OKLAHOMA CITY — If a team is going to beat the San Antonio Spurs, it’s going to have to execute properly in the final minutes of games.
The problem for the Oklahoma City Thunder is that their point guard, Russell Westbrook, plays a style that relies on overwhelming opponents with his combination of incredible dynamism and reckless aggression.
That combination, while often producing spectacular successes for the Thunder, can also produce spectacular failures. For Westbrook and his team, Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinal Friday night was the latter.
Westbrook finished with a gaudy stat line – 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists – but missed 21 shots and committed five turnovers, including three in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder lost, 100-96, to the Spurs to fall behind two games to one in this best-of-seven series.
“It starts with me,” Westbrook said afterward. “I gotta do a better job of putting guys in position to score the basketball. Especially tonight … especially to beat this team. You need to find ways to move the ball around, and that starts with me.”
The problem for the Thunder, though, is that the Westbrook who struggled down the stretch in Game 3 is the one that has been such a part of the identity of this franchise. The Thunder have gotten this far by relying, in large part, on Westbrook’s incredible dynamism. There is no player more breathtaking with the ball in his hands in the open court, no one who is able to go faster from one end to the other with the ball in his hands.
But it’s those same qualities that can lead to Westbrook taking over games – for all the wrong reasons – as he did in the final minutes of Game 3.
Westbrook had two brutal live-ball turnovers down the stretch – one with 3 minutes 25 seconds and another with 1:55 remaining – that directly led to five points for the Spurs in a four-point win. That’s not to mention the fact he took 10 three-pointers – despite the fact that, among players who have taken at least 1,500 3-pointers in their career, Westbrook has the third worst three-point shooting percentage (30.2 percent) of all time.
Fittingly, Westbrook made three of them, falling right in line with his career percentages. But the fact he took so many three-pointers – and went 3-for-14 on shots outside of the paint – meant Westbrook had fallen into doing exactly what the Spurs had hoped he would.
While Kevin Durant finished with 26 points on 18 shots, Westbrook wasn’t in the mood to spread the ball around the court. Whenever Westbrook got the ball on the perimeter, whoever was guarding him would give him as much space as possible, daring him to shoot. And while Westbrook normally would shoot better than he did in the paint (7-for-17) Friday night, any time he pulls up for a jumper instead of exploding toward the rim is a win for the defense.
“Too many shots,” Westbrook said. “I think, honestly, I gotta do a better job, like I said before, of getting guys good shots. Steven [Adams] got one shot. I gotta get other guys involved to beat this team. Even though I had some shots I [normally] make, I gotta read [the defense] and find ways to get guys good shots.
“I’ll take the blame.”
Westbrook is more than used to getting blamed – that’s been the standard operating procedure for the way the Thunder has been viewed by most outside observers for years. But it’s hard to look at Friday’s game, and how it played out, and blame anyone else for the fact Oklahoma City came up short.
And it couldn’t have been a more costly time for Westbrook to have an out-of-control performance. After falling behind early in the first quarter Friday night, the Thunder spent the vast majority of the game clawing its way back into a position to take a lead.
When it finally did – ironically when Westbrook assisted Serge Ibaka on a three-pointer and then hit a pull-up three-pointer of his own on two straight possessions for an 81-77 lead with 7:12 remaining — it looked like the Thunder might be in position to take control of this series and maintain homecourt advantage.
Instead, the Thunder had yet another fourth-quarter meltdown – something that came to define this team this season – and ceded homecourt back to the Spurs after escaping from San Antonio with a one-point win in Game 2.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to understate the stakes of this series for the Thunder. With Durant set to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, there may not be a future for this core beyond the end of this season. While there are plenty of reasons to think Durant will remain in Oklahoma City – or, at least, will sign a one-year deal to play next season with Westbrook before both can be free agents in 2017 – with the salary cap spiking more than $20 million next season there will be a host of teams, including the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Spurs – who will be vying for his services this summer.
The impending Durant free agency sweepstakes have hung over this city, and this franchise, for a year. And with every loss, it grows closer. When Oklahoma City surged into the lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3, it looked like the Thunder had a chance to take control of this series, and to, at least for a minute, put the pressure on their rivals to respond Sunday in Game 4.
But then the bad version of Russell Westbrook re-emerged at the worst possible time. It could wind up costing the Thunder dearly.