Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder played one of the great NBA Finals games in recent memory on Tuesday. However, because his team lost to the Miami Heat to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, and because Westbrook's own mistake in the final seconds squandered his team's last chance to win, Westbrook's amazing performance will no doubt be overshadowed by other factors.
Which is a shame, because it was a truly spectacular night for Westbrook.
Consider this: since 1985, only three players have scored more points in an NBA Finals game than Westbrook's 43 in Game 4. Those three players are Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal, which is some pretty elite company.
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Westbrook managed the feat without making a single three-pointer, and with only three trips to the free throw line -- 40 of his 43 points came on two-point field goals. Only two players have made more field goals in a Finals game since '85, with Jordan going 21-37 in Game 4 against Phoenix in 1993, and Shaq 21-31 in Game 1 against Indiana in 2000.
Never a particularly efficient scorer, Westbrook shot a stellar 20-32 Tuesday night, a shooting percentage of .625. Among the 40-point Finals performances in the past 28 years, 19 of them in all, only Shaq's dominant performance against the Pacers, and a 17-26 night for James Worthy in Game 4 against the Pistons in 1989 featured better shooting percentages.
Breaking down Game 4.
Bear in mind also that Westbrook is a point guard, making his 20-32 shooting that much more impressive. It's one thing for Shaq or Worthy to hit sixty-some percent of their dunks and fastbreak lay-ups respectively, but Westbrook mixed in 8-11 shooting on jump shots from 16 to 23 feet.
Of course, what sets Westbrook apart is his ability to get to the rim seemingly at will. Explosive doesn't really do justice to the guy's level of athleticism -- there isn't another player in the NBA who exploits an opening in the defense more quickly. When he gets near the rim he has an uncanny ability to elevate in almost any circumstance -- off two feet, off one foot, off the wrong foot, it doesn't seem to matter to him -- and he has the body control to give every shot a chance. Nine drives out of 10, you'd swear he was completely out of control and had no chance to gather and get a shot to the rim, yet he invariably manages to do so.
While Westbrook was terrific the entire game, he was at his best in the fourth quarter. Just when Miami seemed poised to take control of the game, going up by seven on a Dwyane Wade three with 7:35 remaining, Westbrook scored the next seven all by himself to knot the game at 90. He scored 17 of the Thunder's 23 points in the quarter, including 13 in a row at one point, making 7-9 from the field and all three of his free throws.
Yet despite all of his superlative play, it was a terrible lapse in judgment in the final seconds that will likely be the indelible impression of Westbrook from Game 4. With the Thunder down three and 17 seconds left in the game, Udonis Haslem was facing James Harden in a jump ball on the Heat's end of the court. If the Heat retained possession of the ball, they would have only five seconds on the shot clock -- so the Thunder only had to play defense for a few more seconds before getting one last chance to tie the game, even if Haslem won the jump as expected. Harden almost stole the tip, but the ball wound up in Mario Chalmers' hands with just a few seconds on the shot clock -- at which point Westbrook fouled him intentionally, as if he believed he had no choice but to stop the clock and send Chalmers to the line.
There's some question as to whether Thunder coach Scott Brooks did enough to explain the situation to his team, but let's be clear -- Russell Westbrook is an NBA basketball player, and he should have known the situation all on his own. Game clock 17, shot clock 5 -- don't foul. This is not a difficult concept, and all of the information was available to him. The play cost his team a chance to tie the game, as Chalmers made the free throws to stretch the lead to five and the Thunder were never again as close as three.
It's a shame that Westbrook's Game 4 will probably be remembered for one bonehead play in the final seconds more than his 43-point outburst. Yes, the play helped Miami seal the victory, but the Thunder never would have been within one possession in the first place had it not been for Westbrook's heroics throughout the game and especially in the fourth quarter.