OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook looked up at the big screen in Chesapeake Energy Arena and saw what everyone else was seeing. It was a replay of him on the Thunder's bench, stomping his feet and flexing his muscles, yelling out "Get the f--- off me!" with a snarled face. He sheepishly grinned, shaking his head as if to say, "So that's what I look like when I do that, huh?"
Westbrook, along with the rest of the bench, was reacting to a Mitch McGary and-1 in garbage time. It was an exclamation point on an unlikely breakout performance by the rookie big man as the Thunder polished off an impressive beatdown of the suddenly short-handed Los Angeles Clippers 131-108.
McGary's spark was exactly what the doctor ordered, something to let the Thunder have actual fun again. Some 36 hours ago, their locker room was gutted, having just watched Anthony Davis hit a 30-foot miracle buzzer-beater. The mood could only be described as sad.
They had dropped back to .500 in a tumultuous season of exhausting ups and downs, and were facing a new must-win-ish kind of game Sunday on their home floor against the struggling Clippers. The way the Thunder's locker room felt on Friday, the tension and anxiety seemed to be setting in. But McGary's energy and effort felt like a breath of fresh air, maybe one to help breathe life back into a season that was slipping away.
"I just loved his energy, his enthusiasm, his passion for the game," Kevin Durant said. "He did everything Coach needed him to do. He rolled to the basket strong, finished, made plays for us. I'm excited for him. We want him to build on it and keep getting better. We know that this is really his first time getting his feet wet with big-time minutes in a game so we want him to build on it. We know it's going to be up and down, just like for any rookie that plays in this league, but he's really strong, skilled and can play."
Late Friday, McGary had bused from Bakersfield to Reno, arriving at 7:45 a.m. after a six-hour trip, as part of the Thunder's D-League affiliate, before getting unexpectedly called back up because of a suspension to Kendrick Perkins. He flew back to Oklahoma City late Saturday afternoon and was suddenly in the mix for a critical midseason game.
He checked in late in the first quarter and immediately made his enthusiasm felt. McGary's trademark is his hustle, and he makes it a point to sprint as hard as he can up and down the floor. Sometimes, that relentless spirit results in a free bucket, but more than anything, it provided a tangible jolt for the team.
McGary's first real stint in meaningful minutes resulted in his first career double-double, 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting with 10 rebounds.
"My name was called tonight, unfortunately a guy goes down, so next man up," McGary said. "My name was called and I just made it count."
McGary, who was selected 21st overall by the Thunder in April's draft, was expected to fit into their regular rotation this season but broke his foot in the team's first preseason game. He missed eight weeks and returned in early December, but suffered another setback, a shin injury that kept him out three more weeks. He's spent the past few regaining his conditioning and trying to get back up to speed. Now, with possibly a new injury to starting center Steven Adams, who left with a right hand injury and didn't return, McGary could fit in as a big piece as the Thunder make their playoff push.
The team has been exceptionally high on McGary's potential from the start, with some even seeing him as a possible fixture of the starting five at some point. He may get that opportunity sooner than later if Adams' injury is serious, but what the Thunder have is an offensively gifted big man, with unique passing and ball-handling ability, who plays his minutes with force and spirit.
"He's going to get opportunities," coach Scott Brooks said of McGary. "We liked what we saw tonight. He was ready. And he's going to have to be ready throughout the rest of this season."
McGary's breakout could just be an outlier in him abusing a terrible Clippers second unit that was made even more terrible by injuries to starter Blake Griffin and backup Glen Davis, who left in the second quarter with back spasms. Either way, the Thunder displayed a lot of what has made them special the past five seasons, and what they've been missing for large parts of this season. Not just Durant, who dropped 29 points in 29 minutes on 10-of-15 shooting with six assists. But it was more the on-court chemistry, the rhythm and the explosiveness.
The Thunder looked together. They looked focused. They looked to all be on the same page for the first time in weeks.
Take Reggie Jackson, who has slumped severely in recent weeks, possibly because of building distractions with his future in question (the trade deadline is two weeks away). He played magnificently, scoring 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting with six assists in 24 minutes. His body language has been poor the past few games, but Sunday his confidence returned, with him finding a good balance between attacking, shooting and setting the table.
Again, Clippers second-unit disclaimer, but Jackson is the kind of player who could potentially be a difference-maker for the Thunder, if he can shake off the outside issues.
The Thunder's next two weeks could define their season. February is too early to really talk make-or-break games, but with the roster (mostly) whole again, and Durant and Westbrook clicking back into gear as they find their rhythm together, the Thunder have to show what they're capable of.
They have good reasons to be in the position they're in, but they also haven't really performed to the level you'd expect when they have had all their weapons. Sunday's win makes them just 15-9 when Durant and Westbrook have played, not quite as shiny a record as you'd expect.
The Thunder have had real issues, even if it's just as simple as regaining continuity on the floor, but there has appeared to be a lack of the usual cohesion within the roster. The bond the Thunder found in feeding off McGary's energy could be exactly the kind of spark that re-connects them and jump-starts their season.
Because with all the seesawing that's happened, the Thunder can't afford to experience too many more valleys. They need a lot more peaks, and they need them sooner than later.