Russell Westbrook presents quite the conundrum.
If Westbrook plays with such a monopolistic style that he takes 43 of the Thunder’s 97 shots in a game, and 22 of the Thunder’s 34 shooting possessions in the fourth quarter, this Oklahoma City team cannot win — not with Westbrook forcing attempts against good help and straight-up defense.
If Westbrook doesn’t play like that, if he passes more and relies on his teammates to take the bulk of shots, this Oklahoma City team cannot win.
The Thunder are doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t.
Westbrook shot 4-18 in the fourth quarter, including 1-7 from three. That fact is going to get loads of attention as the world processes Westbrook’s monster box score (51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) in the face of a loss. This was the highest scoring triple-double in NBA playoff history. But it looked like Westbrook was shooting the Thunder out of the game late as so few shots went down.
A number that will likely get less attention is -15. That was Oklahoma City’s scoring margin in the six minutes and 38 seconds that Westbrook sat on the bench. In the 41 minutes and 22 seconds Westbrook played, the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 points.
Being outscored by 15 points in less than seven minutes is some kind of feat. But that’s how light on offensive options the Thunder are without Westbrook running the team. Westbrook is the offense, for better or worse. When he’s off the court, the Thunder can’t put points on the board. When he’s on the court but ice cold, the Thunder can’t put points on the board. That’s just the basic nature of this team.
In years past, if Westbrook couldn’t find clean looks late in a game, he could let Kevin Durant take a few stabs at it. It worked famously well for the duo (though crunch time possessions always ended up a bit predictable). That’s a luxury Oklahoma City no longer has.
Victor Oladipo is deferential, perhaps to a fault. He passed up decent looks to get Westbrook the ball. Perhaps that is an order from the bench. Perhaps it is a demand, spoken or not, from Westbrook. But it is what is. Westbrook is a scorer. The Thunder needed points, and no one else was volunteering to get them. What else was Westbrook supposed to do?
There is an argument that Westbrook’s very style has stunted his teammates’ development this year, that Westbrook’s enormous appetite for shots, control, and everything on offense is the reason Oladipo, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter aren’t contributing more. It’s true that Adams and Kanter have regressed. But how much of that is due to Westbrook trying to maintain his workload while filling a Durant-sized void, and how much is simply due to the Durant-sized void?
Prior to Durant’s departure, Westbrook was ball-dominant and shot-heavy. But he and Durant attracted so much defensive attention that finding space on the pick-and-roll, off the ball or on dives was much more simple. Cutting that dynamic duo in half seriously reduced the number of problems opposing defenses have to deal with. When Westbrook has the ball, there’s no longer an MVP candidate to stay at home on. There is Andre Roberson. There is Victor Oladipo. There is Doug McDermott. Help on Westbrook or on the rolling big man, or stay at home against shooters who can’t hurt you too bad? It’s an easy choice. It makes the Thunder easier to defend than when Durant floated around, something dead simple to understand.
As evidenced in the closing minutes of Game 2, as the Rockets surged back to win, there are few easy halfcourt possessions for the Thunder against good competition. Westbrook looked tired, and while the Rockets aren’t great defensively Houston has some good defenders. There are certainly individual Westbrook shots — several of them, maybe more — we could point out as objectively bad. Most of them had Westbrook groping for foul calls, either on the perimeter or at the rim. The officials let most of those attempts slide by without a whistle. (They also let a blatant over-and-back that led to Westbrook’s only three of the fourth slide by. Things even out.)
The NBA has largely advanced past hero ball, led by the analytic revolution and LeBron James, a G.O.A.T. candidate who actually likes to pass in the biggest moments of basketball. This season saw a reversion to hero ball in some ways, though with a twist. Harden led the league in assists but also scored almost 30 per game. Westbrook averaged a triple-double but was also the scoring champion.
Fittingly, those two players consider themselves of the Kobe Bryant lineage. Kobe retired a year ago but his legacy will live on until the LeBron lineage comes of age. The Kobe tree claims Harden and Westbrook plus Paul George (who asserted he needs to get the biggest shots for the Pacers last weekend), Isaiah Thomas (a point guard who averaged 29 points per game this season), Durant (a four-time scoring champ whose relationship with co-stars is complicated), and a few others.
These players, Westbrook especially, came of age studying Kobe. They watched him have extraordinary and extraordinarily bold playoff games. It rubbed off. That’s why we see Westbrook shooting 18 shots in a quarter when he’s ice cold. That, and the fact that we see his team fare so poorly when he’s not dominating everything. Kobe in the post-Shaq and pre-Pau days would absolutely have done what Westbrook did on Wednesday. And the Lakers would have lost, too. Did anyone demand that Smush Parker or Devean George get some of those looks?
There’s just no other way for this to go for the Thunder. They are going to lose because they are not as good as the best teams in the Western Conference. It happens. Blessed are the more talented. Oklahoma City can lose with Westbrook missing a bunch of shots, or Oklahoma City can lose with the other Thunder players missing a bunch of shots. There really aren’t any other options against good competition.
Fault Westbrook if you must. Blame fate or Sam Presti if you can’t stand to besmirch Russ. Neither resolution improves the Thunder’s reality. This is who they are.