Russell Westbrook may ultimately be flawed as an NBA superstar, but damn if he isn’t one of the most exciting players the league has ever seen. He led the Thunder to a jaw-dropping, blood-curdling comeback from 25 points down in an elimination game on Wednesday, finishing with 45 points as Oklahoma City survived.
This is the stuff legends are built upon. From the 8:21 mark in the third quarter, when the Jazz lead hit its zenith, Westbrook played every second and hit 12-of-20 shots. He’d shot just 5-of-19 to that point, but (obviously) he didn’t begin deferring to others. He kept firing away.
This is who Westbrook has always been. He will keep on attacking and shooting, no matter what. He will never change his game. That sometimes hurts the Thunder. That may have been why Kevin Durant eventually fled Oklahoma City.
But it’s also the reason the Thunder are never really dead until they are dead. It’s the reason OKC came back on Wednesday. It’s why the Jazz are going to be nervous at least a couple more days.
Because while Westbrook’s famed, unquenchable aggression can doom the Thunder, it can also make them a terrifying foe.
This game was the perfect example of the Westbrook duality.
In his first 21 minutes of play, Westbrook scored 12 points on 19 shots with three assists and four turnovers. He was ice cold, which is to say he had not cracked Utah’s excellent defense, a unit that has flummoxed Westbrook and other Thunder scorers all series long. Despite finding no good shots on the floor — or at least not any shots he could actually hit reliably — he just ... kept shooting. He didn’t stop, even though little was working. The Thunder fell behind by 25, and was a minus-23 in those first 21 minutes Westbrook played.
In the last 21 minutes of play, Westbrook scored 33 on 12-of-20 shooting with four assists and one turnover. OKC was a plus-33 in those 21 minutes.
Westbrook’s shooting frequency didn’t change at all! When he was cold, he shot about once per minute. When he was hot, he shot about once per minute. The symmetry is impressive. Westbrook does what he does regardless of the result.
One could say that he trusts the process. The Thunder have typically won more than they’ve lost when Westbrook is out there being Westbrook, which he always is. So damn the discrete results. Damn the interim outcomes. Trust the process that got you here.
Westbrook is hardly an analytic darling, but the theoretical basis of Westbrook’s attitude and his refusal to adjust to common conceptions of hot hands, cold hands, and that bugaboo momentum lines up perfectly which what the metric crowd supports. Dataheads would prefer Westbrook take fewer contested, pull-up jumpers — especially those reviled long twos — but compromise is in order. Westbrook doesn’t change, no matter what’s happening on the court. He is not subdued by misses, he does not swell after makes. Plenty of good NBA players could learn from that.
That is both the narrow and wide reality of Westbrook: he will never change.
The Thunder are in a ship of Westbrook’s captaincy, a decision they made by locking him up to a long max contract last summer. Oklahoma City signed up for this, and celebrated the occasion. The Thunder signed up for the 5-for-19 stretches to get the 12-of-20 runs. The Thunder signed up for the maddening Game 4 losses to get the magical Game 5 wins. The Thunder signed up for ever-louder debates about the doom Westbrook guarantees his team to get the screams of joy when he brings doom upon an opponent.
With Westbrook you get both sides, guaranteed, every night, forever.
The path forward for Oklahoma City, then, is to determine how best to leverage Westbrook’s awesome power while deflecting the internal damage his style can dole.
Ideally, Paul George sticks around. Whether that happens is an open question. George wasn’t as prolific, efficient, or face-melting as Westbrook during the comeback, but he was pretty special in his own right. A top deputy who can create from himself, shoot well, and defend multiple positions is a perfect prototype of what a Westbrook team needs.
Steven Adams is pretty close to an ideal Westbrook center. (Two more inches of height would make him perfect to open up the lob game a tiny bit more.)
Beyond that: defense and threes, defense and threes, defense and threes. A Westbrook team hardly needs more than one additional creator in the starting five. What’s the point? Most of the time he’s going to shoot or drive anyway. Everyone else (except the one other Durant/George creator, and often even them) needs to be ready to catch and finish or catch and shoot.
This is, in a way, how the Second Kobe Dynasty worked out with the Lakers. Pau Gasol was the secondary creator in the main starting and finishing unit. Andrew Bynum was a powerful inside presence. The bench was solid. Kobe Bryant otherwise ran the show despite middling efficiency. The Lakers got by with defense, with inside power through Gasol and Bynum, and by capitalizing on Bryant’s good nights.
Those 2008-10 Lakers that won two titles in three trips to the NBA Finals also benefited from timing: that was a relatively weak competitive era for the NBA. LeBron James’ Cavaliers supporting cast was at its nadir. The Celtics suffered crucial injuries after the 2008 title run. The Thunder weren’t yet ready. The Spurs were in an odd inter-era flux. The Magic weren’t quite good enough. The Blazers and Rockets suffered untimely injuries.
The Thunder do not have that benefit. This is a strong competitive era for the NBA. OKC no longer has the resources to acquire top-end talent, and if the Thunder lose George this summer, the sledding will get awful rough.
But that’s a concern for another day. The Thunder survived for another night because Westbrook, as always, was Westbrook. What happens in Game 6 and beyond is anyone’s guess.
But we know one thing for sure: we know exactly how Westbrook will play. That never changes.