Thunder's comeback story fits playoff drive

PHOENIX -- The Oklahoma City Thunder locker room opened up postgame, and upon entering, Russell Westbrook was holding court, loudly letting Enes Kanter hear all about it.

"If you wanted it, you got to get up higher than that!" he jokingly told Kanter. "My bad, my bad, my bad."

Westbrook had posterized Kanter by accident late in the second quarter of Sunday's 109-97 win over the Phoenix Suns, rising up over his big man to finish off a lob from D.J. Augustin.

It was part of a Westbrook flurry that energized the Thunder, and took them from dead in the water against the Suns, to maybe their biggest win of what has been a ridiculously trying season.

"It was a huge game," he said. "And tonight we played with a playoff mindset, as if we were in the playoffs today and that's what we need to do playing the rest of the season out."

Four minutes before he posterized his teammate, though, Westbrook was standing at midcourt, fiddling with his mask, staring at the scoreboard in apparent disbelief.

Suns 53, Thunder 34.

He shook his head, strapping his mask back on as Marcus Morris hit a free throw to put the Suns up an even 20 points.

It would've been hyperbolic to call Sunday's game in Phoenix a must-win game for the Thunder, but it certainly was one that carried significant importance. Locked in a playoff race with the Suns and New Orleans Pelicans, and coming off a disappointing performance the night before in Utah, Westbrook and the Thunder couldn't have expected such a flat effort.

Augustin was fouled on a 3-pointer, then hit all three free throws. Alex Len responded with a layup, and Kanter answered with one to make it 56-39 with 5:39 left in the half. Scott Brooks told his team these six minutes were the most important of the game. This is where they had to either get back in it, or slink off and take a likely butt-kicking.

And that's when Westbrook scored 15 straight points to end the half, cutting the Suns' lead to a manageable eight. The Thunder latched on to that momentum, completing the largest comeback in the OKC-era of the franchise to virtually eliminate the Suns from postseason contention.

"Once they got up by 20, we made a decision if we wanted to defend or go home," Westbrook said. "And as you can see, we decided to defend and close out the quarter at a reasonable number and it went uphill from there."

Westbrook had 23 points in the first half, on a eyebrow-raising 19 shot attempts. But unless you were only watching the box score, it was a takeover by necessity, the kind you see the special players do, sensing that moment where their team needs a lift. The Suns were about to put their name firmly back in the playoff conversation, and add doubt to the Thunder's. Not on Westbrook's watch.

But what made this night extra spectacular for Westbrook was how he readjusted in the second half. His statline doesn't pop in the way that Westbrook lines have the past few weeks -- 33 points, nine rebounds, seven assists (you know you're something else when that line seems average) -- but his management of the game in the final 24 minutes showcased the kind of maturation he has been developing all season.

Westbrook took just 10 shots in the second half, and was even fine with being a spectator as Brooks rode the hot hand of his second unit deep into the fourth quarter. Westbrook re-entered with 6:05 left in the fourth, and helped slam the door, blowing by Eric Bledsoe for a transition layup, and then setting up Augustin for a dagger 3 with three minutes left.

The night before in Utah, Westbrook scored 20 of the Thunder's 23 in the fourth quarter, with his teammates hitting just 1-of-9 from the floor as OKC took a difficult loss. And down 20 in the first half of a game carrying magnitude, it was official gut-check time for the Kevin Durant-less Thunder.

"I think after last night, we played terrible yesterday and we knew that," Westbrook said. "Playing like that, we wasn't going to get far. And tonight, we started off a little slow, but we never really split up. We stayed together and came out with the win."

The issue for the Thunder as they claw toward the postseason has been a woefully inconsistent defense, and it was on full display Sunday. The Thunder allowed 62 points in the first half, including 35 in the first quarter. They allowed 35 total the entire second half. Brooks hunted for lineups that could contend with the Suns versatile small-ball duo of the Morris twins, and found one with Augustin, Westbrook, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler and Steven Adams.

"We were trying to find a lineup that was going to get out there and compete every possession," Brooks said. "Because when you're like we are right now, you have to. There's no wiggle room. There's no room for a cool minute. I thought in the first half we played too cool, and we got after it in the second half."

It's how the Thunder have to win without Durant, especially against good teams on the road. Entering Sunday, since Feb. 26 they were just 1-7 away from OKC, with the one win coming against the lowly Los Angeles Lakers. Without Durant's cold-blooded clutch hand to help guide them, finding ways to win close games has been a problem. But against the Suns, it was part clever lineup adjusting by Brooks, part the Thunder role players rising to the occasion, and part Westbrook just not watching it happen again.

The Thunder are now four games up on the Suns with the tiebreaker in hand, and 2.5 up on the Pelicans. They aren't home free by any means (their magic number is seven), but Sunday's win was a massive step in the right direction. Not just in terms of the practicality of the standings. But in how Westbrook, and the Thunder, got it done.