While the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have clearly created an upper echelon of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder have comfortably kept pace as the No. 3 team out west. Performances like their 113–93 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night further suggest they won’t be an easy out for whichever top dog is stuck matched up with them in the Western Conference playoffs.
Kevin Durant scored a game-high 21 points, but it is the all-around play of Russell Westbrook that could take Oklahoma City to the next level. He posted a triple double—12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists—in just three quarters. Westbrook took apart the Minnesota defense with ease.
Late in the opening half, Westbrook zipped past a charging Shabazz Muhammad. Westbrook took a moment to stabilize his dribble and assessed the defense, noticing Ricky Rubio had drifted off Serge Ibaka in the left corner to curtail his drive, but Muhammad was already en route to closing out on the stretch-forward.
So, Westbrook fooled the entire Minnesota lineup with a hoax behind-the-back-pass to Ibaka, lunged forward into the paint with a power dribble and surveyed the second layer of the Timberwolves’ defense.
Nemanja Bjelica and Karl-Anthony Towns were loitering underneath the rim and Andrew Wiggins appeared stuck in quicksand at the right elbow, tasked with making the daunting decision of stepping in front of a Westbrook bulldoze toward the rim or staying glued to an otherwise wide-open Durant on the right wing.
Westbrook looked Durant in the eyes, luring Wiggins to take a step in the direction of the former MVP. That split second was all Westbrook needed to deliver a gorgeous, no-look feed right into Dion Waiters’s shooting pocket. Waiters was all alone in the right corner and drained the triple with ease.
Oklahoma City’s point guard recorded his fourth triple double of the season and the 23rd of his career. The performance wasn’t his flashiest stat-filling affair and it wasn’t nearly as dominant as his string of 30-plus point triple doubles of 2015, but Westbrook offered a rare glimpse at how devastatingly dangerous he, and the Thunder’s offense, can be when he’s locked in as a playmaker.
Westbrook secured his triple double with 4:13 left in the third quarter, on a filthy half-court lob to Andre Roberson. The acrobatic play gave Oklahoma City a 21-point lead. Westbrook checked out of the game about a minute later, finishing the night waving a towel on the bench.
The Thunder boasted a 119.8 offensive rating when Billy Donovan sat Westbrook, over 10 points per 100 possessions greater than their No. 2 offense on the season and over seven points above Golden State’s league-best offensive rating.
Oklahoma City’s offense simply erupts when Westbrook pays as much attention to setting up his teammates as he does picking out exotic pregame outfits. His otherworldly ability to explode to the rim and finish with authority, coupled with his elite shooting at the elbows off pick-and-rolls, creates a gravitational pull that opens up passing lanes very few point guards in the league can.
Under former coach Scott Brooks, the Thunder’s offense often sputtered as Westbrook and Durant took turns attacking the basket. Oklahoma City floundered down the stretch of too many close games as defenses easily snuffed out the predictable isolation sets.
That all changes when Westbrook is patient driving to the basket, and slows down from a Formula One race car to a street-legal Ferrari. A Westbrook that evaluates a defense rotation by rotation unlocks scoring opportunities for the Thunder’s secondary shooters that otherwise stand stranded on a perimeter island when he drives only intending to pass as a last-resort safety valve.
Westbrook is obviously a breathtaking scorer. He wouldn’t have led the league in scoring a year ago otherwise. It seems clear Donovan has encouraged Westbrook to create more often this season, despite occasional blips in that plan. Westbrook is averaging a career-best 9.5 assists per game, almost a full assist more than his previous career-high set last season.
This isn’t an indictment of Westbrook’s trademark aggressiveness. You can count on one hand how many players possess Westbrook’s immense scoring talent with the ball in his hands. That potential energy is simply better utilized when setting up teammates. And when Westbrook is locked in as a passer, it leaves jaws agape at what might Oklahoma City become.