OKLAHOMA CITY — The story from Wednesday night will surround Russell Westbrook.
There’s good reason for that. The reigning MVP played his best game of the season during the 108-91 win over the Golden State Warriors, dropping 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists all while weighed down by Kevin Durant’s forehead sweat. He composed himself enough to run an offense that performed exactly how many thought it could coming into this year as he simultaneously pumped veins so intensely that anyone with a spare oxygen tank had to stand by just in case he needed revival.
It was the most hyped form of Westbrook. It was the best form of Westbrook — on both sides of the floor.
Yet, the greatest of Westbrook doesn’t necessarily mean the Oklahoma City Thunder are automatically at their most coherent. They need the others. And amidst it all, Paul George was just as important.
“He really plays both ends,” coach Billy Donovan said. "I think he’ll tell you he’s probably a guy that’s more engaged defensively for himself. The offense, he’ll find ways to make shots. But he really takes a lot of pride defensively.”
George turned in his usual line: 20 points and 11 rebounds. But his impact came on more than just the transition 3s or the possession-saving plays. It came in starting many of those sequences.
The three-time All-Defensive Team member is in the midst of a magnificent defensive season. And Wednesday’s showing, which came against an offense that preys on defenders from elite to insignificant, may have been his most impressive while wearing a Thunder jersey.
The Thunder had to manage a balancing act against Golden State. They did whatever they could to get into passing lanes, but they also schemed to cut out 3-pointers.
Westbrook closed out hard enough on Stephen Curry to risk the two-time MVP driving by him. The Thunder prepared to help in those situations. But that was the plan: take away 3s as aggressively as possible and worry about the rest later. It meant flocking to passes would be counterintuitive. Make a mistake, and Curry or Durant or fellow sharpshooter Klay Thompson ends up with an open look.
Yet, George, who had four steals and a whopping 10 deflections, got into passing lanes on his own, starting breaks and sometimes even finishing them.
“I thought I did a great job of being aggressive in those situations without gambling,” he said. “I thought I was solid in most of those scenarios. Just try to be in the right spot and allow my length to get a hold of some of those passes.”
The Warriors made only 41 percent of their shots and 32 percent of their 3s Wednesday, though their shot distribution was not much different than during their usual games.
Still, amidst 22 turnovers, the Thunder made them more uncomfortable than they’ll look when they’re going well. Some of the credit goes to Carmelo Anthony, who annoyed Warriors initiator Draymond Green for 48 minutes. Some goes to defensive anchor Steven Adams, who was all over the middle. Some to Andre Roberson, who defended Thompson and Durant as well as anyone could ask.
But then there was George, who somehow manages to be around the ball without sending his teammates scrambling to recover for him.
“He going to foul until he gets the steal. That’s what he do,” Anthony said. “Some way, somehow, he always gets the his hands on the basketball. That’s why he’s leading the league in steals right now.”
George is more than just leading the NBA in takeaways, though. He’s also leading in deflections per game. And to put in perspective exactly how many 10 in a single game is, his league-leading average is just 5.1.
“Most players, I would rather them not because it’s a gamble,” Adams said. “But he has a really good feel of when to do it and when not to. Incredible. Just a talented dude.”
It’s rare. It’s what’s helped the Thunder maintain as one of the league’s stingiest defenses so far this year, even amidst their early-season struggles. It helped them rock the Warriors in a game that seemed unrockable coming into the evening.
The Thunder showed a model Wednesday for how they might look on nights when everything clicks. Westbrook dominated. Anthony hit his shots. Adams did those little things which aren’t actually little.
And then there was George.
This team peaking involves him dominating on both sides of the ball. He, too, showed exactly what that looks like.