards suggest Westbrook is tapping into the defensive potential that largely drove the Thunder to draft him fourth overall 4 1/2 years ago. Westbrook repeatedly has vowed to maintain that defensive effort.
“I'm going to take full responsibility to come out every night making sure that we start the game off on the defensive end,” Westbrook said.
According to statistics compiled by Synergy Sports, ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll are scoring just 0.66 points per possession against Westbrook in the pick-and-roll. That ranks Westbrook 25th, but still perhaps doesn't illustrate how effective Westbrook's ball pressure, both in the half-court and the entire length of the court, has been.
Westbrook's improvement in those situations have impressed Brooks most.
“The pick-and-roll is the hardest thing to cover,” Brooks said. “There's so many teams offensively that run 50 to 60 pick-and-roll plays. So you have to be ready to guard it every time down court. And I think he's done a great job, along with the big coming out, helping to stop that ball. It's so many good offensive point guards in this league and you have to have some defensive toughness to contain those good guards.”
Brooks also has been pleased with how Westbrook has maintained his offensive aggression while increasing his defensive intensity.
“There's a handful of players that can impact the game on both ends and he's one of them,” Brooks said.
While there are still moments when Westbrook is erratic offensively, he's more than made up for those times with sheer hustle. Overall, though, Westbrook is displaying better pace and it's lead to the Thunder being the top ranked offensive team.
“I think his decision-making has been better,” Collison said. “And I think he's really understanding the tempo of the game, like when we need to run a play and when he need to push it and try to create something himself. And then defensively he's been a lot better. He's just more locked in. Hopefully we can keep it going, him and the rest of us because we've been playing really well.”
What they are saying
Assorted reaction to LeBron James being named SI's Sportsman of the Year.
SCOTT BROOKS: “It's an honor when you do receive that award. He's obviously as qualified as anybody that was up for nomination. He's one of the best players in the world, and the way he plays you like it because it's such team basketball. He's like Kevin (Durant), he can score 35 a game but he's passing, he's rebounding, he's blocking shots, he's doing the things. That's a well-deserved award.”
KEVIN DURANT: “That's good for him. He had a great year; Olympic gold medalist, MVP, won the Finals. So, yeah, he deserved it.”
THABO SEFOLOSHA: “Congratulations. Good for him.”
LeBRON JAMES: “Did I think an award like this was possible two years ago? No, I did not. I thought I would be helping a lot of kids and raise $3 million by going on TV and saying, ‘Hey, I want to play for the Miami Heat.' But it affected far more people than I imagined. I know it wasn't on the level of an injury or an addiction, but it was something I had to recover from. I had to become a better person, a better player, a better father, a better friend, a better mentor and a better leader. I've changed, and I think people have started to understand who I really am.”
PAUL FICHTENBAUM, TIME INC. SPORTS GROUP EDITOR: “This year there was an endless list of high-quality possibilities. But LeBron's stirring accomplishments on and off the court were impossible to ignore. He showed tremendous heart during times of adversity, and he delivered with relentless determination.”