By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: Russell Westbrook’s Game 4
OKLAHOMA CITY — However inconvenient for the tear-’em-down crowd, this truth is indisputable: Russell Westbrook is the most predictable element of this absurdly entertaining Thunder playoff drive that somehow stands two wins from rocketing back into the NBA Finals.
The return of Serge Ibaka clearly has been a pile-driver to the heads of the San Antonio Spurs, an invincible force four days ago flattened into wide-eyed, red-faced mush. Ibaka delivered the spark in Game 3, but the heart of this inferno remains Oklahoma City’s super-powered point guard. It can, and should be, debated that no player outside the one-man LeBron James class, attacks with more relentless raw power and ferocity than the 6-foot-3, 200-pound blend of Superman’s physique and the The Flash’s bursts of blurred speed.
Westbrook dominated Tuesday’s 105-92 Game 4 mauling with an offensive masterpiece of 40 points on 50-percent shooting (12-for-24) and 10 assists. He dictated terms defensively against Tony Parker with five steals, all off aggressive, hounding coverage, four in the TKO first half, and one soaring swat of Patty Mills‘ catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt in the corner as a delirious first quarter came to a close.
“Coach told us he needed maximum effort from us and it starts with me at the point-guard position,” Westbrook said. “My job is to play both sides of the ball.”
Westbrook practically posed for pictures after the block, glaring into the crowd, his chest puffed four rows deep where the ball finally landed.
“It’s just fun to watch,” said Thunder partner Kevin Durant. The league’s MVP has been admittedly uneven throughout the playoffs, but had a big say in evening the series with 31 points — 21 in the first half on 9-for-12 shooting — five assists, five rebounds, three steals and a block of his own, just one of eight accumulated by the Thunder’s defense.
“You know how much he wants to win,” Durant continued, “and [to] just to lay it all out there and play extremely hard every possession, I think that’s more fun than seeing him score 40 points.”
Fun wasn’t in the Thunder’s vocabulary after twice getting crushed in San Antonio. No other word could better describe the time the Thunder had in Game 4. Westbrook’s energy from the jump spread like electric current through his teammates. They agitated the Spurs defensively with their speed and length and hit 48.7 percent of their shots at the other end. For a second consecutive game they attempted more than 30 free throws. Westbrook, incapable of being kept out of the lane, went 14-for-14.
This was the Thunder at their most devastating, a completeness that had yet to be demonstrated. Ibaka added three more blocks. Kendrick Perkins ripped down 10 rebounds with a pair of blocks in 22 minutes. Jeremy Lamb came off the bench in the first quarter unexpectedly after Reggie Jackson sprained his right ankle, and immediately swiped a couple steals.
A quick 12-4 San Antonio lead flipped in a hurry. OKC led 26-20 after one and 58-43 at the half, and just like that it’s 2012 all over again and the Thunder burrowing into the heads of the unflappable Spurs.
The Thunder’s defense threw a wrench in Popovich’s poetry-in-motion passing offense and shut it down. The payoff was a 21-0 edge in fastbreak points and a 44-36 edge in points in the paint. For anyone still keeping track, that’s 76 points in the paint for San Antonio in Games 3 and 4. They had 120 in Games 1 and 2.
“You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They’re talented, obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin for error, and you’d better be smart the way you play, and you can’t afford to screw that up as many times as we did.”
Such events precipitated an all-out surrender even earlier than the Thunder’s Game 2 white towel fluttered to the hardwood late in the third quarter. With 6:46 to go and the Thunder up 69-49, Popovich benched Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. Fifty seconds later it was 74-69 and a frustrated Tim Duncan sat down. Only Green, for 49 seconds of the fourth quarter, ever returned.
If the Spurs are now going to reclaim momentum in a series in which none of the four games have been won by fewer than nine points (and the Thunder’s Game 3 lead was 20 before a late charge by Spurs subs), they will have to figure out a way to slow down the inexhaustible Westbrook.
He has turned aside Mike Conley, posting two of his playoff-high three triple-doubles in the first round, ousted Chris Paul and now has Parker wondering what he can possibly do. In the last two games, with Ibaka providing security for Westbrook’s calculated gambles, Parker has 23 points, eight assists and seven turnovers.
Westbrook’s playoff totals are mesmerizing: 26.6 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.5 rpg.
He played 45 minutes, 29 seconds Tuesday because of Jackson’s injury, but he left little doubt that with Game 5 approaching quickly on Thursday, he’ll be refreshed to do it all over again.
“Pfft,” was the sound that came from Westbrook’s lips when asked if he’s concerned about fatigue. “Nah. We’re young, were going to recover, take care of our body and be ready to play.”