Russell Westbrook was playing a fantastic game. One that was bringing his critics back around. One that was reminding people was an incredible talent he is at just 22 years old and in his third year as a pro. He was creating, dishing, scoring and finishing.
He had the Thunder cooking the Grizzlies, taking them up to a 16-point lead as he racked up assists and played a solid, controlled game. Oklahoma City looked downright dominant and appeared to be cruising to a 2-1 series lead and regaining the homecourt advantage.
But things felt apart in a big way the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. Spanning to overtime, where OKC lost 101-93, the Thunder went eight minutes without a basket, missed 11 straight shots and scored just 17 points the final 17 minutes, including overtime.
Most everyone with a Twitter account, a blog or even a voice pinned it all directly on the shoulders of Westbrook. Most saw it being his fault for stopping the ball, for not getting it to Kevin Durant, for killing the Thunder's chances to win this game. And you haven't heard the last of it. It's just going to get worse the more people stew on this game.
From my eyes, though, I just didn't see it that way. I'm evidently very much in the minority, but I just refuse to place the blame on Westbrook for Game 3's incredible meltdown.
Does he deserve a big slice of blame? Definitely. Probably one right out of the middle of the pie. With lots of icing. He didn’t do the things those last six minutes that he had done up to that point. The first 42 minutes, he was fantastic. Setting up teammates, scoring in rhythm, making good decisions — it was beautiful. But with the Thunder trying to hang on a lead, a lot of that flew right out the door.
Not entirely because of Westbrook, though. Again, he’s absolutely got blood on his hands. He might even be holding the knife. He entered the fourth quarter with 12 assists and finished the game with that number. That’s all on him.
But I have to stop short of joining the bash party and piling on Westbrook's game.What the Thunder looked like those last few minutes was a team up by a touchdown and content to just run the ball three times into an eight-man front and punt. They wound the clock down with a lot of dribbling, then brought Kevin Durant to the top of the key and tried to isolate him there. But, because of great ball-denial and the fact Durant didn’t position well enough to actually receive the ball, Westbrook was basically left with a ticking time bomb in his hands. The play was a dud and he was left standing there having to make a play with five on the shot clock.
Where Westbrook failed was that he then put his nose down and tried to just make a play on his own. It was all up to him after the initial, one-option play crumbled, but he still could have drawn the defense and dished. He could've gone all the way to the rim. He settled instead for jumpers — mostly good looks too, I’d say — that he didn’t make. The offense went entirely stale, the ball stopped and nobody moved. Is that Westbrook’s fault? Or is it a product of the play call coming from the sideline? That’s the question I’m asking right now.
Everyone is griping that Durant didn’t see the ball much in those moments, but again, he was in no position to score. The Thunder basically ran the same stuff that killed Denver in Game 5 where Durant took over and started etching his name into playoff lore. Difference here was Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler weren’t on Durant. Tony Allen is terrific in ball denial and can stop Durant’s dribble. Durant just doesn’t have the ability to put the ball on the floor more than twice and get a good shot over Allen. It’s not happening.
But at any point did you really see a time where Durant was open and Westbrook truly looked him off? What I saw was Durant hovering around the 3-point line with his hand up, not moving. I mean with four on the shot clock, what do you want Westbrook to do? Kick it out there and let his buddy fire from 30 feet? Why does KD deserve the ball if he’s 30 feet from the basket, not moving and covered? How is that Westbrook being a bad point guard?
I know I’ve seen Westbrook succeed in exactly what he tried to do Saturday at least 20 times during the regular season. I’ve seen him take over when the other options (or this case, option) was locked down. It’s the great luxury the Thunder have had all season long, and the reason this team won 55 games.
Because, let’s face it, it’s not like Durant was absolutely pouring it on the Grizzlies and Westbrook was waving him off. Durant finished the game just 2-11 from the floor and I’m not sure he got a clean look in the bunch. What people tell me about that though, is that’s somehow Westbrook’s fault. You’ve got to get him in a better position to score! You’ve got to set up teammates! You’ve got to create better looks! True, yes. But what do you want Westbrook to do — shoot and make Durant's shots for him too?
At some point, it’s about Durant getting himself open. If you’re open, Russ will find you. Those last five minutes, nobody was. I won't blame Westbrook for that. I blame horrific team offense and questionable play-calling from Brooks. Not just Westbrook playing hero and trying to start some alpha dog battle, as most would make you think.Prepare for a comparison you’re going to hate, but I want to say it: If Dwyane Wade did exactly what Westbrook did in this game, would everyone freak out? I realize Westbrook isn’t Wade, but he is an All-Star and averaging better than 20 points a game this season. But if Wade tried to take over and LeBron was left standing with a hand up on the 3-point line, would we all yell, curse his name and place an incredible amount of blame on him? Or would we just say, "Hey, Wade's a great scorer and he's capable of taking over too." That's my point here. It's not like this was Royal Ivey trying to make something happen.
Why the Thunder quit running the offense late in the fourth is beyond me. Maybe it was indeed Westbrook, but it really appeared to be more a product of the Thunder trying to kill clock, get the ball to Durant and let him finish. It’s a good plan in principle, but it didn’t work. The cutting, moving, screening and slashing disappeared. And Westbrook is left to pick up the pieces and rescue each bad possession by making a play.
It's pretty unfair to single out Westbrook here simply because No. 35 is on the floor with him. Should the ball go there first? Yes. And if you re-watch, that was the design every time.
But once that option is shut down, you go to Plan B, which, in the Thunder's case, is a pretty good one. A lot of the criticism I see for Westbrook stems almost entirely from "Don't you see Kevin Durant over there!" and other sentences like that. I understand the idea there, but it's not really fair to me. Why does Derrick Rose get a free pass from dominating the ball and taking bad shots? Only because Durant isn’t on his team? That’s what people always tell me but it’s not like Rose is playing with two janitors, a ball boy and some hobo picked up from Navy Pier. Rose gets excused because he's a great offensive player. And so is Russell Westbrook.
It's the curse of being a scoring point guard. If someone were curling off a screen and doinking shots while Durant stood idly by, I don't think we'd say nearly as much about it.
Could he have done better? Obviously. The Thunder dropped a crucial Game 3 because the offense left early. Westbrook is the commander of that offense and he's got to do better. But blaming him only? Comparing him to Stephon Marbury? That's just, well, stupid.