OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook was determined to spark something for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the third quarter. It started with relentless rim assaults on consecutive possessions, with Westbrook putting down his head like a running back trying to push the pile single-handedly to the end zone. A third straight attack set up a corner 3-pointer to cut the Chicago Bulls' lead to 16 points.
But as the Thunder's defense lapsed time and again, a comeback, despite Westbrook's best efforts, wasn't happening.
"Yeah, I mean, can't quit," Westbrook said. "Just trying to find ways to get us going. But offense wasn't our problem. Just gotta get some stops, and we couldn't get no stops."
He wasn't finished, though. Whether on his own, or by the command of Billy Donovan, Westbrook ran to the scorer's table to check in earlier than usual in the fourth quarter, even with the Thunder down 24. He played for just more than a minute, with no ground made on the scoreboard, before common sense was applied and the white flag officially waved.
"Yeah, tryin'," Westbrook said, shrugging.
In the end, the Bulls thumped the Thunder 128-100, handing Westbrook and his group their most humiliating loss of the season.
But maybe the most telling part of Westbrook's postgame interview -- in all 1 minute, 16 seconds of it -- was his answer after being asked about how the Bulls were "able to take you out of your game," with the "you" being intended to apply to the team as a whole.
Westbrook paused, thinking over the way the question was asked. For a brief moment it seemed like he might take exception to it, or ignore it altogether, but then he clicked over and gave an interesting answer.
"Ummm, no, they didn't take me out of my game," he said. "I was fine. They just played harder than we did."
Westbrook finished with 28 points, five rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes. The next leading scorer was Jerami Grant, who posted 15 points, though mostly in garbage time. Victor Oladipo had 12. For a large portion of the game Westbrook was the only Thunder player in double figures. The Thunder shot 38 percent to the Bulls' 60 percent and watched as Chicago carved them mercilessly in a 15-of-20 shooting third quarter.
Westbrook has never been one to call out his team, at least publicly. He's righteously supportive, but the way he made sure to turn that question into a first-person answer seemed to suggest a subtle message. Westbrook did his part against the Bulls, playing with his trademark energy and intensity, working to find some kind of ignition. But his young teammates never followed behind him, specifically on the defensive end.
Westbrook clearly wanted to try and will his team back into the game but couldn't get close to having the opportunity to do so because the Bulls scored with ease. It wasn't finger-pointing. It was simply the truth.
It feels like the low point of the Thunder's season, a three-game losing streak punctuated with the worst loss of the season. The previous two failures were justifiable, on the road in Cleveland against the defending champs, then on the road in San Antonio against the mighty Spurs.
But Wednesday's loss to the dysfunctional Bulls was jarring in the sense it came at home on the heels of a rugged January schedule. Donovan expressed concern about exhaling after the previous month, but that doesn't explain it. Nor does trying to excuse it with the second-of-a-back-to-back line. The Thunder -- minus Westbrook, apparently -- didn't show up to play against the Bulls.
"In my opinion it would be a mistake to say, 'Hey, it's one of those nights, it's a back-to-back, it's tough, just move on," Donovan said. "To me, you're not doing anything to prevent something like that from happening [again]."
Any time the Thunder suffer a loss, particularly in this manner, the focus shifts to Westbrook, his future, and the roster constructed around him. But he was well aware that he signed up for nights like this back in August when he inked his extension. He understood he was taking over the sole leadership role of a young team with a crater in the middle of the roster. He didn't re-up with some delusional ideology that everything would be exactly at it had been for the Thunder.
It doesn't make it any easier to stomach -- Westbrook's competitiveness needs no explanation -- but every performance like this shouldn't spark frets about his future. The Thunder aren't a completed project as they reconfigure, and it's clear adjustments need to be made. In the present, though, with the team they have, there's a need for some self-reflection.
"I'm not sure. I'm not sure, man," Westbrook said when asked about his frustration level. "We've just got to know how important games are, especially being a young team we've got to embrace games like this, especially once you beat a team earlier in the season they're going to come back and be ready to play. And tonight, they outplayed us."
Westbrook's teammates didn't shy away from what went wrong, either. The message from the locker room seemed to be putting the responsibility squarely at the feet of the players.
"We've got to have a lot more focus," Steven Adams said. "It's the detailed stuff; we're not focusing on that. And that's not the coaches; that's the players where that has to come from."
Westbrook is nothing if not resilient, and there's full expectation he'll respond with fury and ferocity when the Thunder host the Grizzlies on Friday. But then again, that's never in doubt. The question is: Will everyone else?