OKLAHOMA CITY -- In so many ways, this has been a season of new things and adjustments for Russell Westbrook. But one of the simplest, seemingly inconsequential things has been the postgame playoff podium.
Standard operating procedure in the past was Westbrook and Kevin Durant at the podium together, regardless of outcome or career nights for any other teammate. When Reggie Jackson saved the Oklahoma City Thunder's season in Game 4 in Memphis in 2014? It was Durant and Westbrook.
But with Durant gone, Westbrook handled the first two podium appearances by himself -- losses in Games 1 and 2 -- and then was joined by Taj Gibson after a win in Game 3. After Game 4's deflating 113-109 loss to the Rockets to put OKC in a 3-1 hole, next to Westbrook on stage was Steven Adams, the owner of a new playoff career high with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
The first question was for Adams, something on the Thunder's clear, and potentially series-defining, issue of struggling with Westbrook on the bench. In Game 4, for example, Westbrook sat two four-minute stretches. The Thunder were outscored a combined 18 points in those eight minutes, and were 14 points better than the Rockets the other 40 he played. For the series, the Thunder are plus-3 with Westbrook, and minus-40 without him.
"Hold on Steven," Westbrook said, putting his left hand out in a "stop-short" motion to cut off Adams. He cleared his throat and leaned in close to the microphone.
"I don't want nobody to try and split us up," Westbrook said, eyes darting around the room. "We all one team. Regardless if I go to the bench, or Steven's on the floor, or if I'm off the floor, we in this together. Don't split us up. Don't try to make us go against each other, try to make it Russell and the rest of the guys, or Russell against Houston. I don't want to hear that. We're in this together, we play as a team and that's all that matters and that's it."
At attempt at a follow-up was waved off, literally, as Westbrook flapped his hands dismissively.
"That's fine," he said. "Then say, 'Russell, you ain't played well at all,' or say, 'Russell, the team hasn't played well.' Don't say when Russell goes out the team doesn't play well. It don't matter. We're in this together."
Another follow-up was pushed away with multiple "next questions" by Westbrook. Adams was directly asked for his thoughts, and he just shrugged. Westbrook's point was clear, and it was as much a message for his teammates as it was taking exception to a question.
His surrounding cast has been a target for criticism all season, as the issue of the Thunder's play with Westbrook sitting has popped up throughout. It's a large part of what his MVP candidacy was built on, and the narrative played out almost to perfection in Game 4.
While Westbrook posted a third straight triple-double in the series, this one coming in the first half (he ended with 35-14-14 in all), the Rockets were able to win despite James Harden struggling (16 points on 5-of-16 shooting, 7 turnovers), largely due to 28 from Nene Hilario on 12-of-12 shooting, and 18 apiece from Lou Williams and Eric Gordon.
Westbrook's interjection harked back to another interruption at the podium last postseason, when Durant gestured in the same way Westbrook did to answer a question directed at his teammate. It was Durant calling Mark Cuban an "idiot" for claiming before Game 2 that Westbrook wasn't a superstar. After Game 4 on Sunday, Westbrook's interruption painted a starkly contrasting picture.
In some ways, Westbrook's intrusion could serve as an appropriate metaphor. There was Adams, a "core member" as the front office has deemed him, perfectly capable of answering the question. But Westbrook burst through like the Kool-Aid man, grabbing the mic and the moment away.
Take the final two minutes, for example, as Westbrook tried to engineer offense for the stymied Thunder. On consecutive trips, he heaved awkward, wild 3-pointers, possibly in an attempt to draw a foul, instead of running offense. Early in the fourth, he posted up Patrick Beverley on multiple trips, and the Thunder lost rhythm. Westbrook finished 10-of-28 shooting (35.7 percent), with his teammates 32-of-57 (56.1 percent).
But then again, that also speaks to a situation that has played out around Westbrook all season. His teammates were 32-of-57 largely because he was so dynamic in setting them up. Like Jerami Grant, who went 5-of-5 with five dunks, or Adams, who finished at the rim off pick-and-roll looks from Westbrook.
The narrative of "help" around Westbrook has been that he doesn't have enough, and while the Thunder are clearly less potent without Durant, Westbrook's influence on the game is so extreme that he almost singularly determines how much help he gets. His teammates are at his mercy when he's on the floor, when they get the ball and where, but he becomes a helpless bystander when he sits. And as he watches leads slip as he tries to catch his breath, it can sometimes influence his approach when he comes back in.
It has always been a challenge for Westbrook to cede trust in crucial moments, though he mostly played the part alongside Durant. This season, Westbrook has been a crunch-time magician, with a highlight reel to prove it of daggers and game-winners. But as he watched Andre Roberson clank 2-of-8 from the line in a stretch where the Rockets intentionally fouled him, and his bench blow a lead, Westbrook took the challenge himself and assumed the responsibility. That's one of his absolute best qualities. It's also one of his worst.
The Thunder are on the brink now, and Westbrook will almost assuredly shoulder as much responsibility as he ever has in a must-win Game 5 in Houston on Tuesday. But he can't beat the balanced Rockets on his own. Which is why he wasn't so much answering a question after Game 4 as he was trying to send a message. The podium was his vehicle to speak up for his battered teammates, and tell them he has their backs. Unless they have his, though, the Thunder's season won't last last much longer.