MIAMI -- "Get this straight," Russell Westbrook sneered at me, and already I liked where he was going. Whatever came out of his mouth next, I was going to deserve it. You were going to deserve it. Most of us were going to deserve it, because most of us have been critical of Westbrook even as he has played more than 40 minutes a game at point guard on a team that has reached the NBA Finals and even briefly led the series after one game.
Those days are gone, just like the trophy is almost gone. The Heat now are in command after winning 104-98 on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 series edge. This could be all over Thursday night -- but not for Russell Westbrook. For him, it will continue. It will continue because people like me, and people like lots of you, will continue to critique him for all those nights when his game was so damned confounding.
"Get this straight," Westbrook told me, and I started to smile because here it comes. Here comes an eruption from Westbrook to match his Vesuvius of a Game 4, when he erupted for 43 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Since 1985, only two players have put together games with that many points, rebounds and assists in the NBA Finals -- and their names are Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. And they needed overtime to get there.
Westbrook didn't need overtime, though he did erupt in vain -- as did Jordan in 1993 against the Suns, and O'Neal in 2001 against the 76ers. All three of them lost the game in which they produced so historically, though Jordan and O'Neal went on to win the title that year anyway. It doesn't appear Westbrook will do the same, though you never know. The Thunder have been close twice in Miami, so if they can cross that threshold in Game 5 and return the NBA Finals to Oklahoma City, who knows? It's not likely, no. But it's not impossible.
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Whatever it is, that's a story for another day. For now, the story is Westbrook, his game, and even the criticism that came his way -- because in typical Westbrook fashion, he drew criticism. He always draws criticism, even when he's putting up 43, seven and five. Off the court, Westbrook seems like a really bright guy, but there are times his basketball IQ doesn't seem to reach the level required of a point guard on a championship team.
One such occasion, unfortunately, came with 13.8 seconds left when the Heat won a jump ball, leading by three, and Westbrook fouled Mario Chalmers. There were only five seconds on the shot clock, so the smarter play -- the percentage play, especially against a 79 percent foul shooter who was having his best scoring game in a month -- would have been to let Chalmers shoot, drive, something. Anything. Hope Chalmers misses, or he passes to a teammate and the teammate misses, or better yet try to force him into a turnover.
Westbrook fouled him, Chalmers hit both free throws to make it 103-98, and for the third consecutive game, the Thunder faced a two-possession deficit without enough time to make it up. The first two times it happened, the key figure was a referee. This time, the key figure was Westbrook.
Said Thunder coach Scott Brooks: "It was a tough play ... Could have been a communication thing."
Said Westbrook: "It was a miscommunication on my part. Nothing I can do about it now."
Nope, all that's left now is the aftermath, the stories, the criticism. You think Westbrook cares about any of that?
"Get this straight," Westbrook said, and here it comes. But before it comes, understand what I asked Westbrook. Understand, I was trying to be nice. Hell, I was being nice. I acknowledged the criticism he has been receiving, then acknowledged the incredible game he had just played, and I asked him if there was any vindication, personally, despite the loss.
"Get this straight," Westbrook said. "What you guys say doesn't make me happy, make me sad, doesn't do anything. It's all about my team and us winning a game. I don't have a personal challenge against you [media] guys, and it's not me against the world. It's not the world against me. It's me and my teammates trying to win."
Boom. Roasted. Pity that he and his teammates couldn't win, that his teammates couldn't pick up their share of the slack after Westbrook did so much heavy lifting. Westbrook had 10 points and two assists in the first quarter, getting off to a blazing start and igniting the Thunder's 33-19 lead after one quarter. He added eight points in the second quarter, and eight more in the third. He was having a terrific game entering the fourth quarter -- 26 points -- but he was about to go off.
In the fourth quarter, Westbrook scored 17 points, hitting seven of nine shots from the floor and all three free throws. He was enormous, while everyone else on his team was tiny, especially James Harden -- zero points on 0-of-4 shooting in the quarter, capping an eight-point, 2-of-10 night -- and even NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant, who had six points and two turnovers in the final period.
Westbrook was left to go it alone, and he gave it a good run. He attacked the rim and scored with his left hand, with his right hand, with Dwyane Wade hanging on both hands for a three-point play. He hit jumpers, free throws, you name it. But while the Heat were getting help from Chalmers (12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter) and terrific games from LeBron James (26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) and Wade (25 points), the Thunder had a whole lot of Westbrook, a normal amount of Durant (28 points) and then bupkis. Nobody else scored more than eight points, and that was Harden, and he was awful.
"He carried the team," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said of Westbrook. "He was trying to win it by himself."
Yeah, he was. But it didn't work. His team didn't win -- and he made that mental mistake with 13.8 seconds left.
But if you think that should take away from one of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history, get this straight ...