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Late adjustment keys win for Russ, OKC

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Nobody even had to ask Russell Westbrook about it. He was already thinking it.

"We did a good job learning from our mistakes, because the first time we played them, I had a chance to hit Serge [Ibaka] on a kickback, two guys were on me," Westbrook said.

"Tonight, same situation, two guys on me, I kicked to [Anthony Morrow], trusted my teammate and he knocked it down."

Westbrook was referencing the Thunder's game against the Bulls 10 days ago, where they led by a point with 30 seconds left, and were searching for a crunch-time dagger to put away an important win. He had 43 points, and was doing that thing where he carried the team, but instead of finding an open Ibaka on a pick-and-roll, Westbrook looked for his own, firing up an air ball. The Thunder lost that night.

Following the game, Westbrook claimed responsibility for the error, putting the blame on himself. It was an opportunity for growth, for development, for maturation.

But saying one thing and doing another has long been a disconnect in Westbrook's game.

On Sunday, though, Westbrook walked the walk. With the Thunder up 99-95 with a minute remaining, Westbrook ran a pick-and-roll with Enes Kanter, and had a path to possibly attack the rim, but instead of assuming all responsibility, swung a bullet pass to Morrow on the wing. He buried a dagger 3, sealing a 109-100 win for the Thunder.

"It was drawn up, but Russell did a good job of finding [Morrow]," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Russell's a great player, he's going to draw a lot of attention. And then he has to trust guys making shots. Those are plays we have to continue to make for one another. It's the best shot in basketball, the open shot."

During this torrid stretch of triple-double fever -- though he only had 36 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists Sunday -- everyone has been trying to solve what Westbrook is doing differently, what's allowed him to elevate his game to such ridiculous levels. Reality is, with Kevin Durant out, he's just using more possessions, almost 45 percent of them when he's on the floor.

What he is doing differently, though, is leading in a way that he's battled against at times during the first six seasons of his career. Westbrook is still emotional. He still loses his cool (he's first in the NBA with 14 technical fouls). He still gets frustrated with teammates when they blow a defensive assignment or fumble a pass.

But he's also remarkably more self-aware, willing to admit when he was wrong, able to acknowledge mistakes. And more importantly, he's willing to make the adjustment on the floor as well.

Westbrook has always been a Thunder pillar, a leader in the locker room, but it's always kind of come as the antithesis to Durant. He's the Riggs to Durant's Murtaugh, the wild card that sometimes goes about it his own way. But without Durant, he's been forced to find a balance between trying to score all 100 percent of the Thunder's points, and embracing a trust with the rest of the roster.

"He has picked up his leadership a lot as the years have gone on," Nick Collison said. "He is much more mature. Every game he is trying to figure out what he can do to get the whole team playing well. He is coming into his prime. He's still a young guy, but he has a lot of experience, so it's starting to show."

Durant is due back soon, possibly by the end of this week, and there will be worry and concerns about this Westbrook -- the 43 percent usage rate Westbrook -- fitting back in place with the reigning MVP. But what should be clear is that this isn't the stubborn gunner who some still think Westbrook is. This is a player who only has an appetite for winning.

There may be some awkward moments, a bit of a reintegration period, but it won't be because Westbrook won't relinquish a death grip on the alpha role. Some might still believe Westbrook is relishing this opportunity to run the Thunder, with the last few weeks acting as a fantasy camp of sorts for him. In truth, he's just doing what's necessary to keep the Thunder's season alive. Some nights that result in him trying to do too much and only realizing it after the fact, like 10 days ago in Chicago.

Continuity does take time to redevelop, and the Thunder have had to battle against it all season with the in-and-out nature of Durant's season. They've played together seven seasons, but still, there could be some discomfort, particularly late in games. But if there are indeed any issues to overcome, Westbrook will be ready to accept and adjust accordingly.

It's maybe his most impressive development yet.