By Jesse Blanchard
After producing the highest scoring triple-double in NBA playoff history with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, Russell Westbrook quickly threw his accomplishment out as an irrelevant footnote to a 111-115 loss to the Houston Rockets.
“I don’t give a f— about the line,” Westbrook said in the press conference, staring at the box score on the table. “We lost.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder star was asked to rate his line, which included those gaudy raw numbers, but on 17-for-43 shooting with a 4-for-18 fourth quarter. In the context of the interview, Westbrook is outright dismissing any accomplishments due to the final score, but here’s the thing—a loss doesn’t mean Westbrook’s line isn’t worth further evaluation.
Reducing basketball to wins and losses, especially in a playoff atmosphere, seems so refreshingly cut-and-dried in a world full of ambiguity. The scoreboard, which so clearly defines victory from defeat, is a welcome escape to simplicity. But such a mindset lacks curiosity, and without curiosity, there can be no growth.
Time and again, Westbrook has dismissed the notion he’s chasing stats. From what we know of the Thunder’s accomplishments and the respect his teammates appear to have for him, it would be unfair to argue with that premise.
It is reasonable to believe that Westbrook does everything he does because he believes it’s best for the team, just as it’s reasonable to debate whether or not it actually is. It’s hard to argue he and Thunder haven’t been successful, because they have been. It is fair to wonder if a different process might yield better results, even for this flawed team.
“He’s always going to get numbers because of the ability he has to put his fingerprints all over the game,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan said after the loss.
In that way, Westbrook is like a criminal in a CSI show, leaving evidence everywhere to implicate him in everything, whether it’s positive or negative.
Russell Westbrook is such a polarizing figure because his volume is great enough to suss out arguments for completely different opinions, while leaving just enough possessions for teammates’ to figuratively hang themselves in the public eye.
In the time Westbrook spent on the court, the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 points. When Donovan sat his star near the end of the third, the Rockets closed the quarter on a 12-3 run to cut the Oklahoma City lead to 89-86.
Doug McDermott, who finished the game 4-for-5 from the field, making three of his four three-point attempts, opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer. Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson were the only other non-Westbrook players to score in the final 12 minutes, with each getting one basket.
For the game, Oladipo was 4-for-14, including 1-for-7 from the three-point line. Kanter, their other option capable of creating shots, was 2-for-4 in less than 10 minutes; his time on the court restricted due to his inability to even slow any Rockets’ player.
Alex Abrines is too inexperienced to rely on, Kyle Singler too substandard and much of the rest of the roster has skill sets so narrowly defined as to be a negative in every area outside of each player’s specialty.
So much through the first two games of this series screams Westbrook’s supporting cast needs to step up, but it can be difficult when given such a narrow platform to stand on.
Much of the MVP talk between Westbrook and James Harden turned to evaluations of their supporting casts, and while Westbrook’s teammates empower him to do what he does, it’s hard to argue Harden’s don’t make it easier to ply his wares.
For that reason and more, what Westbrook has done this season is astonishing—MVP worthy, even. This is a roster designed around two superstars that lost one of them—and the more versatile one at that—without being afforded the time or resources to properly reconstruct itself yet. The Thunder are a team of ill-fitting parts.
This is not, however, a team devoid of talent.
There might not be a team in the NBA so lacking in talent as to justify a 4-for-18 shooting performance from one player in one quarter, let alone from a playoff team. Every player on the Oklahoma City roster must have had at least one or two attributes that earned them a look in the NBA.
And the problem with leaning on Westbrook like a crutch throughout the season is very little time is afforded for such players to figure out what their niche might be or expand it beyond what their current talents suggest they’re capable of.
It is rare to find a player who can come off the bench cold and drill a handful of three-pointers on 7-10 touches…not shot attempts, touches. That ability earned Steve Kerr a place in the NBA for a long time despite other limitations.
Most people who play basketball regularly, at any level, can appreciate the level of involvement needed to find a rhythm and be productive; and how difficult it can be to make a shot when several possessions have passed without receiving a single pass.
NBA players are better at dealing with this, but they’re not immune.
Oladipo is a skilled, talented player. But his game is not conducive to the volume of a fourth or fifth option, which, when Westbrook goes on these runs, is all that’s left for the rest of the players to divide among themselves.
Steven Adams combines physicality and smarts, which might make for some utility running some dribble handoffs near the elbows or a few more looks in the low post (to change the attack angle and kick out for better driving and passing lanes as much as to ask him to score). The San Antonio Spurs were able to get a lot more variance to their attack from a lesser player in Tiago Splitter, even when they played him alongside two other non-shooters in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.
Even without reducing his usage, the Thunder might be able to afford putting more spacing on the court if Westbrook would better execute defensive schemes, allowing less physically gifted teammates to find a role on defense that makes their presence palatable.
None of that matters right now, and none of this is meant to suggest the Thunder are broken. They’re very near what their overall talent level suggests relative to the Rockets. The regular season is when a team should figure this out, not the playoffs. For this series, letting Westbrook be Westbrook remains the best course of action.
The problem with this thought exercise is, even if Oklahoma City played differently, they still might not be better off. And even if they were, this is not a team that should beat any of the teams ahead of them in a playoff series.
We don’t know if any other way would work for the Thunder, but we do know there is a very limited way in which the current model does and little flexibility when that breaks down. The only problem with basing it on wins or losses is Westbrook is so damn good he’ll usually win enough to justify it all.
In game two, Russell Westbrook put together one of the most impressive box scores in NBA history and it didn’t matter. But five more points from the Thunder on one night shouldn’t render an entire stat sheet less or more relevant.