3:08 AM ET
- Royce YoungESPN Staff Writer Close
- Covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for ESPN.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — The last week has been maybe the worst of the Oklahoma City Thunder's season, a four-game losing streak that saw a brief window of opportunity at the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference quickly disappear.
During all of it, Russell Westbrook made it a point to never lose his patience, to keep any frustration he was feeling on the inside. He was as bouncy and loud as ever at all the practices and shootarounds, and behind closed doors was resolute in his approach.
But most of all, he was going to have to lift his team on the floor. During the four-game skid, Westbrook was a scoring maniac, averaging 45 points, trying to use his legendary competitive spirit to will the Thunder to wins. There was an overall lack of cohesion, though, and while Westbrook's individual play was remarkable, the team as a whole wasn't functioning well. The four straight losses wasn't the only streak, either: Westbrook hadn't had a triple-double in a week.
That changed on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs, with Westbrook producing one of his best overall performances of the season, notching his 31st triple-double with 23 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in 35 minutes as the Thunder won 102-92.
This season, the Thunder are 25-6 when Westbrook records a triple-double, and 11-23 when he doesn't. It's an eyebrow-raising stat that suggests … something.
The most important element probably is the assists. When Westbrook has 10 or more, the Thunder are 28-9, but 8-20 when he doesn't. In Westbrook's six highest-scoring games, the Thunder are 1-5. When he shoots 30 or more times, they're 4-8, but when he takes between 20 and 24 shots, they're 16-6. It seems simple: When Westbrook balances his game and distributes more and scores less, the Thunder are at their best.
It's not as cut and dried as it might seem. It's a chicken and egg type of thing: Is Westbrook scoring more because his team isn't performing, or is his team not performing because he's scoring? Is he passing more because the team is playing better, or is the team playing better because he's passing more?
"He has a really good pulse of where we're at as a team," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I think sometimes you might say, 'OK, just play like that all the time,' but then sometimes you'd be sitting here saying, 'Do you want more from Russell? Is there an opportunity for Russell? Should he have done a little bit more?' You're always going to do that and that's the thing I love about being around and working with him and coaching him. It's not about usage, it's about what does the team need at this moment in time, and he tries to do the very best he can to help the team."
Like Donovan said, it seems easy to just assume when Westbrook plays the way he did against the Spurs, the Thunder are at their best. But with flaws on the roster, and no go-to secondary option on off nights, when the team isn't playing well the responsibility falls directly to Westbrook. Against the Trail Blazers two nights ago, the Thunder were a defensive mess. So Westbrook tried to outscore Portland himself.
"He's always evaluating and viewing it from the perspective, 'What do I need to do, and what does the team need from me?' And then I think he tries to do it," Donovan said. "I know there's games where his usage rate is through the ceiling, but that's what the game requires for that night from him. And tonight was a game where he was just leading, managing, getting everybody involved."
Where Westbrook's responsibility falls is in trying to help the pieces around him produce at a high level each night. He can't make Doug McDermott make shots, or make Steven Adams rebound. But he can keep his team engaged, and do his part to utilize the roster around him. And when he does, the Thunder quickly become a competent, solid team.
Thursday was Westbrook at the peak of his powers, using every tool in the belt to carve apart the Spurs. When he plays that way, he has a look of being possibly the best player in the world. It's hard to consistently replicate because it requires a synergy from his teammates for that to happen. The Thunder always have played to their potential when Westbrook manages more than takes over, but there have been plenty of games this season when he has rescued them with individual heroics. He's not perfect, and he often makes bad choices. But Westbrook is always willing to try, for better or worse.
The Thunder needed the best of Westbrook against the Spurs, and he delivered. It didn't carry the kind of emphatic MVP statement against fellow contender Kawhi Leonard, mainly because the Thunder outplayed the Spurs considerably and there wasn't an opportunity to have a moment in a close game. Westbrook played the Thunder to their potential, and his teammates answered the bell.