Once the Thunder were down 3-1, the Russell Westbrook obituaries had already begun to roll in; down 25, the eulogizers had probably started dipping their quills back in purple. What we’d already heard many times over was going to be repeated once again, at blaring, self-satisfied volume: You can’t win with Russell Westbrook as your centerpiece. Russell Westbrook exerts his will and the team is helplessly lashed to his back. Russell Westbrook is [insert confused metaphor]. Russell Westbrook as at risk of being crushed under the weight of his own mythos. Or something.
Alternatively: what if Russell Westbrook is a man who plays basketball professionally? What if last night’s game of basketball was a discrete event in a playoff series, itself a self-contained unit of competition, and he played basketball outrageously well for one half of that game? What if that’s it? The Thunder had let Game 5 slip out of their control, until Westbrook took it upon himself to control it—the thing everyone concedes he can do, whether or not they trust what he does with it. As it turns out: he did the shit. He was fortunate to have a pal to co-pilot.
With the OKC offense palsied by its bleakest, turn-taking “pass the ball and put your hands directly on your hips” tendencies, the Jazz went up by 25 points with 8:37 to go in the third quarter. It was bitter and stale and you could not be blamed if you flipped it off. But if you did, you missed the whole bloody spectacle: a 32-7 tear that left the teams level for the fourth quarter. In that span, two crucial, perhaps equally important things happened: lumped crabmeat Carmelo Anthony hit the bench; and Russell Westbrook hit seven of his eight field goal attempts, including four three-pointers, some of them 26 feet out. The pull-up Westbrook three, that distinctive tense little flick, can often be death knell for a Thunder game, but for this one at least, it was the defibrillator. He ended up with a 20-point quarter. (With one assist to go with it, a defensive rebound corralled in traffic and slung out to streaking Paul George.) This was a Westbrook story. Here was the three that tied it up.
Under his banner of Volume-Shooting And Self-Belief, he willed this game to be a game again. And then, he relaxed his vise grip, just slightly. During the crucial run he got plenty of assistance from Paul George, who shouldered the load on some highly difficult isolation plays while Westbrook quite literally caught his breath. As ESPN’s Micah Adams observed, after the Jazz struck that 25-point lead, the Thunder proceeded to outscore them 61-28. All 61 of those points were scored or assisted by either Westbrook or George.
Whether or not this is sustainable depends on whether you think Westbrook can shoot the long ball like this again, and, more importantly, what the Thunder can do to the anchor of the Jazz defense. Rudy Gobert’s foul trouble figured heavily in this one, and he’s too disciplined to be tempted into similar situations two games in a row. Though his looming presence at the rim tends to clog Westbrook’s constant churn of drives, the Frenchman was forced to sit out an eight-minute stretch from late in third to midway through the fourth, clearing out the airspace (though it should be noted that Westbrook did most of the relevant damage on long pull-ups, far away from Gobert’s hypothetical ambit). By the time Gobert returned to the game, Westbrook had restored some semblance of flow to the Thunder offense and they were confident enough to attack the rim regardless, as they did on this pretty little weave of dribble-handoffs that freed up Russ to fly and Steven Adams to dive behind Gobert for a clangorous dunk:
With the lead in hand and Gobert at the rim, Russ began entrusting his teammates to do the work. He remains fifth among all postseason players in both assists and potential assists per game, much of it generated by his bread-and-butter drive-and-kick, like this one to Alex Abrines that wedged open their fourth-quarter lead.
Westbrook finished with 45 points on 17-of-39 shooting, 15 rebounds, and seven assists. Co-star George joined him with 34 points and eight rebounds. Do those numbers finally vindicate Westbrook’s existence? Do they only further poison the very soul of basketball? Maybe they are mere evidence that Russell Westbrook can do some extremely cool feats on a basketball court.
If you are here to dance on Russell Westbrook’s grave, your evening plans have been delayed by at least one more game. Maybe, instead, you’re praying this series returns to this arena, so Westbrook can blow it open all over again.