OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook walked to the podium, wearing a red bandana and a teal Patagonia T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, sat down and was ready to take the blame for the Oklahoma City Thunder's 100-96 Game 3 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
"Execution. That starts with me," Westbrook said. "I've got to do a better job of executing and putting guys in position to score the basketball, especially late. And especially against good defense. You've got to find ways to move the ball around and that starts with me, so I've got to do a better job leading into the next game."
With 7:11 left in the fourth quarter, Westbrook snapped over his left shoulder, rising into an off-balance 10-foot jumper. It caught front iron, but Westbrook already was on his trampoline snaring the rebound and kicking to the corner for a Serge Ibaka go-ahead 3. A minute later, Westbrook was hitting a wing 3 to extend the lead to four. The Thunder finally had the Spurs on the run, and a pivotal win was within reach.
But over the final five minutes, the Thunder were outscored 17-11, hitting four of their final eight shots, and committing three back-breaking turnovers, two by Westbrook.
"I turned the ball over, especially with the game on the line," he said. "Just got to do a better job, man, lock in. I take responsibility when the ball is in my hands to make plays for my teammates and I didn't do that tonight."
Westbrook blossomed this season, his best yet, because he prioritized playmaking over scoring, letting the former dictate the latter. His elevation resulted in an eye-popping 18 triple-doubles, as he averaged double-digit assists per game and was the engineer of the league's second-best offense. Westbrook routinely piled up 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-assist games. He unlocked the Thunder's offense in a way it never has been before, with better ball movement and more trust.
On Friday, Westbrook took 31 shots. He missed 21. Kevin Durant attempted 18.
"Just too many shots," Westbrook said. "Honestly, man, I've got to do a better job, like I said before, getting guys shots. Steven [Adams] got one shot. Got to get other guys involved, especially to beat this team. Even though I had some shots I made, I've got to read and find ways to get guys shots. I take the blame."
That was always the curiosity in Westbrook's newfound pass-first mentality -- how would that translate when the games really started counting? It's one thing to pile up assists against the Kings and Lakers in January. It's another to do it in the boiling cauldron of the postseason.
Westbrook tried to resist in so many ways. Sure, he took 10 3s, but the Spurs seemed to bait and dare him into many of them. He attacked the rim religiously but failed to finish over the skyscraping arms of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard.
It wasn't the kind of jarring Westbrook tunnel vision that brought on so much criticism in years past. He searched for Durant on nearly every trip, but when the options ran dry, he called his own number. The ball stuck, the offense stalled. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 21 of Westbrook's 31 shots were taken on possessions where he started and ended a trip without passing, the most in the playoffs this season. And all but two of those shots were contested.
"I thought Russell got downhill a lot," coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought he was on top of the rim a lot ... the 3s, I want to take a look at to see what kind of looks they were."
Game 3 was a pretty perfect diorama of Westbrook. He can take. He can give. He grabbed the rebound and found Ibaka. He hit the tough 3. He turned the ball over twice. He took ill-advised shots. He stormed the rim for a monstrous and-1 putback to breathe life back into the Thunder with 40 seconds left. "Relentless" is the word most everyone arrives at to describe him. And it's true, every single night: Westbrook doesn't give in. He doesn't back up. Which sometimes, still makes him his own worst enemy.
The stage is set for Sunday's Game 4, a game that carries the kind of burden that no other Thunder home game ever has. It's essentially a must-win for the Thunder to have a realistic chance in the series. The Thunder have to beat the Spurs three of their next four, two of those being in San Antonio, where the Spurs have lost only twice this season. The Thunder gave the Spurs one of those losses, and can lean on that fact despite the uphill climb.
But there's the other part. It could, conceivably, be Durant's last home game in a Thunder uniform. That cloud is rolling over Oklahoma City and getting darker by the day, with the reality that decision day is coming fast. Like their trip to San Antonio, though, there's no looking ahead, no glance out of the corner of their eyes at what's coming.
"We play Sunday," Durant said. "We play Sunday. We can't worry about going to San Antonio. We've got another game here."