You know who doesn't live by the rules?
This guy can come out of nowhere sometimes. I mean, following this guy's career is like experiencing the height of drama. I mean, after the first half, Russ' game was nothing special. He was decent from the field while other players struggled, but he did commit a few defensive errors. But he slowly gained momentum in the third, finally creating some momentum for Oklahoma City's stagnant offense on his talent alone.
Still, I'm not here to talk about his third quarter run. I'm here to talk about what happened in crunch time. Because what Russell Westbrook accomplished there was just....surreal. I literally could not believe what I witnessed, and it devastates me to no end that this game couldn't end in victory.
So, we're down 5 with about a minute left to go, and the Grizzlies have the ball. At this point, the Thunder have made a great go of grinding their way back into the game with some key defensive stops and inside buckets. Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, hasn't been great. He was apparently injured at some point during the third, and had to get his knee looked at on the sideline. Russ sat with pads on his knees for a great while, before he finally came back into the game without a word from the coaching staff.
From the point Westbrook came in (with about 7 minutes to go) until the point Westbrook went bananas (with about 1 minute to go), there wasn't much to speak of. He missed a few key shots, including a point blank fingerroll and a free throw. Moreover, he pulled up for a bad three and turned the ball over twice. Westbrook hadn't given anything up defensively, but it wasn't clear if anyone was ready to step up and be the man in the final minutes.
Out of nowhere comes Russell Westbrook. My words can't do the next sequence justice, so let's just be thankful that it's on YouTube:
(The sequence I'm referring to starts at the 1:57 mark.)
That's right. At 1:08, Westbrook steals the ball from Udrih, and then immediately runs to the corner and nails a three. Deficit down to two. Then, right after bobbling a pass to Durant, Westbrook committed a four point play. I couldn't believe my eyes. Right after the pass was stolen, I knew that a shot from Westbrook was about to come. I mean, if you're down by more than one possession with just under 30 seconds to go, you want to score as quickly as possible. Westbrook is typically our primary option in those situations, but he usually telegraphs his intentions, running swiftly down the court.
On this occasion, Westbrook was a picture of total calm. He slowly waltzed up the floor, receiving the ball near half-court at a slow jog. He seamlessly sped up as he approached the three point line, taking a somewhat-illegal Perk screen. At this point, you're expecting one of two things to happen. One possibility is that he runs to the rim. But Gasol was rather well-placed under the basket, as he had no fear of Perk going out and taking a jumper. The other option, a pull-up three, was much more likely.
Thus, Westbrook's brilliance doesn't lie in the shot he took, but how he took it. I mean, did anyone expect him to spot up from so far behind the three point line, when he had so much space? So early, with Tony Allen breathing down his back? Moreover, did anyone expect him to make that shot? His shoulders were square and he was in rhythm, but I've seen him brick tons of similar attempts in the past. Finally, how did he contort his shooting form in just the right manner? How in the heck did he sprawl out so far, brushing Tony Allen just enough to draw the whistle? I'm still in awe.
Of course, Westbrook's magic doesn't last. Sometimes, it's short and sweet. During this overtime, Westbrook had all of the heart, hustle, and hardwood that he needed. Sadly, the finesse just wasn't there. Sure, the two threes he took in overtime were a bit excessive. But that still doesn't excuse his blown tip-in, or the two missed open jumpers that could have saved this game.
Did I mention that this was a roller coaster yet? Because there's more to this saga. Yes, the author of this game decided to write some unbelievable final chapter about Westbrook, which was almost as terrible as the final chapter of Harry Potter 7. I'm no literature expert, but all I remember is this silly scene where all the characters get together for no reason and name their kids after dead characters. It didn't reveal anything about the characters' lives, felt awkward, and satisfied no one.
I've said nothing about basketball, but I feel like I've accurately depicted the final seconds of this basketball game. With 1.7 seconds to go, there was really nothing to play for. Westbrook had missed a game-saving three, and the Thunder had only stayed in it based on a miracle Thabo jumper and a missed Courtney Lee free throw. They were behind by four points, and no Grizzly was about to commit a foul. As far as everyone was concerned, you might as well pack up and go home.
But, like Monty Python's Black Knight, Russell Westbrook refused to give up. While touching the ball for only 0.8 seconds at THREE QUARTERS COURT, he drew a three-shot foul. Cruelly, this gave the Thunder a semi-realistic chance of winning the game. Westbrook had to nail two free throws, which isn't that hard to do. Once that was accomplished, all you'd have to do is put in your best rebounders and hope that one of them can tip the ball in.
Of course, this fantasy was short lived. During Westbrook's second free throw, the ball unceremoniously slipped out of his hand, and the free throw fell short. What could have been the greatest win ever was cut short by a simple free throw, forever symbolizing Westbrook's struggle between a human body and an inhuman mind.
Let's get away from the dramatic wordplay for a while, though. Russell Westbrook's feat was legendary, and it's certainly not hard to see him as this game's hero if he had a better shooting night. But some have criticized Westbrook's decision-making as well. Specifically, in the most recent edition of his Nuggets, Darnell Mayberry had this to say....
"Don’t let the "we missed shots" argument fool you. Durant and Westbrook missed shots. Seventeen apiece. Those two were 19-for-53 from the field, or 35.8 percent. Everyone else on the Thunder roster combined to made 15 of 34 shots, or 44.1 percent. And remember, that includes Jackson and Butler’s joint 2-for-14 clip. So that indicates that the role players were ready. They just didn’t get enough chances.
Keep in mind, too, that Jackson is mostly creating his own shots. His misses aren’t like, say, Thabo’s misses on any given night. So Jackson’s nine misses tonight shouldn’t have discouraged Durant and Westbrook. That leaves Butler with a bad shooting night. Everybody else was on point and just never got the chance to prove it."
Mayberry does have a good point here. While I wouldn't chalk up Westbrook's failures to a lack of maturity, I would chalk it up to a lack of perspective and focus. Towards the end of games, I feel like he's spending way too much time swinging for the fences. I admire his tenacity and his presence of mind, but I feel like his failures are way too outlandish or predictable. I mean, generally, Westbrook's spending his time either trying to do a super-human play towards the rim or stopping and popping in the mid-range. It's effective most of the time, but if the other team knows it's coming (and can switch Tony Allen onto you during a critical possession), it's going to be really tough for you to get shots.
Mayberry does a good job of listing egregious mistakes that Durant and Westbrook made in his article, and when you re-watch the final minutes of this game it's pretty clear that the Thunder could have stood to benefit more ball movement. But even then, OKC's starting lineup is just too silly to be playoff ready most of the time. I mean, this is the same lineup that really struggled against Dallas in 2011, and they're facing the exact same problems. Perkins is an offensive black hole, Ibaka struggles to put the ball on the floor (though he was really impressive tonight), and Sefolosha will brick too many open shots. That just leaves Durant and Westbrook, who are prone to bad decision making when they're not scoring with ease.
But here's the huge kicker. This loss might not even have been Westbrook's fault. Brooks played Durant for the entire second half, only sitting him out for about half of the second quarter. KD didn't have a great game to begin with, but he was really struggling with basic maneuvers by the time overtime rolled around. I thought Brooks had learned this lesson long ago, but apparently he's keen to run KD into the ground for the moment.
Brooks' failures don't stop there. His lineup management has been absurd in Games 2 and 3. After he spent the entirety of Game 1 going big and giving minutes to Adams and Thabeet, he decided to cut both players off from the remaining games almost entirely. The result has been more minutes for Thabo and Perk, and more minutes for smaller lineups. The smaller lineups have had either no effect on the score or a negative effect on the score in all of their time in Games 2 and 3, so I really don't understand what Brooks is trying to prove.
Moreover, when the Thunder have a small lineup in, Brooks does an atrocious job of getting his players to exploit mismatches. Heck, even when both team's starters are in and Mike Conley is guarding Thabo Sefolosha, Brooks does little to punish the Grizz. He just lets things unfold. It can lead to miracles, like Westbrook's feats (described above) and Perk's defensive stops, but it also leads to some stretches of really bad basketball.
Moving beyond the coach, there's a little bit more blame to go around. Caron Butler does very little for offensive ball movement, and is a disaster almost every time he puts the ball on the floor. So if he's not shooting it and making it, he's of very little use. He's not exactly the Derek Fisher of our team, so I still don't know what he's doing over a legitimate shot creator like Jeremy Lamb.
Lamb might not be worth it, though. If he's playing as bad as Reggie Jackson is, anyway. Speaking of RJ, he's obviously had no Raisin Bran Crunch over the past few days. His long-range shots have been ridiculously off, his defense has been ridiculously passive, and he can't get to the rim. He's not really doing much of anything positive, but I don't know what he should be doing differently. Unless he hasn't had his cereal. Darn you, Memphis hotels!
It's completely absurd that I've gotten this far into the recap without talking about KD, but here we sit. Durant had an off-night, and there's no doubt about it. But, even on a Durant off-night, he always has his length, he always has his ability to get it inside, and he always has his court vision. What might have been a totally terrible night earlier in his career was actually somewhat redeemable.
His end-of-game guile was pretty nice, too. Once it became apparent that Westbrook had lost his mojo, KD stepped right in and led the team right back into contention. A few nice plays in the post and a mean floater brought the team within a possession in the final minute of OT, but it just wasn't KD's day. He missed a standstill three that could have tied the game right after Westbrook did exactly the same thing, and his heroism just wasn't enough. Some say he should have gotten more of an opportunity, but I'd argue that he got enough burn taking 27 shots and playing 49 minutes.
- In the post-game interviews, KD pretty much owned up to the fact that they need to do a better job of getting everybody involved. Westbrook seemed to pin the blame moreso on missed shots, claiming that the team needs to do a better job of getting to their spots.
- According to Darnell Mayberry, Raynard Westbrook (the younger brother of Russ) made a tweet with some negative statements about Coach Brooks. Make of that what you will.
"It's actual wood, man." -- Mike Conley on his hat pic.twitter.com/NylsDI18az— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 25, 2014
- That's one heck of an outfit, Russ. It'd probably be pretty cool to have in a tropical environment.
- The Grizzlies are pretty good at taking advantage of our commitment to protecting the rim. Once we send one guy to block the shot, they've always got some second guy (usually Tony Allen) to collect the offensive rebound and put the ball right in.
- Man, I'm sick of Beno Udrih and his ridiculously efficient shooting nights. Kinda makes you wish the Thunder had just one player with significant speed specifically for these situations, rather than getting long-armed players only.
- If Tony Allen could make a jumper, the Thunder's ship would have sunk much sooner. Good thing no other teams has ZBo and Gasol.
- You've gotta give tons of credit to Perk for the way he played tonight. Tons of key defensive stops, 3-3 from the floor, and avoided getting fouled out in 34 minutes of play. He also set some key screens, including the one that slid Tony Allen into Westbrook for the four-point play.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, for performing miracles
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, for always finding a way to salvage his legacy from the worst of wrecks
Thunder Blunder: Caron Butler, meh
Thunder Plunderer: Marc Gasol, for that clutch OT shot
Next Game: At the Memphis Grizzlies, Saturday, April 26th, 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time.