I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to swear off basketball forever after watching the fourth quarter of Game 5 between the Rockets and Thunder, which was defined by ill-advised foul calls and ill-advised shots, most of them coming from the Thunder’s star player, Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook went 2-of-11 from the field and 0-of-5 from three-point range in the fourth, seemingly doing everything in his power to hasten his team’s exit from the playoffs. That was pretty much the story of the series, which the Rockets won rather easily and in which Westbrook shot a combined 14-of-49 in the fourth quarter.
It would be a total misread, though, to see Westbrook’s fourth-quarter bricklaying as the result of some egotistical spasming. Westbrook was only doing what he’d been doing all throughout the regular season, in which he became the best clutch player in the league and singlehandedly won almost too many games to count. Sponging up as many fourth-quarter possessions as possible is precisely how Westbrook got his team 47 wins and a sixth seed.
Maybe that record doesn’t impress you, and maybe you think the Thunder could have actually won more games and been more prepared to meet the Rockets in the playoffs if Westbrook had spent less time gathering triple-doubles and more time enabling Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter. Maybe you should think a little harder about that.
The reason Westbrook’s formula worked in the regular season but yielded failure in the postseason isn’t all that hard to explain. The energy required to stay within striking distance of a locked-in Rockets team through three quarters of a playoff game is exponentially greater than the energy required to do the same against the Phoenix Suns in January. Westbrook was still able to provide those heroic bursts throughout the series—his 20-point third quarter from last night was some of the most marvelous basketball I’ve seen all year—but they had to come earlier than usual in order to keep the game close, and Westbrook simply had nothing left to give by the time the fourth quarter started. You could see it in each of those doomed threes he launched last night; he just didn’t have his legs.
I’ve grown somewhat tired of the ways in which people choose to describe Westbrook, reaching into a bag of clumsy metaphors in an effort to get across a simple idea: This guy is out of control. It’s a way of disguising a curmudgeon’s complaint in a literary voice, and the complaint isn’t even correct. It’s far too reductive to see Westbrook’s season as the result of his basketball id being set loose on the court every night, and it ignores just how much control it takes to play like he does.
How many players do you think could carry a 41.7-percent usage rate through an entire season without completely embarrassing themselves on a nightly basis, let alone leading their team to 47 wins in the Western Conference? How many players do you think can average 10 assists per game with teammates who can’t shoot? When Westbrook out-jumps a seven-footer to grab a rebound, goes rim-to-rim before you’ve even finished gasping at how high he jumped, and then makes the split-second decision to lay the ball in or whip it to an open teammate, is that not genius at work? Yes, think of the hubris necessary finish a season with a usage rate of 62.4 percent in clutch situations—but also consider the circumstances that have to obtain for a coach to allow it to happen, and the skill and mental fortitude necessary for the plan to actually work.
Westbrook essentially spent an entire season showing us what LeBron James proved to be true in the first two games of the 2015 Finals—that an astronomical usage rate does not necessarily correlate with bad, inefficient basketball, and that there is inherent value in a true NBA workhorse who can create and make shots at a rate that turns hogging the ball into a virtue. In its way it’s as revolutionary as what Steph Curry and the Warriors have done over the last few years. Westbrook and the Thunder have gone beyond the known bounds of how much you can focus your offense on your best player, and discovered something new about how basketball works. You’d have to be pretty incurious about just what else we don’t know about the game, or pretty incapable of appreciating strange and interesting things, to reduce that to a simple demonstration of selfishness.
Obviously, what Westbrook and the Thunder did this year is not a formula for winning an NBA championship. James held off the Warriors for two games before crumbling, and Westbrook held off the Western Conference for an entire season before falling apart in the first round. Westbrook’s flameout was ugly and hard to watch, but don’t mistake it for a moral failure or a Kobe-style hissy fit. (Kobe could only ever get 10 assists when he was trying to hurt someone, and he would have spent the entire fourth quarter passing the ball to Roberson and refusing to shoot last night.) It was just a guy who had already been to the outer reaches running out of the oxygen necessary to go any farther. It was inevitable, but that doesn’t make what came before it any less amazing.