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National Columnist

Thunder win in spite of Westbrook, no matter what the numbers say

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Russell Westbrook (0) needs to be reminded what his role is, or he could ruin a dream season. (Getty Images)  
Russell Westbrook (0) needs to be reminded what his role is, or he could ruin a dream season. (Getty Images)  

SAN ANTONIO -- Russell Westbrook put the Thunder in position to win Game 5, but then some guy came out of nowhere and nearly ripped the headlines, the game and maybe even this whole series away from him. The guy's name?

Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook is that good, and Westbrook is that bad, and this column is absolutely that fair. The easy thing to write, the thing that would appease Thunder fans and lots of others, would be to celebrate Westbrook's final line of 23 points and 12 assists and to note that he pushed, prodded and ultimately produced a 108-103 victory against the Spurs on Monday night -- giving the Thunder a 3-2 series edge with the chance to finish off San Antonio at home in Game 6.

That would be easy, but sorry. Can't do that. Because it wouldn't be honest. What would be honest? To note that there are two sides to this game, this story, this player. There is good, and there is bad, and both sides were on display in high definition in Game 5.

And the good was so very good. Look, 23 points and 12 assists? That's a great game. That's beautiful. That's a point guard who scored and created, and look at the final score. That's a point guard who won.

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But the bad was so very bad. Westbrook needed 24 shots to get those 23 points. He was 9 of 24 from the floor, 0 of 5 on 3-pointers. He had six turnovers. Look, 9-of-24 shooting and six turnovers? That's a bad game. That's ugly. That's a point guard who dominated the ball, taking (and missing) all those shots while NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden were scoring much more efficiently, with 47 combined points on 30 shots. A better point guard would have taken the ball out of his own hands and given it more to Durant and Harden.

But again, the final score: Thunder 108, Spurs 103. And at the end of the day, if you're a Thunder fan, that's beautiful. And if that's all you want to see, then see it. But there's more at stake here than this game, or even this series. There's an NBA title to be won, and the Thunder can win it.

The Thunder is better than every team in basketball -- better than the Spurs, better than the Celtics, better than the Heat -- if Russell Westbrook can control the bad player lurking within. And there's a bad player in there, believe that. We saw it last year in this same round, when OKC coach Scott Brooks benched Westbrook for the entire fourth quarter of Game 2.

The Thunder won only one game in those 2011 Western finals against the Mavericks last year -- the game Russell Westbrook was benched for the fourth quarter. And if Eric Maynor wasn't out with a knee injury, I'm pretty sure Westbrook would have been benched again Monday night, and the story today would be twofold: One, the Thunder won. But, two, what about Russell Westbrook? Can you believe he was benched in the fourth quarter of a game this big?

Since Westbrook finished Game 5, and especially since the Thunder won Game 5, you won't hear that today. But still, that fourth quarter was painful on the eyes. It was like watching a TV blooper reel, the kind where you know a mistake is coming -- it's a blooper reel; a mistake is always coming -- and the anticipation is murderous. And sure enough, here comes the mistake.

Westbrook double-dribbles, giving the ball to the Spurs.

Westbrook elbows Tony Parker in the face, giving the ball to the Spurs.

Westbrook bats an inbounds pass from the frontcourt to the backcourt, giving the ball to the Spurs.

That was three possessions in a row, by the way. Three possessions in a row, late in the fourth quarter, a sequence that began with the Thunder holding a 101-93 lead with 3½ minutes left -- and ended with the Thunder leading 101-99 with 1:45 to play. All because Bad Russell came out to play, and wouldn't go away.

Then, Good Russell. He drilled a 15-footer with 1:37 left to make it 103-99.

Then, Bad Russell. He attacked the rim and missed in traffic. It took a 3-pointer from Harden with 28.8 seconds left to give the Thunder some breathing room, but they could exhale fully only after the Spurs' Manu Ginobili -- having one of the best games of his career with 34 points, six rebounds and seven assists -- missed a 3-pointer for the tie with 4.9 seconds left.

Notice whose name you haven't read much: Kevin Durant. Remember him? Westbrook played the last six minutes of the fourth quarter as if he didn't. Durant didn't score in the final six-plus minutes, and took only one shot in that span. Two nights earlier, in Game 4, the Thunder needed someone to rally them past the Spurs and they turned to Durant, who delivered 16 consecutive points to win it. But here in Game 5, with the game seemingly won, Westbrook (and Harden) went into hero mode. Kevin Durant? They don't need no stinkin' Kevin Durant.

And in fairness to Harden, maybe he didn't need Durant. Harden hit the two biggest shots of the quarter -- the 3-pointer with 28.8 seconds left, and another 3-pointer almost five minutes earlier, this one becoming a four-point play as Ginobili fouled him on the shot. That gave the Thunder a 101-88 lead. There were barely five minutes left, the Spurs trailed by 13, and fans started to leave the building.

But Westbrook went into hero mode and damn near became the goat. He took five shots in the quarter and missed four. He caused four Thunder turnovers. Meanwhile, the Spurs were plugging away, Ginobili going off and then Tim Duncan joining him, scoring 11 of his 18 points in the final six minutes. Together, they had the Spurs on the precipice of one of the biggest comebacks of the 2012 playoffs.

Which means the Thunder were on the precipice of one of the biggest collapses. And seeing how Harden was hitting big shots, and Durant couldn't get his hands on the ball, the blame would have rested primarily with one guy: Bad Russell Westbrook.

Bad Russell was here Monday night, following three quarters of Good Russell like a hangover follows a fabulous night. Bad Russell didn't lose this game, but he came close -- and there are more games waiting.

Bigger games.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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