Love or hate him, you won't forget Russell Westbrook's magical, awe-inspiring season
The OKC star exits in 4-1 series loss to Houston after one of the most remarkable individual seasons, ever
It was like something out of a fever dream. Rushed, and nonsensical, pure effort, muscle and will. It was the sound and the fury, triple-doubles and 50-point games, a few times at once. It was monster dunks that threatened to tear the rim off, a surprising number of 3-pointers, comebacks and a relentlessness in all aspects of the game we have never seen.
And now, it's over.
Russell Westbrook's 2016-17 season came to an end Tuesday night in a 105-95 loss to Houston as the Rockets advanced to the second round, 4-1. He finished with playoff averages of 37.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 10.8 assists. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 15 points when Westbrook was on the floor in this series, and they outscored the Rockets by five when Westbrook and fellow MVP candidate James Harden shared the floor.
When it was all said and done, Westbrook's end seemed fitting. Exhausted and trailing after his team surrendered the lead in the fourth quarter as he sat for precious minutes in Game 5, Westbrook ran out of gas, but never out of effort. He shot terribly, 2-of-11. He was 0-for-5 from deep, constantly trying to hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit down to where the Thunder could scrap. If you loved Westbrook, you saw how hard he fought, stealing a rebound and laying it up and-one, constantly looking to try and deliver. If you loathe Westbrook and his ball-dominant, "stat-padding" ways, it was everything wrong with him as he chucked over and over.
Whatever you wanted from Westbrook, he gave you: a blaze of flawed glory, the triple-double, the effort, the energy, the mistakes, the amazing and the awful. He outscored the Rockets when he was on the floor. He lost the series. He put his team in a position to win. He was 4-of-14 in clutch time (game inside five points in the final five minutes) and a minus-13. You can say whatever you want about Westbrook after this season, and there is both no argument against it, and a counter-statement to it.
But make no mistake, this season belonged to him. He may or may not be the MVP (and it looks likely he will be voted as such), but no matter the result of that award vote, no one's going to forget a season where he averaged a triple-double while leading the league in scoring. Think about that. He led the league in scoring, while also getting double-digit rebounds and assists, regardless of how he did it. He led comebacks; he was one of the best clutch-time players in the league until the playoffs.
When Westbrook started out averaging a triple-double, most assumed he wouldn't be able to keep it up. Yet he did. His endurance was maybe the most impressive in NBA history. Yet, in the end, in the fourth quarter of Game 5, he was out of it. There was nothing left in the tank. He gave everything he had, on every possession, and by the end of it, there was nothing left. It turns out even the mighty Russell Westbrook is human, and has limits.
That's not surprising, but what's surprising is how far he pushed that limit. Westbrook didn't run out of energy and ask to be taken out of the game, or start demurring to teammates when he hit that wall. He just kept slamming against it, going for every possible chance to try and win the game. That's the only criticism of Westbrook that truly fails any objective analysis. Ball-hog? OK, you can make that claim despite his assists. Stat-padder? There's certainly evidence, even if it's contextual. But Westbrook never stopped caring about winning. He never put those efforts above winning. If Westbrook's style of play hurt his team, it was because it was the only way he could see it being how to win. You can argue that's a flawed philosophy, but you can't fault the intention.
Westbrook's stats are a story this season, his legendary nights became tales of their own. But the real current of this remarkable season was built around his competitiveness. When Kevin Durant left, the elephant in the room in this loss, surrounded by a team that from the very beginning was flawed despite some quiet defensive strengths that provided the backbone of their team success, Westbrook could have mailed it in. Other stars have done that, seen that there was no chance for a title and just coasted, collected that check.
Westbrook went harder. He went harder than maybe anyone we've ever seen for an entire season. That he failed in the end is not surprising, but nor is it relevant. Sometimes you're not the better team, sometimes you're not the better player, sometimes the challenge is too much. It's what you give that reveals how much you care about the game.
Russell Westbrook's insane, amazing, flawed, wonderful, thrilling, excruciating season is over. The future will be about finding a formula for success that doesn't ask so much of him, through roster and play style changes. But we'll never forget what it was like to watch him try this season.
It was brutal, it was awe-inspiring, it was unbelievable, it was 100 percent on his terms.
Westbrook had nothing to lose this season. He gave it all anyway, and in the deafening silence of this unceremonious first round exit, we're left wondering what he could possibly do next.
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