When I woke up this morning after barely three hours of sleep, I had a message from my little brother: “Russ has got to learn how to shoot, man.”
Damian Lillard’s deep three to clinch the series against the Thunder was amazing, and so expected in the midst of the game he was having. Lillard was on a mission throughout the night, and it seemed regardless of how well the Thunder were playing collectively — better than they had played in their other three losses, at least — he was going to eliminate them. The entire game was Dame Time. Paul George tried his best, but he was fated to be made an example.
I was already resigned about Russell Westbrook by the time I fell asleep, which is how I have felt for every game except Game 3. He started the game well, spending most of the first and second quarter allowing his teammates to get going offensively, letting George stay hot, and taking good shots at the rim himself when he could.
But as Lillard continued to make every increasingly difficult shot that he took, and as the Blazers refused to be beaten, Westbrook fell into his worst habits again.
Westbrook has been complimented this season for changing when many thought he couldn’t, for taking a step back to allow George to flourish, and for being better at controlling his intense drive to win the game on his own.
That drive can lead to heroic moments, but many times leads to him playing on his own as the game slips away from his team. His evolution was evident during the regular season, but the true test was always going to be the playoffs. He had to prove he could remain calm and clear-minded in the tensest situations.
When things got bad against the Blazers, Westbrook couldn’t contain himself. He started taking three pointers he can’t make, and jumpers the defense goaded him into. This season was the worst shooting season of his career, and as great as Lillard and the Blazers were, so much of this series was lost because the Thunder’s most visible star couldn’t stop himself from taking those bad shots.
Westbrook’s numbers in the series were awful. Out of five games, one outing was excellent, when he willed the Thunder to a victory in Game 3, and one was excusable, when he recorded a 24-point triple-double in Game 1. The others: a field goal percentage of 25 percent in Game 2, 23.8 percent in Game 4, and 35.5 percent in Game 5. His three-point percentage was even uglier, and yet he took more threes as the games went on. More than anything, this series put his glaring weaknesses in full view.
It’s tough for any team to be a true playoffs contender with a point guard who can’t really shoot, and it’s almost impossible with a point guard who can’t shoot and refuses to stop. In Game 4 he took 20 shots, and just three of them came in the paint, the area where he’s most effective. In Game 5, he took 11 more shots than George, including three more three-pointers, and was unsurprisingly the least efficient among all of the Thunder’s starters.
This last game illustrated the essential frustration with Westbrook, a frustration that has existed throughout his time as a superstar in the league: As great as he is, he can’t stay in the top tier of elite players in the league, and the inability to do so is as much a matter of his attitude as his shooting.
Westbrook plays with an intensity which can only be described as Westbrookian. It’s what makes him an exciting and special player, but it’s also the root of all his failures. While his intensity can lead him to obliterating opponents, it can also lead him to terrible decisions, and to throwing away games as he tries to prove himself, or take on the burden of winning all alone.
Westbrook’s best game came when he had an opponent to fight against. A game within the game. In Game 3, he taunted Lillard and Lillard taunted him back. They went at each other, and he was driven to prove that Lillard couldn’t stop him, and became unstoppable as a result. The fight between the two pushed Westbrook to another level where everything came easy for him.
The next game, he tried to start the fight again with Lillard, but Lillard made a point to ignore Westbrook. Lillard struggled to begin that Game 4, but focused on getting his teammates involved and leaning on their abilities while he found his own rhythm. While Westbrook was playing against him, Lillard was playing to win, and Lillard’s plan succeeded. Westbrook seemed disengaged and out of sync while the Blazers went on to win. After the game, Lillard explained his mental approach:
“We didn’t really engage in it because our focus was our team. Like I told you guys, we’re not going go out here and go crazy on the refs. We’re not going go out here and get in shouting matches and all that stuff. We’re going go out here and do whatever gives us a chance to win games. And I was proud how our team stuck to that.”
In Game 5, Lillard was again focused on more important things, and playing with a controlled fire that Westbrook has trouble maintaining. He waited until after the game and series was won to wave goodbye to the Thunder, chiding his opponents for focusing more on antics and personal betters rather than the main goal ...
... and calling out Westbrook specifically:
"Said he's been busting my ass for years. That wasn't true, for one, and this was the moment of truth. This was the perfect platform and opportunity for him to prove it and you see what happened." -- @Dame_Lillard— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) April 24, 2019
With no one to fight during the game, and his team facing elimination, Westbrook’s shooting returned to the norm. Yet he continued shooting as if he was going to eventually will the basketball to go in — shots he hadn’t made all season and all series, shots he couldn’t turn down because he appeared to want to prove he could make them. He shot 31 times, most of them jumpers and threes, and at the end he had more shots than points.
With less than two minutes left, he also committed two fouls in a 30-second span. One of those fouls led to free throws that brought the Blazers to within two points. Then, with the game tied and a chance to win it, Westbrook finally tried a layup, which he missed.
The loss wasn’t entirely Westbrook’s fault. The Thunder’s reserves players hardly played well, and George was accountable for several mishaps towards the end of the game — two critical missed free throws with a little more than two minutes left, for example. George’s shoulder injury also had a big influence on how the first few games of the series played out.
Yet this series’ biggest takeaway is that, at the age of 30, three years after Kevin Durant’s departure, and following a third straight first-round exit, Westbrook remains the same. He is a phenomenal player who is still susceptible to his worst impulses. He may forever vacillate between unstoppable and easily stopped because the drive that propels him also drags him back.
As great as his opponents have been, the frustration with Westbrook is that no one is better at stopping him than himself.