OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook loves to tell people he plays every game the same way, even sometimes going as far to make people tell him in return, but he has a tell when he's really got it cranked up an extra notch.
With the San Antonio Spurs in Oklahoma City for a significant game for a variety of reasons, Westbrook's focus and effort -- on the defensive end -- was all anyone needed to see that this one mattered a little bit more. Westbrook dug in, guarding on the ball like a bulldog and hitting a number of help rotations, even blowing up a couple of would-be layups for LaMarcus Aldridge at the rim. The tone was set, and despite some bumps along the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder put away an extremely important 104-94 win over the Spurs and jumped back up to the No. 5 seed in the West.
"That's the key every night, defend at a high level," Westbrook said. "I feel like we put ourselves in great position to win games when we defend like that."
It was something Spurs coach Gregg Popovich marveled at before the game, in talking about what his young point guard Dejounte Murray could learn from a matchup with Westbrook, how the reigning MVP doesn't relax at any point. He's full-go from tipoff, testing the limits of his own abilities while hoping to raise the level of his teammates' to a higher place, as well. And as former teammate Kendrick Perkins would often say, Westbrook was on one Saturday night.
Westbrook has that ability to dominate and overwhelm a game without necessarily stuffing the box score -- which he also is quite obviously very good at -- and that was the case against the Spurs. He finished with his 19th triple-double of the season -- 21 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists -- and the 98th of his career but ran the game in a way only a few players in the league can. His fingerprints were all over everything as the Thunder handled the Spurs with Paul George scoring just 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting, Carmelo Anthony finishing with only two points on 1-of-8 and the second-highest scorer being Jerami Grant with 15.
The energy was there, the effort right along with it, and the intentions were good, but the Thunder didn't take advantage of some excellent first-half defense and quality execution to build any kind of first-half lead. There were multiple opportunities to open up and extend a big lead, but the largest it stretched in the first half was 14. The Spurs were able to trim it down before a quick burst before the break from the Thunder, punctuated by a corner 3 from Corey Brewer right before the buzzer.
Those missed chances came back on OKC early in the third as Steven Adams picked up his fourth foul, colliding midair with Dejounte Murray and then coming down hard and rolling his left ankle. Adams exited the game and did not return. The Spurs took advantage of Adams' absence, going to Aldridge on the block. Aldridge had three points on 1-of-8 shooting in the first half but scored eight on 4-of-7 in the third without Adams.
It was a strange night offensively for the Thunder, with Brewer leading them in scoring at halftime, while Anthony didn't score until midway through the third quarter (his only points of the game). They missed a lot of great looks, both at the rim and from 3, leaving the door propped open for a Spurs comeback. San Antonio flirted with it at times, trimming the lead down to four in the third, then again down to seven in the fourth, but with the help of some pop from Nick Collison, the Thunder put the Spurs away.
What the Thunder have been searching for over the past month is a defensive consistency to support all the work they've done in figuring out their offensive issues. And while the sample size is small, the two games since inserting Brewer have looked different. There's a rhythm and comfort to the way they're playing, with a palpable chemistry restored to at least sort of mimic what they had with Andre Roberson.
But most of all, it has been Westbrook, who -- when at the levels at which he has played the past two games -- can cure almost any issue on his own. Westbrook has adjusted, taking only one 3-pointer in those games -- not a coincidence -- and focusing on rim attacks and rhythm midrange jumpers. Westbrook is often his own worst offensive enemy, unable to resist the siren song of the 3, but when he channels his abilities to other areas, he and the Thunder are at optimal levels.
The Thunder are working to restore belief that they are capable in the West while also trying to actually cement their place in the postseason. George said at shootaround that the Thunder are resisting the urge to scoreboard-watch and root for other teams to lose. They're trying to look only at themselves.
Anthony said post-All-Star break was "showtime," but the results have been ... well, not that. They're 5-3, but the three losses are in the understandable category: at the Warriors, at Portland and vs. Houston. Their wins have been against teams they should beat, which is what made Saturday's matchup bigger, outside of the playoff implications.
The Thunder needed to prove, to themselves more than anybody, that they're tracking in the right direction again. And if anything is going to put them on that path, and keep them there, it's Westbrook.