INDIANAPOLIS — The way it set up, this was supposed to be the most impossible of missions.
It was the second night of a back-to-back, a game for which the Thunder didn't arrive until 4 a.m., at a place in which it had won only once in the past four seasons, against the league's best defensive team, one that came in rested and rolling, having won eight of their previous nine but benefiting from being off since Monday.
Oh yeah, and an Indiana victory would give the Pacers the Central Division title, their first in nine years.
Exhaustion easily could have replaced energy.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, it has the biggest Energizer Bunny in basketball.
Russell Westbrook rallied the Thunder to what was undoubtedly the team's best win of the year given the circumstances, a 97-75 victory on Friday night inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was a victory that pulled the Thunder even with San Antonio in the standings and ensured Thursday's thumping of the Spurs wasn't for naught.
“I think it was a very good win,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I don't know where it ranks, but I know it has to rank up there with some of the best wins of the year for us. I just like the fact that we came out with a focus and did not let up.”
For that, Westbrook was worthy of the praise.
With relentless attacks, either on post-ups or bursts to the basket, Westbrook applied pressure on the Pacers from the start. He scored 12 of his 24 points in the opening period, both providing his team the spark it sorely needed while also sending an early message to Indiana that it would be a long night.
“I thought he was great,” said Nick Collison. “A lot of times, if he can start the game like that and get us some offense it bodes well for us because it sets the pace and we're attacking the rim and not settling for jump shots.”
Westbrook took 24 shots, but the inefficiency seen in his box score didn't matter.
“I thought it was important for us not to come in the game and try to feel it out and try to see how they were playing and how we were playing,” Westbrook said. “And my job as a point guard is to stay in attack mode and that's what I did.”
The Thunder led by just one at halftime against a balanced Pacers team that had nine players score. By the end of the third, the Thunder had extended the margin to five.
That's when it got ugly for the home team.
This time, with Westbrook resting at the start of the fourth quarter, it was Kevin Durant who led the way, as the Thunder assembled a 9-0 run to start the final period and take an 81-67 lead. After what appeared to be a sluggish start to the game, Durant scored the first six of the spurt and assisted Kevin Martin on the 3-pointer that capped the run.
“I know when coach takes me out early in the third in the fourth quarter he needs me to come out there and be super aggressive, kind of like forcing the issue,” Durant said “That's what I tried to do.”
Durant scored 15 of his game-high 34 points in the final period. He made 13 of 21 shots and added nine rebounds. Westbrook, as he has all season, slid to the backseat and let his passing replace his scoring. He dished three of his game-high nine assists in the fourth quarter.
The dagger came when Westbrook found Durant for an 18-footer with 2:21 left to play. It put the Thunder ahead by 20.
Indiana, which prides itself on defense, looked lost when it got a taste of its own medicine. By shutting off the paint and swarming to the ball, the Thunder held the Pacers to 2-for-18 shooting in the fourth quarter and outscored Indiana 25-8 in the quarter.
Most impressively, the Thunder, which historically struggles to close out possessions, out-rebounded the league's best rebounding team, 53-31, and limited Indiana to only seven second-chance points.
All told, it was a performance that commanded respect and by the end of the night, finally, had earned the Thunder some much-needed rest.
“Sleep was overrated,” Brooks said. “We came out and played well tonight.”