We love Russell Westbrook. If we could be one NBA player, it’d be the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard. He doesn’t give a single [expletive] about anything. All he wants to do is destroy people on the basketball court, wear outfits no one else could pull off, help out in the community, and dance with Cameron Payne. That sounds amazing. Sign us up.
When Westbrook goes off, there’s nothing like it. He’s a chainsaw strapped to a wolverine wielding a flamethrower while piloting a nuclear warhead into the sun and flipping the bird as it rides away from the ensuing explosion. And that probably doesn’t do him justice.
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But when he is off, things can get ugly. Like … well, like that chainsaw-wielding wolverine, really.
A quick glance at the box score from Game 5 would tell you that Westbrook had a pretty solid game. Thirty-one points, eight assists, seven rebounds, five steals — in a win, that’s the kind of line that earns you a trip to the podium to talk all about your escapades.
Looks can be deceiving, though. And if the Thunder are questioning why they were unable to slam the door on the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook will be the first person to raise his hand.
He started the game 1-for-8, helping to put the Thunder in a nine-point hole after that seventh miss — the same margin by which Oklahoma City lost. The Thunder kept trying to come back in this game with an incredible show of resiliency. They were just never able to overcome that early deficit.
It was more than just the cold shooting from Westbrook, however; his decision-making was sloppier than the wet spot on the court that constantly tripped Kevin Durant during the first half. (Seriously, was there not a ball-young-person in attendance to mop up the sweat? That’s taking home-court advantage a little far.) He gambled for steals. He got caught with his head down in the middle of double-teams. He forced passes to guys who were covered and looked off the open man more than once.
Even his good plays left you wondering if there was more on the table:
That’s a very nice crossover. The jumper’s wet. But a long two? Not the greatest shot.
Things didn’t get any better in the second half, at least not until it was too late. In one particularly egregious stretch, he lost Stephen Curry in the corner for a wide-open 3-pointer, missed Andre Roberson screaming for the ball under the rim without a defender within five feet, bricked the holy spirit out of an ungodly pull-up 3, and committed a turnover on a pass that seemed destined for someone in the fifth row.
One moment above all others crystallizes how this game played out. Draymond Green, who rediscovered his all-around game on Thursday and played like an All-NBA force, met Westbrook at the rim and turned him away:
So what should Westbrook do differently in Game 6? To be honest, not much. This is who he is, for better and for worse. These games are going to happen. You live with them.
The Thunder absolutely need Westbrook, regardless of his occasional hair-raising play. With their starting point guard on the bench to start the fourth, Oklahoma City gave up a quick 8-0 run. Westbrook immediately checked back in, but the damage was done. Golden State’s lead failed to dip below five the rest of the way.
The number we didn’t mention earlier from Westbrook’s box score was the most egregious: seven turnovers. These weren’t the kind of medium-risk/high-reward turnovers you can live with, either. They were poor plays after Westbrook got stuck in between equally bad options.
Conventional wisdom would tell you that he needs to slow down. That’s insane. Russell Westbrook doesn’t have a "slow down" gear. What he does have is a very particular set of skills that he can focus in any direction he wants. In Game 5, it felt like he was focused on sending his team to the NBA Finals by himself — which doesn’t make any sense, because he has Kevin Durant on his side. The two of them working together are unstoppable; less so when they take turns trying to break an opponent.
So on Saturday, all Westbrook needs to do is channel this same fury into his own team rather than the obliteration of his opponent. This isn’t some backhanded call for Westbrook to pass the ball more or be a true point guard or any of that nonsense, though. Durant’s going to get his; he doesn’t need Westbrook to set the plate for him. What he and the rest of Westbrook’s teammates do need is that palpable arrogance Westbrook imparts on everyone when he’s at his best. The Thunder have already shown how ridiculous they are on defense. If they can bring that same determined intensity and execution to the offensive end, they should be on their way to the NBA Finals.
Whether they can reach the next level starts with Westbrook. It always does.