In the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs demolished the Thunder with precision execution on the offensive end of the floor, and enough defense against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to force them into low-efficiency performances.
Serge Ibaka returned in Game 3, and so did Oklahoma City’s collective swagger. But in Game 4, it was Durant and especially Westbrook who took control, and ensured the Thunder would even the series at two games apiece.
Behind an incredible 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, Westbrook produced a statistical line matched only by Michael Jordan over the past 30 years in leading OKC to a 105-92 victory that wasn’t at all that close.
“Russell’s defensive toughness really set the tone in this game I thought,” said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks afterward. And as monstrous as Westbrook was offensively — playing efficiently and under control, while distributing to his teammates at the same time — his defensive intensity was what really made the biggest difference.
The Thunder have beaten the Spurs seven straight times with Ibaka in the lineup, and while he was fine in this one with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, this game was about Westbrook on both ends of the floor, and Durant picking his spots.
This season’s MVP wasn’t exactly invisible in finishing with 31 points, and did most of his damage in the second quarter where he scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in just nine minutes of action. But Westbrook was everywhere, disrupting the Spurs offense by getting into the passing lanes and then making largely smart decisions offensively.
There’s a “let Westbrook be Westbrook” mantra chanted by his supporters, which essentially means that his frenetic style of play is bound to produce some frustrating sequences, and that you need to accept the good with the bad in order to truly embrace the Thunder guard’s brilliance.
But that’s utter nonsense.
When Westbrook is just playing with speed and without thinking, his shot selection is destructive more than it is helpful. He showed how his energy can be properly utilized in this one, however, and if the Thunder can somehow get these types of performances out of him consistently — not in terms of the raw numbers, but in terms of the defensive effort and the efficiency — they will be very difficult to stop.
San Antonio trailed by as many as 27 points in the third quarter, before the bench was emptied and the reserves were left to clean up the mess. The likes of Boris Diaw, Corey Joseph and Matt Bonner made enough of a run to force the Thunder to play their starters to close things out, but the Spurs were never close enough to warrant putting the starters back in.
That might bode well for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili heading into Game 5, but the rest will only help so much. San Antonio needs to figure out a way to slow the Thunder down enough to turn around a 21-0 deficit in fast break points that the team faced in this one, while reverting back to the style of play that enabled the Spurs to get out to the 2-0 lead in the series that has now completely vanished.