Russell Westbrook’s historic season is over, but how should it be quantified and remembered?
By: Bogart Lipe
The Thunder were not the Rockets’ equal. OKC lost in 5, just as was anticipated. The only reasonable argument that was conjured up to pay attention to this series was to witness the two MVP candidates in James Harden and Westbrook go up against each other’s teams. What we thought we knew from the regular season was corroborated. Harden is on the better team, the better system that is perfectly fit for a player of Harden’s otherworldly abilities. Russ was the focal point of the Thunder, as he has been all year. His team has leaned on him as a crutch for the entirety of the season, which can be explained in a number of ways. Is it possible that Westbrook’s tyrannizing of the basketball stunted the growth of his teammates? Sure. This is even likely with a player like Victor Oladipo. Andre Roberson shot 3-21 from the free throw line for the series. That’s 14.3%. Russ passing the ball to Andre Roberson would not turn him into a serviceable offensive player. Steven Adams regressed since last year, when he benefited from the presence of two superstars surrounding him, and Jerian Grant is still incredibly raw offensively. Enes Kanter is so abhorrent at defense that Billy Donovan refused to play him against the Rockets. And without Russ on the floor, the Thunder were constantly outclassed in salient moments. In games 3 through 5, the Thunder were outscored by double digits during Westbrook’s short stretch of rest at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter. Just in game 5, Russ sat for only six minutes, and the Rockets outscored the Thunder 27-9 in that amount of time. In all likelihood the other players were not empowered throughout the previous 82 games before the playoffs to develop confidence in their own abilities, but there is no question that the Thunder cannot sustain any success with the current roster. When the NBA is shifting towards 4 or 5 shooters on the floor at all times, the Thunder are stuck with the same blueprint they’ve had for years, specializing role players surrounding stars. But they have managed to go from three stars now down to one, and it is time for the GM Sam Presti to respond.
Russell Westbrook is unlike anything we have ever seen. He is a larger, faster, and angrier Allen Iverson. The same criticism that has been heaped on Russ was placed on A.I. Both are Hall of Famers, but both rubbed some fans the wrong way. Both suffered with subpar contemporaries in their own locker room, and frequently dominated the ball and offense. Both were flashy on and off the court, especially with their unique-to-the-NBA fashion. Both created fan bases that developed like cults. To criticize Russ is to criticize his fans and their livelihood. Where it is freeing and beautiful to watch and enjoy the success of players like LeBron and Steph, it is empowering and vindicating for fans of Russ when he dominates and soul-crushing and paralyzing when he fails. The Houston series was the ultimate representation of the roller coaster he provides. He became human and shrunk at inopportune times, playing terribly in the 4th quarter in a number of games. He played fabulously through 3 quarters, driving and finishing or dishing for teammates’ layups. But frequently it appeared he became exhausted, settling for jumpers and coming up short on many shots. He also appeared to be fatigued mentally and frustrated when he realized he could not beat the Rockets on his own. This is clearly no excuse, particularly for an MVP candidate in the postseason. However, we knew he was outmatched. The Rockets were the better team all along. But, like Chris Broussard of Fox Sports 1 likened it to, if you are a boxer that is outmatched on all fronts by another boxer, you have two choices: recede into a shell and try to survive the fight, or you start throwing haymakers. Russ threw haymakers in the 4th, frequently whiffed, and lost. In a season of exhilarating moments and knockout punches by Westbrook, his fists became heavy, but he still went down swinging. Isn’t that all we could ask for as a closing act of a spectacular 6 month long performance from an intrepid, heart-snatching, if myopic, player like Westbrook?