Russell Westbrook, by any measure, has had a historic year. He became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season — a feat most felt would never be duplicated — and led the Thunder to the playoffs even after Kevin Durant left in free agency.
That individual brilliance has made Westbrook the favorite to be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, despite the Thunder falling short of the usual benchmarks that usually surround the award winner. It also has made Westbrook the window into how everyone thinks the sport should be played.
He’s become the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test.
Take Wednesday night’s game, for example. Westbrook finished with a staggering stat line: 51 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists — the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA playoff history — for the Thunder in Game 2 of their first round series against the Houston Rockets. But that wasn’t enough to lift the Thunder to victory, as the Rockets prevailed, 115-111, to take a two-games-to-none lead in their best-of-seven series, leading to this all-time quote from Westbrook when asked about the achievement after the game.
“I don’t give a f— about the line,” he said. “We lost.”
But herein lies the conundrum that comes with how one views Westbrook’s game. To achieve those numbers, Westbrook shot the ball a staggering 43 times — including 11 times from three-point range, along with 18 free throws — in 41 minutes. His usage rate (meaning the percentage of offensive possessions he was involved in) was a staggering 54.7 percent, and comes on the heels of averaging a record 41.7 percent during the regular season.
In other words: To put up the numbers he did Wednesday night, as well as this season, Westbrook turned the Thunder into the closest thing a basketball team can be to a one-man show. And, by extension, that means this: Either Westbrook is doing what he has to do to carry the sorry cast of characters that surrounds him, or he’s been far too controlling of the game and his team, unwilling to trust them to do what’s necessary to help him win games.
How one answers that question sums up how one feels about basketball.
Unlike Game 1, which the Rockets blew open in the second half, Wednesday night’s battle went down to the final moments. But even after the Rockets made a big run with Westbrook on the bench at the end of the third quarter, he still entered at the start of the fourth quarter with Oklahoma City clinging to a 89-86 lead, and in prime position to head back home for Game 3 with the series tied.
But then the final period began, and Westbrook began shooting. And shooting. And shooting.
By the time it was over, his fourth-quarter numbers were ugly: 4-for-18 overall, including 1-for-7 from three-point range, for 15 points, as the Thunder watched the Rockets zoom past and claim victory, and likely the series.
What happened in the fourth quarter essentially boils down to the usual Westbrook argument: Did he have to take every shot, because his hapless teammates couldn’t have done any better? Or because he shot 17 for 43 (39.5 percent), while his teammates shot 23 for 54 (42.6), with a similar difference in three-point shooting, should he have tried to build up the confidence of those around him instead of having the Thunder revolve around him at every moment?
The problem with this argument is that it’s a circular one. Those who believe Westbrook has no help can point to his supporting cast, one that features several players, such as Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines, Enes Kanter and Jerami Grant, who are either strong offensive or defensive players but do virtually nothing at the other end.
On the other hand, those who believe Westbrook doesn’t allow anyone to help him can point to the fact that players such as Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams, both talented young players, only saw slight increases in their usage rates despite the dearth of possible offensive talent around them besides Westbrook, as well as the Thunder’s inability to draw significant improvement out of the players around him all season long.
“They brought three people,” Westbrook told reporters when asked about Houston’s fourth quarter defense. “They was bringing three people, trapping, different things of that nature. I thought I was able to get to the basket. Some tough calls that we didn’t get down the stretch.
“I knocked down some shots, but me, I gotta do a better job of finding my guys, trusting them, especially late in the game when things are not going all the way. I’ll look at film and find ways to do that.”
With Westbrook, the truth lies in how one perceives him. It has made his season endlessly fascinating, and it is why the debate over this year’s MVP award — which largely was a referendum on whether one would or wouldn’t vote for Westbrook and his overpowering statistical prowess — engendered so much passion and attention.
Westbrook was the dominant figure of this NBA season, and he showed why on Wednesday night. It’s why he’s the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test, and the most compelling — and divisive — player in the sport.
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