OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook skipped his way to midcourt, spreading his arms with his palms out and he looked into the crowd.
"Merry Christmas!" he yelled, with the final horn sounding behind him as the Oklahoma City Thunder took down the Houston Rockets 112-107. Westbrook was sensational with 31 points, 6 rebounds and 11 assists, overcoming a 2-of-10 shooting start to hit 10 of his final 14 attempts.
But as good as Westbrook was, along with Carmelo Anthony (20 points on 8-of-12 shooting) and Paul George (24 on 8-of-15), a rare game in which all three played well, it was Andre Roberson who sealed a merry Christmas for the Thunder. Roberson, who had to be subbed out late in the fourth quarter after the Rockets deployed their hacking strategy, made a game-sealing block on James Harden's patented step-back 3-pointer and finished a layup seconds later to put the Thunder up five with 21 seconds left.
It was a sequence that was missing so often for the Thunder early in the season as they struggled in close games, losing their first nine games decided by two possessions or less. Through the struggles, through the inconsistency, there has been a constant message of patience and perseverance around the team, with the phrase "figure it out" popping up like there's an inside joke about how many times they can say it.
And within it, there has been sort of an unspoken timetable on when they'd actually need to show signs of figuring it out -- Christmas. That would be almost half a season for the Thunder's three stars to integrate and initiate, and if it wasn't starting to work by then, it might just not work at all. Through their stumbling, there has been various points when fans and media have wondered if the panic button was allowed to be pressed, but the push back was often, "Let's see what it looks like by Christmas."
After winning a fifth straight game, and 11 of their past 14 -- they're 11-3 in December -- the Thunder aren't willing to say they've got a handle on it officially. Any time it comes up, Westbrook will say, "One game at a time, champ." But more than ever, there does appear to be a tangible change and an actual reason to believe they can turn the corner. Westbrook has rediscovered his MVP level, George is a two-way monster, and Anthony is settling into an auxiliary role. It has led to far more clarity, especially late in games, leading George to utter that phrase again, in the past tense.
"There's no confusion," George said of the Thunder's crunchtime improvement. "We're just playing. We trust one another. We're on the same page with one another. We just figured it out, how to close, how to play well, how to tighten up. We're just comfortable, I think. That's what took a little time, is the comfort level."
The Thunder know their potential. They've seen it against the class of the Western Conference, with a blowout win over the Warriors and Monday's win over the Rockets (albeit without Chris Paul). It has been the baffling no-shows that have held them back, something they've cleaned up by winning close.
The recent results confirm it, but it certainly does look different. So much of that is Westbrook, with Monday's game serving as a good summary. He shook off a slow start, and when he got going, so did the Thunder. Westbrook spent the first 20 games or so making an intentional effort to self-sacrifice, to get off the ball more, to shoot less, to take fewer midrange jumpers. It led to him often being in two minds, showing signs of second-guessing and a level of offensive discomfort that was highly unusual.
There wasn't some tug-of-war for the alpha role in OKC -- George and Anthony are well aware, and quite comfortable with who holds it for the Thunder -- but Westbrook, even with the narratives and stereotypes, was trying too hard to be unselfish. But as he's asserted more of his traditional imprint on the game, it has opened up for George and Anthony. All part of, you guessed it, figuring it out.
"I think we know how to put the ball in the hole," Anthony said. "We've been doing that for a long time. I think now it's just being comfortable. We're doing that, being confident when our time comes."
Westbrook is known for his energy, and is always in search of the spark to fuel a run. He did it again against the Rockets, quickly turning a five-point fourth quarter deficit into a lead in a matter of minutes after checking back in. After the game, he was asked if he thinks he sometimes surprises opponents the way he can re-enter a game with so much ferocity. His answer was straightforward and simple, but with the Thunder's recent turn for the better, maybe it'll serve prophetic.
"That's their fault," he said. "But I'm comin'."