SAN ANTONIO -- Russell Westbrook jogged up to the scorer's table to check in with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. A San Antonio Spurs' fan nearby stood up from his chair and started sarcastically cheering. A few moments before, he had yelled, "Put Westbrook back in!"
Westbrook walked onto the court and the crowd started chanting.
"West-brook sucks! West-brook sucks!"
Ninety seconds later, Westbrook roped a 31-foot 3-point answer to cut the Spurs' lead to three. Twenty seconds after that, he set up Kevin Durant for a 3 after beating multiple defenders off the dribble to draw help.
Westbrook turned to Durant.
"It's winning time!" he yelled.
The Oklahoma City Thunder walked into Game 5 in San Antonio with confidence and the belief they were good enough to beat the Spurs again in their building. But as they fell behind in the third quarter, their offense shriveling up, it almost felt as if it was time to start thinking about Game 6. Instead, it was Westbrook, through his unmatched competitive spirit and force of will, who sparked the Thunder in the second half to a 95-91 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
"Russ was a maniac tonight keeping us in it," Durant said.
Westbrook is forever polarizing, and this game is a perfect summary as to why. He finished with an eye-popping 35-11-9, but also eight turnovers and at least as many curious shots. It's why that Spurs' fan stood up and cheered when he walked back to check in. There's a perception Westbrook can play the Thunder out of a game, which he certainly has done before, but he's also the rare breed who can go win a Game 5 on the road almost on his own.
A player like Westbrook is hard to capture accurately, because if you're trying to objectively critique the bad, you'll invariably overlook that he just tries so damn hard. That fact often gets in his own way, but if Westbrook is anything, he's relentless. He doesn't turn it on in the postseason, either. That motor has been running hot since November. Game 5 against the Spurs? It might as well have been the fifth game of the season against the Bulls. Westbrook plays one way.
"He's so competitive, and there's a fine line, because when you're that competitive you've also got to be able to control and lead your team," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "You don't ever want to take away that competitiveness from him, but the one thing I admire so much about him is he just lays it on the line. He's flying around, throwing his body -- even the play Kawhi [Leonard] dunked, the effort to try and go make the play the length of the floor, the loose balls, the offensive rebounds.
"He plays with such force and such passion. I think he's doing a really good job of realizing when he gets so intense, so competitive, so emotional, he's doing a good job of kind of bringing himself back together and understanding there's four other guys out there depending on him."
The Thunder outscored the Spurs 26-19 in the fourth, but it wasn't necessarily some tactical execution fest from them. It was more a matter of want-to, led by Westbrook, effectively force-feeding the ball into the basket. In Game 4, it was Durant daggering to outscore the Spurs himself. In Game 5, Westbrook had 10 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds in the final quarter.
"Can't explain it, he's just swinging ... swinging, swinging at the knees," Steven Adams said of Westbrook as he shook his head.
The Thunder have battled themselves as much as anything this season, working to overcome a perception of fourth-quarter ineptitude. So much has been made of how they've lost 15 games (including playoffs) when leading after three quarters. In their two consecutive wins against the Spurs, they didn't have a lead heading into the fourth, but they did find a way, seeming to put that supposed crunch-time curse behind them.
"Curse?" Durant said. "You guys are so up and down. One game it's this, and the next game it's that. We can't control that and that's you guys' job and we respect that, but we always knew we were one of the better teams in the league and we've been locking in all season."
The Thunder can infuriate because so much of who they are resides in an oversimplification, but one that is a fact: Did the ball go in or not? Durant likes to say "it's a make-or-miss league," often overlooking what kind of shot led up to that make or miss. But in Game 5, the Thunder rarely ran any kind of crisp, designed offense. It was Westbrook snaring offensive rebounds and finding Enes Kanter off a broken play. It was Durant drawing a critical late foul on a jump shot. And it was Westbrook shaking loose of the giant paws of Leonard on a curious no-call as the Spurs were trying to foul, to put away the game with an and-1 layup over LaMarcus Aldridge with six seconds left.
"I just played until I heard the whistle throughout the whole game," Westbrook said. "My job is to play. The refs will call the game. My job is to play until I hear the whistle."
Nothing really describes Westbrook better than that. He just ... plays. He's unapologetic in the way he does, in the way he dresses, in the way he talks. Take it, or leave it. And in Game 5? He took it.