OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook's game, like any force of nature, is best experienced from a healthy distance. Get too close, and his speed, instincts and power will disorient you before overwhelming you.
Ask Danny Green, who was stripped clean by a poking Westbrook on the perimeter. Ask Marco Belinelli, whose pocket was picked by a lunging Westbrook. Ask Kawhi Leonard, who had a crosscourt pass deflected by an anticipating Westbrook, and Tony Parker, who Westbrook robbed blind on the same play. Ask Patty Mills, whose attempted last-second buzzer-beater was mercilessly swatted into the stands by a launching Westbrook, who posed for an extra second or two afterward, presumably so the fans seated courtside could take a moment to process what had just happened.
Westbrook was here, there, everywhere, and particularly in the open court. Sprinting, twisting, dazzling, stopping on a dime, and dishing, the electrifying guard paced the Thunder's 105-92 victory over the Spurs in Game 4 of a Western Conference finals on Tuesday, a contest that they led by as many as 27 points. His final stat line of 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals proved historic -- only 1989 Michael Jordan can match those numbers in a playoff game -- but it all happened so fast.
"I only played like five minutes in the second half," Parker said, sounding bewildered.
Indeed, the man who Thunder coach Scott Brooks said "has energy to supply the whole room" did more than his part to put away this game shortly after halftime. Westbrook twice assisted Durant as the MVP scored eight points in a 62-second stretch of the second quarter. He had 11 of Oklahoma City's final 12 points of the third quarter, scoring from the rim, the line, the paint and beyond the arc during that six-minute stretch. Here, there, everywhere.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, unlike Parker, had the benefit of a little distance as Westbrook's act unfolded. His resulting calculation wasn't complicated: it was white flag time with nearly seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
"I didn't see any sense in it," Popovich explained, when asked why his starters and Manu Ginobili sat for the game's final 18+ minutes. Asked to elaborate on his thought process, he said simply: "Thursday."
If Serge Ibaka's Game 3 return restored Oklahoma City's sense of self after two rough losses, it was Westbrook's Game 4 explosion that brought back the "nightmare matchup" talk that defined the regular season series between the two teams, which the Thunder swept 4-0.
Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka all pose serious defensive problems for the Spurs, mismatches that can only be overcome by good shooting, ball movement and a controlled pace of play. In Game 4, San Antonio went 0-for-3 in those categories.
The Spurs shot under 40 percent for the second time in three days, after going more than two months without doing that. They scored a series-low 36 points in the paint, with Ibaka blocking three shots and helping hold San Antonio to 13-for-32 (41 percent) shooting in the basket area. Since Ibaka's return from a calf injury, San Antonio is averaging 38 points in the paint, down from an average of 60 when he was sidelined. The Spurs also posted a series-low 17 assists while committing 13 turnovers that helped the Thunder win the transition game by a 21-0 margin. Oklahoma City shut down the basket area, hawked the perimeter and then took off for the races.
"I thought about passing a picture out on the bench [so] they'd know who Serge was," Popovich cracked. "Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely and that turned into blocked shots. ... You've got to play smarter against such great athletes. They're talented obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error. You'd better be smart the way you play, and you can't afford to screw that up as many times as we did."
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San Antonio's crimes of over-aggressiveness were exacerbated by stretches of tentative play. Green, so quick to pull the trigger on his dead-eye threes, looked afraid to put the ball on the deck. The rugged Tiago Splitter, who pounded home dunks against the Blazers in the conference semifinals, looked like Timid Tiago anytime he found himself in the paint. Not until Popovich's deep reserves were called upon did San Antonio ever look like it was playing free. Ibaka kept the Spurs back on their heels, and Westbrook ran over, around and through them.
"[The Spurs] are a great team when they move the ball around, and you let them kind of run freely," Westbrook said. "Once we use our athleticism, use our size, use our strength, it's at our advantage. I think we're in a good position when we do things like that."
Just as Ibaka's defense keyed Westbrook's transition work, Westbrook's attention-commanding play set the table for Durant, who finished with 31 points (on 11-for-22 shooting), five rebounds and five assists. Stymied by extra attention earlier in the series, Durant was able to unleash the whole arsenal in Game 4, getting into the paint at will, banking in an impossible one-legged, off-balance runner and nailing two quick-strike threes. Remarkably, six of Durant's 11 field goals were assisted by Westbrook, who is often knocked for putting his own offense ahead of Durant's or the team's.
"Russell does a great job every single game of just playing with that fire and that force, and I just try to do the same things and have our teammates follow behind us," Durant said. "That's something that we can definitely build on as a group -- watching him wreak havoc on the defensive end, and offensively playing with such patience."
Four games in, and the pendulum is swinging long and wide. Both teams have played like their opponent's worst nightmare, and both have endured nightmarish performances. Had Ibaka never been injured against the Clippers, the burden of proof would have fallen upon the Spurs to show that they could contain the Thunder's physicality in a way they were unable to during the regular season. With Ibaka back and moving much better than can be expected, and with the series square, that's where San Antonio finds itself entering Game 5 on Thursday.
They must prove that their offense, which has been a reliable machine for months, can get back on track by finding soft spots in the paint outside of Ibaka's reach, by creating the open perimeter looks that were so plentiful in Games 1 and 2, and by cutting down on the backbreaking errors. They must also prove that they can slow down the Thunder's fast break, and reestablish their own interior defense.
Perhaps most importantly, they must prove that they can get some sort of a handle on Westbrook, or at least do a better job of keeping their wits should he get going on another tear. Of course, that's easier said, from shelter, than done in the eye of the storm.