Company Man

OKC Thunder star Russell Westbrook

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook is not going to save us. He can barely save himself, and he had to turn out an all-time playoff performance down 3-1 on Wednesday night to do so. The man who captivated us for all of last season, his stat-stuffing bonanzas bordering on joyous incontinence, who posted a triple-double average again, proving that context actually does play into the MVP award, finally combined with Paul George (and without Carmelo Anthony) to sail past the Utah Jazz in one of the most remarkable second halves the playoffs have ever seen. Still, he faces imminent danger.

A year after capturing the basketball zeitgeist, examining it closely and then firing it directly into the sun, Westbrook has led a re-tooled, if not altogether “better,” Oklahoma City Thunder team back to the playoffs. For most teams, this is, at worst, a modest success, something upon which to build no matter the outcome. For a Thunder team that did exactly this a year ago and then went out and got Paul George and the Tupperware container inside which the rotten remains of Carmelo Anthony live in the back of the refrigerator, however, a second consecutive first round exit would be nothing short of disastrous.

Russell Westbrook hasn’t changed. That is a truth oozing with polarizing firepower, the kind which has inundated social media over the past few years and which has inspired all-caps takedowns and defenses of him for his entire career. He was the same player in 2009, albeit slightly less refined, as he was in 2015, when Kevin Durant went down with a long-term injury, allowing us to see what he could do as a one-man tour de force.

He was that same player for the duration of his jaw-dropping, maximized MVP campaign, and he was that same player on Wednesday as he put up 45 points on 17-39 shooting and co-anchoring, along with George, the Thunder’s comeback from a 25-point third quarter deficit[1].  The flow of the game showcased the best and worst of Oklahoma City and, by extension, the best and worst of Russell Westbrook. There was plenty of fodder for people on both sides of the Brodie Wall.

To plenty of people, Russell Westbrook’s prevailing quality is his singular, ineffable Russell Westbrook-ness. It has inspired and thrilled as often as it has frustrated and maddened. Because he can’t reliably shoot threes, he uses his otherworldly athleticism as his primary means of gaining an advantage over a defender. It wears him out, which can compromise his defense. These are the things we know.

We also know that Westbrook is, err, rather inflexible in his playing style, to put it charitably. With Durant before, and George now, he is content to take turns orchestrating an offensive attack. At times, he can be caught with his hands on his knees if he is not directly involved in a play. He tries to shoot his way out of a slump if he’s having an off night, which is not an especially good way of fostering team success.

The same things that make Russell Westbrook such an awe-inspiring, breathtaking basketball player can too often lead to his undoing. Paul George is going to be a free agent this summer. Carmelo Anthony is likely to pick up his massive player option because Carmelo Anthony is not kidding himself about what he would be worth on the open market at age 33. Steven Adams continues to develop into a top-flight center and workhorse teammate, and a few others – Terrence Ferguson and Alex Abrines among them – have shown flashes of what they may become.

But the time is now, and they’re all aware of it. Westbrook is going to be 30 in November. This is his peak, and after having signed the largest contract in NBA history last year, he figures to stick around Oklahoma City for a while. This is the Thunder’s best, and perhaps only, chance at being competitive with this iteration of the squad. The season-long experiment which began with Conference Finals aspirations may very well end tonight, or it may not. It starts, and ends, with Russell Westbrook.

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[1] Fueled in no small part by the foul trouble into which Jazz center Rudy Gobert played himself; Gobert’s rim protection and overall defensive excellence is one of the biggest reasons Utah has the lead in this series that it does, and his presence has staved off the typical Westbrook tactic of firing into seventh gear and launching himself at the rim from pretty much anywhere inside the three-point arc.

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