SAN ANTONIO -- Entering this season, with Kevin Durant gone, the Oklahoma City Thunder were keenly aware of of their situation and what that would mean for the workload of Russell Westbrook. While fans and the media fantasized about him doing something crazy like, say, averaging a triple-double, the Thunder worked to hatch a plan to make sure their franchise player -- singular now -- wasn't run into the ground by April.
Part of what complicated it was the fact that Westbrook packs as much energy into every minute he plays as anyone in the league. His 34 minutes are unlike most players' 34 minutes. Westbrook's usage rate is soaring at about 40 percent -- on pace to set a league record -- and with his relentless rim attacks, the responsibility to engineer an offense and effectively carry a team into the Western Conference playoffs, the Thunder knew they'd have to manage it.
And as Tuesday's game against the San Antonio Spurs showcased -- a 108-94 loss where the Thunder outscored the Spurs by eight with Westbrook on the floor and were outscored by 22 in the 14 minutes he wasn't -- there's a give and take. Riding a wave of Westbrook brilliance, the Thunder snuffed out a 19-point Spurs lead with a 22-2 run in the third quarter to take a three-point lead. Westbrook went to the bench with 2 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third and the Thunder up by one. When he re-entered with 8:41 left in the fourth, the Thunder were down 11.
It's not breaking news: The Thunder are better with Westbrook on the floor, and it has been that way since the beginning of the season. But they had plugged some of the leaking when he rested by developing an identity punching the ball into the post to Enes Kanter, using his offensive skill to create a system that worked for non-Westbrook lineups. Without Kanter for the next month, or more, any Westbrook-less stretch is at risk of surrendering a game-changing 12-2 run.
"I would play all night if I could, but obviously that's not good for me for the long run," Westbrook said. "Just gotta be able to trust other guys. We have enough in this room to be able to come out and compete, and while I'm on the floor I've got to make the best of it and make sure my guys are ready to play and be able to close games out."
Coach Billy Donovan has been disciplined with Westbrook's minutes all season. Westbrook is averaging 34.7 a game, on par with any other season of his career. And maybe more impressively, Donovan hasn't played Westbrook 40 or more minutes in any regulation game this season. For comparison, James Harden has played 40-plus minutes in eight non-overtime games this season. LeBron James has done it nine times. Westbrook hasn't played 40 minutes in a game since Nov. 30, an overtime win over the Wizards.
Against the Spurs, with the Thunder rolling along behind a Westbrook burst, the temptation was there to just ride their star. Westbrook had played 27 minutes through three quarters and if Donovan had played him through the fourth, he would've finished at 39. But Donovan stayed committed to the rotational plan and sat Westbrook for his standard rest to begin the fourth.
"Obviously with a guy like Russell Westbrook, on any team, the best for him and for our team would just to play him 48 minutes," Donovan said with a laugh. "That would be great. But that's not fair to him, it's not fair to his career, it's not even fair to our team if we're trying to evolve into being a very good team."
From Donovan's perspective -- and Westbrook's, too -- leaning too heavily on Westbrook stunts the team's growth overall. It suffocates players like second-year guard Cameron Payne, whom the organization is extremely high on despite some struggles since returning from injury. There's a lot of talk about if Westbrook has enough help or not. He actually might indeed already have it, or at least a good portion of it, but it just needs to be developed. (The Thunder are the third-youngest team in the league, after all.)
"For us to be the best team that we can possibly be, he cannot be Superman and rescue us from everything," Donovan said. "There's got to be some development and growth and improvement with a lot of these young guys. And if you're constantly using him as a backstop all the time, like our guys that came off the bench in the fourth quarter, that was a great opportunity to learn and grow and see themselves there."
But Donovan seems to reject the idea of even going to Westbrook for extended minutes in isolated games, like the Rockets do with Harden or the Cavs with LeBron. There's clearly a plan in place that the Thunder are sticking with. As much as anything, they're probably protecting Westbrook from himself.
"For Russell, all the stuff the medical staff does, all the stuff he does to get himself mentally and physically ready and emotionally prepared to play, you can't, in my opinion -- and I'm always going to do what's best for him, his career and physical well-being -- is start just wearing this guy out, playing him 38, 39 or 40 minutes," Donovan said. "I just don't think that's fair to him and I'm sure maybe part of him would say, 'I'd love to do that, that'd be great,' but I just don't think that's fair to him or our team."
As the postseason approaches, the importance of games increase, and Donovan will almost assuredly push Westbrook's minutes. Last postseason, Westbrook's minutes jumped more than three a game, with him playing 40-plus five of the seven games of the Western Conference finals.
Westbrook doesn't take games off, both figuratively and literally. He played a game last season against the Pistons because he desperately wanted to take on former teammate Reggie Jackson, whereas Durant and Serge Ibaka rested. So, the Thunder are playing the long game with Westbrook, potentially sacrificing a win or two here to make sure he can withstand the burden he's taken on this season, as well as provide an opportunity for the roster to improve around him and, ideally, lessen some of that weight.
"It's got to be about our team evolving and growing," Donovan said. "And sometimes, unfortunately, we've got to go through these difficult times to learn how to grow and get better."