The last thing Russell Westbrook needs is extra motivation, and yet—before his team sent the Dallas Mavericks out of the playoffs this evening with a 118-104 win—Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went and said that Russell Westbrook was not a superstar. So Westbrook immediately set to playing like a superstar, and he huffed, puffed, and blew the Mavericks’ house down with 36 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists.
Westbrook is the most violent point guard in the NBA, and he’ll rip holes in any NBA defense, but he has a more pronounced athleticism advantage over a point guard rotation of Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris. Dallas’ strategy on pick-and-rolls was to stand back and try to keep him from getting into the paint too easily, so he responded by shooting 7-for-13 outside the paint on the evening. When he got pushed off his spots and the Mavs kept him from swooping into the heart of their defense, he managed to find Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in the post. He also did some dunking himself because, c’mon, of course he did.
In the second quarter, Westbrook threw a touchdown to Kevin Durant. His running mate also had a good, strong game, scoring 33 and grabbing seven boards.
The Thunder have been comfortably third best in the Western Conference all season, and they are about to go up against a juggernaut. San Antonio and Oklahoma City split their season series 2-2, but the Spurs have a better bench and the ability to entomb one of Oklahoma City’s stars in Kawhi Leonard’s wingspan. They’ll be favored. It’s far too early to tell just how dead or not dead the Warriors are (for my money, I say not dead), but the Thunder surely consider Steph Curry’s knee injury a boon to their championship chances, even if they always had to get through the Spurs to get there.
While San Antonio will most likely out-scheme them, Westbrook’s athleticism is a true wild card. You can only litigate his explosiveness out of the game so much before he overcomes an ornately-planned pick-and-roll coverage and dunks on your head. The matchup obviously isn’t anywhere near as simple as Heart vs. Brain or Talent vs. Coaching, but one of the Thunder’s largest advantages is their overwhelming athleticism, and if they leverage it correctly, Oklahoma City could give San Antonio more of a run than they’re expected to.