Russell Westbrook shows again why he might be the NBA’s best closer

OKLAHOMA CITY — There are posters, and then there’s whatever you want to call what Russell Westbrook did to DeMarcus Cousins on Sunday night.

It came with 2 minutes, 38 seconds left in a one-point game, and not only was it a critical bucket in crunch time for the Thunder, but it also fouled out Cousins — an and-1 poster, with a side of dagger.

“It don’t matter to me how many fouls,” Westbrook said with a smile. “I just jumped.”

So did Cousins. But it didn’t end as well for him.

It was the first punctuation on another sensational Westbrook performance in the Thunder’s 118-110 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, with a second hammer capping it off — this one being uncontested — with 30 seconds left. And along with those came another triple-double, his 29th of the season and the fourth of the campaign of the 40-point variety (41-11-11).

But where Westbrook made his most emphatic impact was where he has found an unexpected comfort this season — the fourth quarter. He leads the league in basically every clutch-time stat (the last five minutes of a game within five points), and Sunday only added to it all. Where Anthony Davis lit the Thunder for 24 points in the first quarter, Westbrook had 21 in the fourth, a career high in the final frame.

“You don’t even realize it, bro, to be honest,” Steven Adams said of his teammate Westbrook. “You’re just more worried making sure you’re in the right spots and all that sort of stuff. But yeah, good job from him.”

It has been a point of discussion about Westbrook’s season, how he has adapted to a new role of closer in the Thunder’s offense. To some, it’s unexpected, because of his high turnover propensity, shot-selection issues and low efficiency numbers. In past seasons, while playing second crunch time banana to Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s late-game numbers were rather mediocre. This season, with no push and pull with Durant, is a completely different story.

“I haven’t been surprised at all. I’m never surprised at anything he does,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “The first thing is, Russell is always going to do what’s best for the team. And probably in years past, that wasn’t necessarily his job or responsibility. Going forward now with that responsibility now being on his shoulders, of whether or not he should shoot it or pass it or make decisions with the ball in his hands, I had no doubt he would be more than capable of handling it because of his mentality and mindset.”

There had always been a stereotype that followed Westbrook during his time with Durant: that the enigmatic Thunder point guard was prone to stepping on toes and unwisely taking possessions away from Durant during crunch time. That was always overblown, with the reality being that Westbrook often wasn’t enough of his dynamic self late in games, which is what led to the Thunder being so obviously stagnated and predictable. Their offense was to force-feed it to Durant, mostly in an elbow-area isolation, which left Westbrook — one of the most explosive, athletic, exciting players in the league — to basically be a bystander on offense.

“You know, like last year I would say this: The thing I really appreciated and respected about him, you’re coming into these close games, through 82 games and playoffs games, coming down to the final minute or 10 seconds, never once did he say, ‘Hey, give me the ball, I want it.’ Never. He always does what’s best for the team,” Donovan said. “And I think he probably knows with the way our team is structured that this was going to be important. So I think he’s been preparing himself for this more than anything else, and it’s a real testament to him as it relates to his work ethic, his focus and wanting to win, and then doing whatever’s asked of him to help the team win. To me as coach, I really have great admiration for that.”

This season, the Thunder have become one of the league’s best teams in the critical waning moments of a game. Their offense ranks third in those situations, scoring 117.2 points per 100 possessions this season, compared to 107.6 last season. The Thunder had a minus-8.3 net rating in the clutch last season, 24th overall; this season, they’re a plus-30.4 and ranked first overall in the league. Westbrook alone in clutch situations: 56.4 points per 36 minutes, on 57 percent true shooting.

“I think he holds himself to such a high standard. Tonight, it’s three quarters where he did a lot of really good things, but he’d probably say his turnovers were too high and he made some poor choices. But he has an incredible ability, in my opinion, in terms of winning, to be able to flush what’s going on and really focus on what he needs to do,” Donovan said. “I think it’s a unique quality that he has. I think it’s a real telltale sign of how important winning is to him.”

Westbrook doesn’t have much more to say about it than, “The game will tell you what to do,” but it’s clear that it has benefited the Thunder to have an identity in the clutch. There’s no confusion or tension. And really, as predictable as it is that Westbrook will have the ball, there remains a spontaneity to the offense. Westbrook has proven to be a very willing passer in those situations (he leads the league in clutch-time assists). Whereas in past seasons, it was the Thunder trying to isolate Durant in his favorite spots and hoping one of the most unguardable players ever could make his shot. Now it is Westbrook on the assault, with four other players remaining weapons.

Obviously, the catch here is the Thunder aren’t actually a better team this season, and because of that, they’re finding themselves in a lot more close games. But what they are doing is finding their way as well as anyone. This season was always going to be about the best and worst of Westbrook, with the Thunder thriving or dying on his decisions in the clutch. The game tells him what to do, and apparently, he’s pretty good at listening to it.