While accepting the award for himself, Kevin Durant called Russell Westbrook an MVP-caliber player.
And on Tuesday, Westbrook delivered a championship-caliber effort that got the Oklahoma City Thunder back to even in the Western Conference finals.
He had 40 points, 10 assists and five steals in a 105-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs that tied the series at two games apiece.
“Coach told us he needed maximum effort from us tonight, and it starts with me at point guard,” Westbrook said. “My job is to play both sides of the ball. If you want to win a championship, those are things you have to do.”
It matched the second-highest playoff point total of Westbrook’s career, falling short of the 43 he scored in the 2012 NBA Finals. He also joined Michael Jordan, who accomplished the feat in 1989, as the only two players with at least 40 points, 10 assists and five steals in a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Just his focus on every possession on the defensive end and his poise on the offensive end, I think that’s what’s fun to watch,” Durant said. “People outside of our team don’t really look at that type of stuff, but that’s something we can definitely build on as a group, is watching him wreak havoc on the defensive end and offensively, playing with such patience.”
At times, Westbrook has been a maddening player for Thunder fans to watch. His dynamic athletic ability gives him a supreme confidence that sometimes leads to ill-advised shots and a tendency to hold the ball at the expense of offensive flow.
But in this game, Westbrook did just about everything right. He shot 50 percent from the field and took just five 3-pointers. He made 14 of 14 free throws.
“Sometimes he’s going to go off,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “He’s capable of doing that. If he makes a lot of jumpers, it gets really tough.”
In the midst of posting a monster game, Westbrook allowed Durant to still score 31 points. It was Durant’s highest-scoring game of the series after the NBA’s leading scorer was held to a 22.7-point average in the first three games.
Serge Ibaka added nine points and eight rebounds for the Thunder, who have turned around the series since he returned from an injury that was expected to keep him out for the rest of the postseason.
“We just play well with Serge,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We can do things with Serge in the lineup that we can’t do with other guys.”
Boris Diaw had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Tony Parker added 14 points for the Spurs, who blew a 2-0 lead against the Thunder in this round two years ago and are in danger of doing it again. San Antonio will host Game 5 on Thursday and won’t be worried about the past.
“I think we shouldn’t think like that,” Parker said. “Each game is different. Each series. Each year. We worked hard all year to have home-court advantage, and now, it’s our job to protect home court.”
Oklahoma City dominated for the second consecutive game after getting blown out in the first two. The Thunder committed just seven turnovers and shot 49 percent from the field.
The Spurs scored the first eight points of the game, but things went downhill from there. A steal and dunk by Westbrook gave the Thunder a 42-32 lead with just less than five minutes left in the first half. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Durant pushed Oklahoma City’s lead to 50-36.
The Thunder led 58-43 at halftime. Durant scored 22 points, and Westbrook added 17 points, eight assists and four steals before the break.
Parker shot 6-of-9 in the first half, but the rest of the Spurs made just 11 of 32 shots before the break.
A lob from Reggie Jackson to Durant for a two-handed slam bumped Oklahoma City’s lead to 60-43. A steal and jam by Ibaka made it 66-49, and a dunk by Westbrook made it 76-49.
The Spurs closed the quarter on an 18-7 run and cut their deficit to 83-67. San Antonio’s Matt Bonner made a 3-pointer with 3:31 remaining to trim Oklahoma City’s edge to 12, but the Thunder maintained control.
“We were just not focused coming out,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “We’re not playing consistently throughout the whole game. We’re playing in spurts or increments. We’ve just got to play the whole game.”
The Thunder still need to win on the road to win the series.
“We’re just trying to look forward,” Durant said. “We know how tough it is to go in there and get a W. We have to go on the road and handle our business. We feel better, but we’re not satisfied.”
Jackson started for the second straight game. He sprained his right ankle on a drive to the hoop and left the game with 8:25 left in the first quarter. He returned to start the second quarter. … Thunder C Kendrick Perkins had 10 rebounds. … The Thunder improved to 5-1 in the playoffs when Westbrook has at least 10 assists. … Ginobili played just 11 minutes and scored five points. … Thunder G Thabo Sefolosha did not play for the second consecutive game. He started the first two games of the series.
SOURCE: The Associated Press