VIDEO: Russell Westbrook scores 31 points and the Thunder beat the Spurs
SAN ANTONIO — It’s quite easy to say the home team played without Kawhi Leonard following a dental procedure.
And, well, then they got drilled.
For the Spurs it was like a root canal having the Thunder outshoot them, out-rebound them, outplay them at both ends of the floor.
But no more painful than what OKC went through last spring when Russell Westbrook missed virtually the entire playoffs.
After all, if he brushes after meals and remembers to floss with regularity, Leonard’s pearly white smile and defensive teeth will be back on display for the rest of the season.
When Westbrook’s knee gave out in the second game of the first round against Houston, there was no amount of novocaine or laughing gas that was going to make the Thunder feel better.
So there was a touch of karma or irony or something that on the same night Patrick Beverley broke his hand and was lost to the Rockets, Westbrook was having his best game ever at the AT&T Center and reminding everyone what these so-called measuring stick games in December mean.
Remember, Westbrook should have returned to San Antonio for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals last June, if all had gone according to the plan. And you know what the fates say about plans.
A year ago, the Spurs were the ones dinged up in almost every regular season meeting with the Thunder. An ailing Manu Ginobili missed the first two encounters. Leonard sat out the second with tendinitis in his quadriceps. Tony Parker missed the third game. Ginobili sat out the fourth on the same night that Parker went down again.
All the while the Thunder were as dependable as an atomic clock with their entire starting lineup intact and playing in no fewer than 78 games through the long regular-season grind, including all 82 by the ironman Westbrook, who at that point had never missed a game in his five-year NBA career.
But then Westbrook limped off after his run-in with Beverley and everything changed for everybody.
OKC was suddenly tested and pushed by Houston and knocked out by Memphis. The door swung open for a San Antonio team that came within those fateful, fitful 28 seconds of claiming a fifth championship.
“We never thought about it,” said Kevin Durant. “It’s out the window. We can’t do nothing it. We can’t look at the past anymore. No matter what we’ve done, we’ve just gotta look forward.
“We haven’t backed down. We’re excited that he’s playing at full strength and we aren’t even going to think about that. Because that was a tough time for us, especially for him not playing a game that he loves.
“We needed to go through that as far our growth and it helped us out a lot. It helped Reggie (Jackson). It helped me out, Serge (Ibaka), everybody. So now we’re just trying to look forward.”
Still you had to wonder if there wasn’t just a peek back at what could have been from the way Westbrook strode onto the court and practically claimed it for his own on Saturday night. It was probably his best game ever against the Spurs. Against a team that had limited him to 32 percent career shooting, he scored 31 points on 13-for-22 from the field, only the fourth time in 26 meetings that he made at least half his shots.
When the Spurs were making a final push late in the fourth quarter and had OKC’s lead down to seven points, Ibaka missed a 3-pointer out of the left corner. Westbrook then shot up out of the crowd to push the rebound out to the top. The Thunder ran through another set that ended with Ibaka making his second-chance 3. The next time down the floor, Westbrook buried a jumper from the key and the Spurs and then pounded on his chest.
It’s a game that won’t mean anything if the Spurs and Thunder get back to that date in the conference finals next spring. Will it matter that their defensive stopper Leonard missed it to have work done on his teeth? That it was Westbrook that made the rest of the Spurs feel like they were the ones in the chair?
So much of this early NBA season has been about the steadiness of the Pacers and their resolute commitment to running down the two-time defending champion Heat or the stunning, impressive start by the Trail Blazers.
You might not blame the Thunder for jerking a thumb toward that league-best 22-4 record and wondering: What about us?
What if Beverley hadn’t happened to the Thunder? What if Westbrook hadn’t limped off toward knee surgery?
“It don’t really matter to me, man,” he said. “I believe we’re the best team in the league, regardless of who says this or who says that. You can predict anything, but you got to go out and play the game.”
And you’ve got to be able to go out and play when it matters. All the rest is just a trip to the dentist’s office.