The Oklahoma City Thunder trust Russell Westbrook. For much of this season, it has worked out in their favor. The triple-doubles typically resulted in more wins than the non-triple-double games. Westbrook exerting more energy than possible and exhausting all avenues in which to lead a team of defensive-minded talent may have earned him the MVP trophy. A historic season was both expected and delivered in one of the most unique and polarizing manners possible.
The trust doesn’t always deliver the right decisions, though. In the movie Tin Cup, Kevin Costner plays Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy — one of the most natural and talented golfers who also can’t get out of his own way. There are two scenes in the movie that completely embody his stubbornness. In trying to qualify for the U.S. Open, an argument over stubbornness with his caddie leads to him breaking every single club in his bag other than the 7-iron. He uses the 7-iron the rest of the course to prove his natural ability.
The other scene is the dramatic and climactic fall of his chance to win the U.S. Open because he can’t control his pathos. Trying to clear a water hazard on the 18th hole, Tin Cup keeps trying to drive the ball over the water, instead of laying up and playing it safe. He continues to drop the ball from the same vast distance to the hole and keeps knocking it into the water.
It becomes a battle with his own ego as the tournament falls back on the priority list. The stubbornness can’t be contained, and he ends up trying to prove that neither can he. He barely finishes the tournament, giving everybody the greatest and most entertaining collapse possible. Wednesday night, that was Russell Westbrook’s game. 51-point triple-double. Unnerving relentlessness. Unrivaled stubbornness. A 115-111 loss to the Houston Rockets when they had a chance to win the game.
Game 2 was the full Russell Westbrook experience. Everything the people who champion his game love. Everything his detractors love to vilify. None of it is his fault or choice. Everything is his fault and choice.
To be completely fair, Westbrook was alone on an island through the first three quarters of that game. He had 36 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds in the first three quarters. He was 13-of-25 from the field. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 18 points in the 29:22 he was on the floor prior to the fourth quarter. In the 6:38 he sat on the bench, the Thunder got demolished by 15 points. That kind of burden and reliability should be overwhelming.
And maybe it was. The fourth quarter was a disaster. As James Harden, Patrick Beverley, and Eric Gordon carried the Rockets offensively in the fourth, they watched Russ implode. Clint Capela protected the paint. The Thunder couldn’t protect their lead. Westbrook’s fourth quarter was a stubborn abomination. He scored 15 points but needed 4-of-18 shooting in the quarter to tally that total. He played every minute and down the stretch seemed to take every shot.
All season long, Westbrook seemed to do the impossible when games got down to crunch time. The clutch measurement of the game being within five points with five minutes or less left in the fourth quarter or overtime was his sanctuary. He dominated the clutch moments, part of the reason so many voters felt he was the choice for MVP. Well, that and those triple-doubles he racked up. In the final five minutes of Game 2, regression to the mean slapped the Thunder right in the mouth.
The final five minutes saw Westbrook shoot 10 of his team’s 14 shots. He made two of them. It wasn’t just that he shot nearly every attempt; it’s that he seemed to have tunnel vision with the game on the line. Granted, going through those first three quarters in which he had to execute so well to give the Thunder a +18 probably makes you feel the game can only go one way. Perhaps that makes you believe the only path to a victory in Houston Wednesday night gets traversed with the team on your back. Once the Rockets realized Westbrook wasn’t going to pass the ball to open teammates, they were able to settle in defensively in those clutch situations.
The first three quarters saw the Thunder need everything from Westbrook. And he truly did seem like a one-man wrecking crew. The final 12 minutes saw Westbrook as a one-man wrecking crew, but he was demolishing the wrong house. You can correctly say Westbrook had no choice, no help, and no other options in the first 36 minutes. But his approach for attacking in the final 12 minutes didn’t pass the advanced metrics, the eye test, or a hope for a different result.
Harden, on the other hand, was running the antithesis of Russ’ plan. Harden was surgical in the way he attacked. He went from knocking down big shots with Andre Roberson right in his face to blitzing the Thunder defense with downhill steamrolling. Harden lived at the free throw line (18-of-20), he sought out to destroy Kyle Singler and Enes Kanter in switches, and he allowed the teammates around him to eat. Harden finished with 35 points (on 7-of-17 shooting) and eight assists.
Patrick Beverley was the 6-foot-1 thorn in the Thunder’s side once again. He knocked down big shots and lived in the paint with floaters over outstretched defenders all night. Lou Williams and Eric Gordon combined for 43 points off the bench as Ryan Anderson couldn’t make an open three-pointer (0-of-7) no matter how in rhythm the attempt was. Capela protected the rim about as well as you could expect him to, which is a relatively high bar already.
Some will say the final 12 minutes of this game prove why Westbrook shouldn’t be the MVP. Some will say the first 36 minutes showed why he is. The concept of value changes with every MVP race, as we try to cut through the targeted ambiguity of the language of the award to figure out what it means that particular season. But none of that race actually matters anymore. Semantics, analytics, and arguments for who the most valuable player is no longer matter. The votes have been cast and the winner has been decided.
What matters is winning playoff games. A 51-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound triple-double is absurd and historic. But it also didn’t result in a victory, which is all that matters in the postseason. Whether it was his teammates’ fault in the first three quarters or his fault in the final quarter, the Thunder walk away from Houston with an 0-2 deficit and a missed opportunity at stealing a road game.
The Thunder trust Westbrook. They let Westbrook be Westbrook. And they should. However, that doesn’t always lead to the intended results, good or bad. Fair or not fair. Win or loss. You can’t win a playoff game taking a dropped ball from the same distance to prove you can make the shot. You can’t win a playoff game with just a 7-iron. That stubbornness captures us in a movie about an individual sport. Westbrook needed more of a team game — whether that’s on him, his teammates, or both.