When Letting Westbrook Be Westbrook Goes Wrong
We all saw it, and we knew what it was when it happened. With a little over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 2 of the first round playoff series between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two plays in succession told us everything we needed to know. A team expected to, at the very least, physically challenge the Golden State Warriors has once again fallen flat in the playoffs, its back prone against the 3-1 deficit it faces, neither of its stars producing at the levels we’ve come to expect.
Down three, Russell Westbrook shoves his way into what he believes with all of his heart, an organ I have come to believe is ablaze within his chest at all times, is a foul against Damian Lillard. Dame waves off the non-foul and subsequent possession – in which Westbrook drops himself out before bricking a three-pointer – in order to literally hype himself up before, you guessed it, knocking down a three-pointer in a seemingly-disinterested Westbrook’s face from just in front of the gigantic Blazers logo at center court. At that point, you knew what was coming, against the dying of the light.
For basically as long as the team in its current iteration outside of Seattle has existed, the Thunder have relied upon two major players to provide offense, with everyone else filling in the gaps. The 2011-’12 team was the most successful iteration, featuring three future MVPs in prominent roles that simply could not extend its expiration date. The Thunder now possess too many qualities of the teams that followed James Harden’s departure, and it figures, yet again, to be their undoing.
Russell Westbrook – the deepest sigh, staring directly into the sun, head shaking in shame – is thoroughly outmatched against Damian Lillard, but that isn’t even the half of it. Paul George’s shoulder seems to have taken him from the MVP-level play he exhibited down the stretch in the regular season to something along the lines of “Andre Roberson, but having once conceived of his own jump shot, or at least of the jump shot as a concept,” which would be perfectly fine if Andre Roberson himself had been available at any time in these playoffs.
Too often, Westbrook’s hangry approach to shooting from the shoulders and, especially right after Lillard has done something to show him up, has been predictably ineffective. Following the worst shooting season he has experienced since at least 2010 – and one of the worst high-volume shooting seasons in league history – it is less than ideal when Westbrook pulls up after staring Lillard, or whomever (either way, his defender is at least 7-10 feet from him the majority of the time), down for fifteen seconds in the shot clock before clinking one off the front iron.
To his credit, Paul George has figured out ways to be exceptional in these playoffs, primarily by getting to the rim when his jumper isn’t holding or maintaining his stoutness on the other end. He is a smart and amenable player, and though Playoff P may not technically exist within the bounds of his Thunder tenure, he has made himself abundantly useful, all while fulfilling the entirety of the KT Tape Q2 budget.
The Thunder looked to be at their best this season when Westbrook, an historically high-usage player, deferred to George. When that hasn’t been possible, as in this Blazers series, Westbrook maximizes himself far beyond the high-energy steamrolling he served up in his 2016-’17 MVP campaign.
It isn’t necessarily fair to characterize a player so driven by perceived resentment as Westbrook is as “reckless,” especially when that has always been some part of the ride going back to when he was mean-mugging his way to the Final Four next to a thicc Kevin Love at UCLA. As a point guard, though, he lives and dies by his decision-making either way, and a decade after pundits wondered whether he was truly a point guard as opposed to some hybrid, it becomes a matter beyond rhetoric what function he ought to be serving against any given set of teammates.
Then again – outside of an uncommonly incendiary Game 3, the Thunder have been positively abysmal on offense across the board. Terrance Ferguson and Markieff Morris have disappeared. Jerami Grant went 3-for his first-15 from the field against the likes of, among others, Meyers Leonard and Enes Kanter. Dennis Schroder ought to be on the side of a milk carton.
As aggravating as it is to witness Westbrook’s lack of adjustment for a third consecutive playoffs post-Kevin Durant, it is worth asking: what else is he supposed to do? His teammates have gone iceberg at the worst possible time. OKC under Sam Presti has long staked its claim as being a long, switchable team on defense that figures it out, more or less, on the offensive end. When one doesn’t pay the bills, the other comes knocking.
Westbrook won an MVP playing in the most balls-out, hardcore individualist-as-utilitarian fashion since Allen Iverson, and, perhaps in light of his experience toward the end in Oklahoma City with Durant, he remade himself to accommodate Paul George, a more complete player. Even at his absolute worst, Westbrook made himself useful because he knew his shoulders weren’t solely responsible.
In last year’s playoff loss to the Utah Jazz, a healthy George was worthy of culpability. “Playoff P” became a Playoff Punchline. And yet, he re-signed to stay in Oklahoma City, expecting, well, something beyond fishing and escaping the spotlight for long stretches of a long regular season.
As it stands, Russell Westbrook offers a unique combination of energy, skill and wherewithal to make himself an All-NBA candidate in 2019, at age 30, despite his utter lack of a jump shot. As he ages into his 30s, his obscene athleticism will gradually abandon him, however slowly. Yelling at a rival without playing actual defense on him gets tiresome for everybody involved, absent of the expected results that make long series worth watching.
Whether Westbrook can continue to be one of the league’s most exciting players remains to be seen. This version of the Thunder, all length and no spacing, may not be the vessel, but Westbrook must face uncomfortable truths either way. At some point, the stone might turn itself over, tired of the noise.
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 And, if we’re being honest, before that, but having Durant as an outlet certainly enabled Westbrook in ways that perhaps no other young player in NBA history prior to that, save both Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had at his disposal