With just under six minutes remaining in Oklahoma City’s 116-104 loss to the Pacers last night, Russell Westbrook collided with Indiana’s Luis Scola as the latter set a screen for the former’s man, George Hill. Referee Ed Malloy called a personal foul on Westbrook, his third; Westbrook complained, and Malloy added a tech. Here’s video:
By NBA rules, this technical foul, Russ’s 16th of the season, would have triggered a mandatory one-game suspension for him. That suspension would have effectively finished off the Thunder’s season: They have two games left and are sitting ninth in the West; they have the same record as the eighth-ranked New Orleans Pelicans, but the Pelicans hold the tiebreaker over them. Unless Oklahoma City can somehow pick up a game on them, they’ll miss the playoffs.
The Pelicans will be in Minnesota tonight facing the Timberwolves, who stink and are tanking. The Thunder are against the fourth-ranked Blazers. Without Russ, they would have had no chance of winning tonight. But the league office rescinded the foul (and with it, the suspension) this afternoon. And so, if you want to say (as the AP’s game recap did, for example) that Russ’s technical foul nearly condemned the Thunder, that’s not totally wrong—in the mechanical, mathematical sense that, yes, without him, the Thunder almost certainly would have taken the loss that formally eliminated them from playoff contention. Likewise, characterizing the rescinding of the foul as a reprieve, of sorts—a “major break for the Thunder,” as SB Nation described it—also isn’t wrong.
It also seems somehow beside the point. Last night, Russell Westbrook delivered one of the most remarkable and heroic basketball performances anyone will ever see. He finished the game with 54 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. He played 40 minutes. He took 43 shots— 43 shots!—and made 21 of them. He made more than half the Thunder’s total field goals (41); he made seven of the team’s 11 free throws; he had eight of the team’s 18 assists. Even after the tech, he scored 13 of OKC’s last 16 points. He just never stopped.
Good God. In a long season of astounding Russ performances, this isn’t just another one. It’s superhuman. It’s all the old bromides about effort—leaving it all out there, giving 110 percent, not dying with any bullets left in the chamber, and so forth—incarnate. Meanwhile, his teammates shot 38 percent from the floor, made four of their 17 free-throws, defended like distracted elementary schoolers, and lost.
That’s how it’s gone for Russ and the Thunder all season long: Russ plays at superhuman levels of exertion, intensity, and production, and the team around him fails at everything he doesn’t do for it. This reprieve, the improved chance of putting up a good fight against the Blazers, doesn’t change the story. It’s already a tragedy.
It’s been a maddening, doomed-seeming season for Russ and the Thunder all along. A couple of different times they seemed to find a stride reminiscent of their peak, but never could sustain it for longer than a couple weeks in a row. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant played only 27 games, scattered fitfully between various bouts of injury, before undergoing season-ending surgery at the end of March. Russ himself missed a chunk of November with a broken hand. Serge Ibaka, whose ascent to two-way stardom once seemed so certain, got waylaid in his attempt at becoming a genuine stretch big and regressed horribly this season, before himself undergoing season-ending surgery a couple weeks before Durant did. A trade for Dion Waiters, intended to goose the team’s second unit, hasn’t panned out, because Dion Waiters stinks. Bench burner Reggie Jackson feuded with the organization and alienated his teammates before being sent to Detroit; the trade brought the team a nice haul that nevertheless hasn’t changed its short-term fortunes much.
In truth, only the youth of Oklahoma City’s star players is at odds with the emerging overall picture of a team in decline. The 2012 trade that sent James Harden to Houston for flotsam ought to haunt general manager Sam Presti for the rest of his life: the only defense of it was that it would give him the room and flexibility to build and deepen the Thunder, and he hasn’t made a single move that notably improved the team since. Head coach Scott Brooks still hasn’t figured out a way to integrate his young stars into a scheme that maximizes their talents, rather than their burdens. Unthinkable as this might have seemed three seasons ago, they’re shallow and talent-poor; even at full health, they’re just Durant and Russ with a bunch of guys (Ibaka included) draped around their necks, all of them just kinda taking turns shooting. Now, alarmingly, Durant can’t stay healthy; he’ll enter the last season of his current contract returning from a notoriously tricky and intransigent variety of foot injury.
Amid all this, there’s been Russ, whose individual play would make an almost bulletproof case for an MVP award—if his team’s wavering performance and hopeless-seeming cause didn’t undermine the kind of triumphal narrative that typically claims the honor. Not just the numbers, and not just how plainly the Thunder—both as a team and as an organization—have needed every last scrap of his production, and not just how far he’s dragged them despite themselves, but the fury and sheer bravery with which he’s done it. No other player gives as much of himself as Russell Westbrook does.
It won’t be enough—to save this season, or to restore what the Thunder are squandering. The league took back a silly technical foul, and spared us all the narrative of Russ’s mistake dooming his team, but it would have been a lie anyway. The truth is the opposite, and it can’t be fixed so easily.
Photo via AP