DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks were turning up the heat in the third quarter, unlocking their offense for the first time in the series, scoring with the Oklahoma City Thunder possession by possession on Saturday night. The Thunder's lead was crawling down to nine, then seven, and with the American Airlines Center rocking and the Thunder having a history of relinquishing leads, it felt like an overtaking run by the Mavs was inevitable.
The Thunder's calming, run-killing presence? It was Russell Westbrook, but not in the way you might think. He didn't exactly settle the Thunder down. He took the energy percolating from the arena, the intensity of the game, and repurposed it for his own use.
It started with driving layup. Then Westbrook set up Steven Adams for a dunk. Then he got Adams a layup. Then they swapped, with Adams assisting on a Westbrook 3. Then another Westbrook assist that led to an Andre Roberson dunk. And then another 3, with Westbrook skipping away and letting his three fingers drag behind his back right in front of the Mavs bench.
Westbrook was responsible for 22 of the Thunder's 32 third-quarter points, and for the night, he finished with 25 points and 15 assists in Oklahoma City's 119-108 Game 4 victory.
"It's fun, man," he said. "You embrace those moments. Especially I do. I have fun."
What he says is fun looks more like overwhelming rage and fury, but that's Westbrook's style. He plays angry, intentionally, staying mad at everyone and everything on the court. Mad at the opposition. Mad at the referees. Mad at the rim.
This kind of series suits him well, with all the chippy play and physicality. Both teams are claiming to be the victim of extracurricular shenanigans, with Westbrook in the middle of plenty of it. In the second quarter, after a Thunder turnover, Anthony Morrow -- who was on the bench -- had the ball and wouldn't give it to Salah Mejri. Mejri swiped at it, Morrow gave a light shove and the jawing started. Naturally, Westbrook inserted himself into the conversation and, in the end, picked up a technical along with Mejri.
In the third quarter, Westbrook drove hard at the rim and Mejri grabbed Westbrook's jersey, pulling down on it hard. Westbrook, as expected, took exception, had some things to say and, as he walked away from the small skirmish, barked back at hollering courtside Mavs fans. But he did the most important thing: He didn't pick up a second technical. That might have been Mejri's plan and the Mavs' hope, and Westbrook surely walked a tightrope, but he kept it together just enough to remain in the game.
"My team, I think it's a great opportunity for us to come together," Westbrook said of the playoff intensity. "I think that's the most important part. I think when stuff gets rowdy, the crowd gets involved, missed calls go here, a tech there, you see how you respond and kind of show who you are as a team."
The Thunder certainly responded to it all. The Mavs played expectedly desperate, knowing a 3-1 hole would probably be too much to climb out of with the series returning to Oklahoma City on Monday night. With the stat lingering over them -- Oklahoma City lost 14 games in the regular season after leading through three quarters, most in the NBA -- the Thunder assumed control in the fourth and ran away with it. Westbrook was the catalyst, with Enes Kanter providing 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting in 26 minutes off the bench, 16 coming in the fourth quarter.
It was an impressive road playoff win for the Thunder, and it happened despite Kevin Durant scoring fewer than 20 points for the first time since Nov. 10, snapping a 67-game streak. With 50.6 seconds left, Durant was ejected for a flagrant foul 2 on Justin Anderson, sending him to the showers with just 19 points on 7-of-20 shooting. His teammates picked up the slack, led by Westbrook and Kanter, with contributions from Adams (14 points and eight rebounds), Serge Ibaka (16 points) and Dion Waiters (12 points on 4-of-5 shooting).
The Thunder have one more win to get before they can start officially thinking about the San Antonio Spurs, but this could be preparation for how they'll have to win that series. Durant will have to deal with two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, likely leaving a lot of responsibility to Westbrook to score and engineer offense for others. Kanter and Waiters scored 80 points on 29-of-36 shooting in the two games in Dallas; it's not likely sustainable, but it's that kind of production that can make the Thunder extremely threatening.
At the heart of it, though, is Westbrook. He drives the Thunder engine -- sometimes off a cliff, to be fair -- and can elevate his teammates to a higher place. The playoffs are his kind of setting, with the intensity, the emotion, the physicality. He's ready for it, because he spends his whole season playing this way.
After his near flawless night, he walked into his postgame media interview wearing a giant gold chain and a gray hat that read, "Love me before they all do." He didn't win any new fans in Dallas on Saturday. But he did win Game 4 for his team.