Russell Westbrook dunks his Thunder one step closer to a playoff duel with the Lakers (Video)

Entering Tuesday night, it was completely feasible that even an enthused and executing Oklahoma City Thunder team could lose to the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are rather beastly at home — 29-10 entering Tuesday — and Tyrone Corbin’s team is locked in a desperate battle with the Los Angeles Lakers (who were given the luxury of taking on the lowly New Orleans Hornets at home on Tuesday) for the final playoff spot in the West.

After nearly a quarter’s worth of ugly, low-scoring basketball, Russell Westbrook decided to send a message. It looked a lot like this:

Russell kept trying to send message after message to the Jazz in the three-plus quarters following, and that’s why he ended up launching 21 shots on his way to 25 points, finishing with just two assists and often passing on the easy make for the tougher chuck. Still, with their dog in full teeth-baring mode, the rest of the Thunder could work the offense and take advantage of what usually turns out to be an alternately over-aggressive and step-slow Jazz defense. OKC hung on for the win, 90-80.

Whether you think he’s just looking out for his own star or not is up to you, but Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks echoed my thoughts following the game. From Lynn DeBruin at the Associated Press:

"[Westbrook] doesn't get enough credit for his aggressive play," Brooks said. "He helps us win games, a lot of games and the way he plays, he attacks, he puts so much pressure on the defense, he opens up shots for Thabo (Sefolosha), opens up shots for Serge (Ibaka), and KD did a great job of spreading out his game tonight. He could have easily taken more shots tonight if he wanted to, but he was making the right plays."

The “KD” in question, as has been the case since 2007, is Kevin Durant. The MVP candidate nearly had a triple-double (several teammates missed makeable shots off of his passes in the fourth quarter, and frankly it was obvious that Kevin was shooting for the trip-dub, something we have no problem with), finishing with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists. He only needed 10 shots to get those 21 points, as well, as the Thunder kept Utah at arm’s length all evening in what could have been a first-round playoff preview.

That’s if the Jazz make the playoffs, though, and only if the Thunder continue their run toward the West’s top seed, currently held by the San Antonio Spurs.

With San Antonio hurting (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Boris Diaw will all be out on Wednesday as the Spurs visit the nasty confines of Denver) and working through a rougher schedule to finish the season than Oklahoma City has planned, it’s looking more and more likely the Thunder will overcome that half-game difference in the standings and grab the top seed before the season ends a week from Wednesday.

And because the Lakers downed New Orleans behind Kobe Bryant’s fantastic fourth quarter on Tuesday, the Lakers are now a half-game up on Utah for that eighth seed. Good thing, because the Jazz own the tiebreaker should the teams tie for the last spot.

If Los Angeles does top Utah, it would lead up to a first-round pairing between the Lakers and Thunder, a rematch from last spring’s second round that OKC finished with a 4-1 series win that was much closer than the “4-1” would indicate.

Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears, for one, is looking forward to such a rematch. Watch his take:

I agree with Marc that it should be a great series, and that the Lakers shouldn’t be your typical first-round fodder. Since the spring of 2011, though, the Lakers have been getting by on reputation, and we’ve been hyping them up endlessly on paper, with little on-court results. They may sneak in the postseason’s backdoor this year, and with that lineup and those collective brains, they should be able to give Oklahoma City a series for the ages … but these are the Lakers.

In years past, “these are the Lakers” meant something positive. It meant, “never count these bad dudes out.” For the last two years, though, it’s just meant disappointment as we watch what should be great teams on paper fail themselves on the court. And that’s without even getting into the 9-3 record Oklahoma City owns over Los Angeles dating back to last year’s regular season.

We’ve got a week to go before we get there, though. A week to worry if Russell Westbrook is shooting too damn much, and a week to wonder if the Lakers could actually start to play to their potential in the 2012-13 regular season, much less the postseason. Whatever the outcome, the bookends race in the Western bracket has been must-watch TV.

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