OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook stood at the end of the bench, his hands hovering around the neck of his shooting shirt, staring at coach Billy Donovan. The seconds ticked away in the opening moments of the fourth quarter like hours, as the Thunder tried to navigate a few minutes with Westbrook on the bench.
The Thunder saw what went wrong two nights earlier in Houston, as Westbrook wilted down the stretch after playing the entire quarter, and Donovan wanted his star fresh and ready to finish Game 3. Whether he actually was is up for debate, as Westbrook missed three critical free throws in the closing minutes. But the Thunder held on regardless against the visiting Rockets, 115-113, as a James Harden 3 at the buzzer caught front iron.
After heavy amounts of criticism found him, as it often does, following his wild Game 2, Westbrook played remarkably controlled and composed in Game 3. He managed the floor and resisted the temptation to hoist 3s. His first look from deep came with a minute left, a dagger attempt, something he made a habit of hitting all season long. It bounced twice off the rim, but Steven Adams, who was mostly a nonfactor, tipped in the miss to put the Thunder up by two with 35 seconds left.
"Like I said last game, I had to do a better job of trusting my teammates for 48 minutes," Westbrook said. "Tonight those guys made plays throughout the whole game."
The Thunder have unshakable trust in Westbrook's decision-making, and the entire organization rallied to his defense after Wednesday's reckless performance. Part of that is because of Westbrook's ability to self-assess after his personal marathon film sessions. And on Friday, he responded with a near complete performance.
"I enjoy being around him, I like working with him, I enjoy coaching him because I think he's very, very honest. He's genuine and very straightforward," Donovan said of Westbrook. "Every single time he plays, at some point in time after the game's over, he's going to evaluate and look at ways to get better."
There has been a lot of talk about Westbrook's "help," but the term really is relative. He creates his own help. The more he helps the help, the more they help. (Help.) Westbrook is going to have the ball, and it's up to him to determine how his team plays. He can't make shots for them -- something they did well in Game 3 -- but he can control everything else. Westbrook can suffocate his own team, and he's so great that sometimes it doesn't matter.
But there's a fine line between him taking over and just completely absorbing the offense and making four teammates look like wooden pawns. His adjustment in Game 3 was to be more diverse and inclusive, and his teammates responded, with Taj Gibson chipping in 20 points and Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo adding 12 each. As one executive said earlier this season after Westbrook went 2-of-6 in a first half but controlled the game, "When he plays like that, he's as good as anybody in the world."
Westbrook's Game 3 stat line didn't pop off the page like Game 2's 51-point triple-double, but it was undoubtedly a better performance. He finished with a second straight triple-double -- 32-13-11 -- countering Harden's brilliance, 44 points on 21 shots. The difference for the Thunder was in the "supporting cast," a term Westbrook isn't fond of.
"Well, for one, we are all one team. I don't have a cast, or other guys. We're all in this together," he said. "My teammates have been doing a great job all season long, the last few games as well, and we'll continue to trust in each other and our be able to stay a team."
Where the Thunder had to compensate, though, was in the minutes Westbrook sat, and Donovan made an adjustment in that regard before the game even started. He deactivated Semaj Christon, who has been Westbrook's backup most of the season, and went with Norris Cole, a more offense-minded point guard. Donovan went to offense-heavy lineups sans Westbrook and just tried to weather the storm.
In Game 2, after the Rockets erased a 12-point OKC lead with Westbrook sitting at the end of the third, Donovan went to Westbrook for the entire fourth. In Game 3, Donovan resisted, chancing three nerve–wracking minutes with the potential MVP on the bench. The Thunder have intently studied Westbrook's minutes for years, and one of the conclusions is he doesn't handle long stretches of consecutive minutes well. The results show that he's more erratic and more inefficient the longer he plays. Game 2 was a recent example, where Westbrook went 4-of-18 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, he played the final nine minutes, hitting 3-of-7.
"You've just got to watch film, understand the game and go back and see where you can improve in a series," Westbrook said. "Each game is different and you've got to find ways as the series goes along to get better and better, and that's what I try to do."
In the end, the Thunder survived -- that being the operative word here -- both Westbrook's four-minute second half rest as a minus-1, and then the final flourish from Harden and the Rockets.
The Thunder had played spectacularly well in the first half, setting an early pace by racing out to a 15-point first-half lead. Game 3 was the first home playoff game since the Thunder franchise was forever altered with a stunning Game 6 loss to the Warriors last May, but the building rocked all the same. Kevin Durant might be gone, but the home atmosphere of "the Peake" is not.
It then became a matter of holding on. Westbrook wasn't emphatic. There were no daggers. He didn't slam the door in the kind of classic clutch-time fashion that might win him the MVP, but what's important for the Thunder is that he didn't need to. Because really, it was the work he put in over the first 45 minutes that made the difference anyway.