OKLAHOMA CITY -- Down four in the final 15 seconds, Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker drove toward the rim, trying to cut the Oklahoma City Thunder's lead in half and extend the game another possession. Russell Westbrook bounced off the floor, blocking Booker's shot to seal the Thunder's 110-106 win. Westbrook grabbed the ball, and flashed Serge Ibaka's new Mutombo-esque thumbs-down gesture.
That's when the talking started. Or continued, really.
Westbrook, who is never one to shy away from competition or confrontation, engaged with the always chatty P.J. Tucker, who was walking toward half court to make sure OKC's point guard heard him. Fellow former Longhorn Kevin Durant stepped in, and after a minute or so of hearty conversation, both teams headed off to their respective locker rooms.
The Suns and Thunder have an interesting history, mostly just in that the players like to talk lots of trash to one another. One year ago to the day, on New Year's Eve in Oklahoma City against the Suns, Westbrook was ejected for only the second time in his career. That night, Durant took over with 44 points in a 137-134 overtime win. This time, Westbrook was in it to the final whistle and was virtually unstoppable the entire way with 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting, plus 12 assists and five steals. And one block.
It's not that Westbrook was supercharged emotionally for this game, in particular, because he's perpetually fired up. But he seemed to be a bit more demonstrative than usual. Was there something more in this one?
"Why would I have an edge?" he said. "It ain't like they won the championship or something. I have an edge every night, man. Go out and compete regardless of who it is."
Westbrook was asked about his exchange with Tucker, and before he could answer, Durant, who was standing a few feet away, said, "Man, don't feed into that, man. Don't start." Westbrook shook his head. "I don't know, man," he said.
"I don't know if he was more keyed up in this game or not," coach Billy Donovan said. "To me, he's always like that."
He is, indeed. That's part of the Westbrook identity, to treat a December game the same as one in May or June. He's a persistent freight train of intensity, unapologetic and relentless.
But beyond the snarling, Westbrook has matured into maybe the most elastic, dynamic guard in the game, with his ability to drop 36 on 19 shots while simultaneously dishing out 12 assists. Westbrook has five games with at least 30 points and 10 assists this season. No other player has more than two.
"He was efficient," Durant said. "He controlled the game and he made shots. That's what he does. He's a scorer. He's a guy that sets everybody up, sets the table for us. He was big tonight. Nobody on their team can guard him."
That's part of the Thunder's master plan, having not one, but two players on the roster that most teams in the league can't adequately guard. Durant didn't have a particularly good shooting night, at least by his absurd standards, hitting 9-of-21 overall and 2-of-8 from 3 for 23 points. So down the stretch of a close game, it was Westbrook who knocked in a go-ahead jumper with 1:57 left, and sealed things with four free throws in the final 18 seconds.
But, as he tends to do, despite the "off" night, Durant still couldn't help himself, hitting his own go-ahead jumper with 1:16 left and throwing down a dagger dunk with 31 seconds left. That kind of melodic crunch-time give-and-take between the two stars is something that has improved dramatically over the last few seasons, but it's still not necessarily the intended design.
Because while Westbrook and Durant were steadfastly good, they also were the only two players in double-figure scoring for the Thunder. On the surface, that's the top-heavy trend the Thunder are trying to break away from, but there still was a strange balance. They had 29 team assists, with 10 players recording at least one. They had 10 players score, all with at least five points. There's an offbeat symmetry in that.
Postgame, there naturally was less interest in that sort of thing and more in what appeared to be a heated game, but neither Westbrook nor Durant was amused. They had done their talking -- plenty of it -- already.