OKLAHOMA CITY — There was a point Saturday afternoon when it looked like Russell Westbrook would get to sit for a second consecutive fourth quarter.
He'd already sat out the final period of Oklahoma City's Thursday night blowout win in Toronto. The Thunder's eventual 110-94, Saturday afternoon win over Sacramento, the team's fifth straight victory, presented another possible opportunity.
They led the Kings by as many as 27 in the second half. They led by 19 at the end of the third quarter, and a bench lineup which had helped the team pull away in the first quarter was trying to do the same at the end of the third into the fourth.
It couldn’t. Kings ball-handlers got to the rim a few times, and Westbrook had to come back in at his usual time, three minutes into final period. He ended up staying in until a minute remained, even coming back onto the floor out of a timeout with 2:07 left and the Thunder up 16.
The triple-double master was sitting on 28 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists then. He'd finish with that line.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan said the possibility of Westbrook earning his 35th triple-double of the season, which would have pulled him within six of the single-season record, didn't factor into his decision-making.
“I don’t follow it during the game,” Donovan said. “I have no idea. So, anytime I’m making a decision, there’s never a decision being made on what a guy’s statistical line is.”
Westbrook backed up the notion — “I just play, bro” — but players peek at stat sheets throughout any game. Whether they’re winning, losing, dominating or missing everything in sight. Heck, Resident Best Player in the NBA LeBron James has become famous for sneaking a look at the stat sheet.
It’s just not something anyone likes to admit.
“I don’t think Russell’s about that either,” Donovan continued. “Russell would never say, ‘Hey, listen. Let me get two more rebounds.’ Like, he understands that we’re trying to pursue something bigger than that.”
Whether Westbrook wanted the triple-double (which there would be nothing wrong with, by the way) or not isn’t the issue. The nitpicking problem of a double-digit victory over the dwindling Kings was that Westbrook had to come back in at all. The Thunder's do-it-all playmaker could use every bit of rest with the season winding down, especially with the way he’s been playing lately.
• Dishing again: Westbrook failed to reach a triple-double, but Saturday’s game was his fifth straight with double-digit assists.
Passing is often the element of Westbrook’s game fans tend to overlook. It could be because he’s the NBA’s leading scorer. More likely, it’s because of the obvious high-usage games, like the one Westbrook had before this five-game winning streak, the 126-121 defeat to Portland on March 7.
The Thunder lost that game because of their performance on the defensive end. The offense hummed in spite of Westbrook scoring a career-high 58 points on 39 shots, 30 more field-goal attempts than any other Thunder player. But one player dominating the shot totals to such a degree isn’t necessarily a sustainable model. And it's not like that was Westbrook's first time dominating the ball to such a degree.
He's played differently during this stretch.
His 10 dimes against the Kings brought his assist average to 14.4 over the five-game winning streak, during which he’s been in double-digits every time. The Thunder haven’t quite shared the ball like this all season.
“I feel like we’re at our best when we get seven guys in double-figures, when we have five-to-seven guys in double figures,” Donovan said. “And he’s done a great job I think of generating offense for other guys.”
OKC had seven in double figures during the Raptors game. Four did it against the Kings.
It’s a well-known fact that Thunder have won when Westbrook triple-doubles. Their 28-6 record when he goes for one is one of the season’s trendiest statistics. But the assists weigh disproportionately in that number.
The Thunder are now 32-9 when Westbrook compiles double-digit assists. There’s some noise in those numbers, for certain. He’s more likely to shoot often when the team is losing, and thus, he’s less likely to pile up assists. That’s why OKC’s 4-8 record when he takes 30-or-more shots is misleading.
But it’s becoming difficult to deny that the Thunder are better when Westbrook plays the way he has the past five games. And his style is a major reason the Thunder are riding a five-game winning streak.