Basketball is a reflective sport. It demands self-awareness through numbers. In baseball, everybody hits in a fixed order. In basketball, there is one ball for five players, and touches are divided organically. The best players take the majority of shots, and almost every basketball player, at some point in their life, learns to accept their place in a hierarchy that undervalues them. It comes to most of us early. It comes to NBA players, most of whom were the best player on every amateur team they ever played on, a good deal later.
But winning at the highest levels for those not named Michael Jordan or LeBron James takes a sacrifice greater than shots or touches. It takes acceptance. It takes the admission that no matter how good you are or were or might one day be, someone on your team has to be better than you, because history suggests that you probably aren't going to outplay Michael Jordan or LeBron James or their contemporaries, but that you might be able to support one of the few people who can.
It's a realization that came to Chris Paul after 12 NBA seasons. Years of playoff failure softened him to the idea of side-kicking. Shots and minutes became secondary to the wins they're meant to produce. He forced his way onto James Harden's Houston Rockets squad and deferred his way to a 3-2 Western Conference finals lead over the best team since Jordan's Bulls. A hamstring injury prevented him from finishing the job, and a team-wide meltdown a year later went on to cost him his job. Houston traded a willing partner for an unabashed alpha. Only two players in NBA history have ever posted a usage rate above 40 percent in a season. Both of them now play for the Rockets: Harden and Russell Westbrook.
But Harden did so with an effective field goal percentage of 54.1. Westbrook's was 47.6. It's the story of their respective stardoms. Harden beats teams surgically and efficiently. Westbrook beats them into submission with energy and volume. The two mixed like oil and water early in the season. So unafraid of off-ball Westbrook were opponents that they started using his man to double Harden any time he stepped beyond halfcourt in November and December. Sidekicks are supposed to be low maintenance. Houston had to abandon the entire center position for Westbrook's sake.
That should have made what happened Monday more predictable. Westbrook never mastered off-ball movement. He didn't become an effective or even average shooter off the catch, nor did he rededicate himself to defense. He joined a group fresh off essentially stalemating the greatest team of all time twice and bent it to his will. The last time the Rockets led a series 3-2, they lost because they didn't have Paul. This time, they lost because the other team had him, and they had Russell Westbrook in perhaps his most-Russell Westbrook game of the season.
The final minutes were a symphony of his greatest hits. He finished the game with seven turnovers, but his penchant for the unforced variety has always been particularly maddening:
And then, of course, came the sagging. Westbrook's ugliest miss came on exactly the kind of mid-range jumper defenses have always begged him to take:
Yet it's what we didn't see that stood out. Harden, arguably the greatest individual scorer in NBA history, took one shot during the competitive portion of the final four minutes of the game. It came off an inbounds pass with the shot clock running out. In that same span, Westbrook took three shots and turned the ball over twice. On five possessions during those last four minutes, Harden never touched the ball, and on a sixth, his only touch came on the defensive rebound. A six-point lead became a four-point defeat as arguably the best offensive player in basketball looked on helplessly.
Westbrook boxed the three-time defending scoring champion out of his own offense, and he did it while playing under an injury-induced minutes limit. Whether instinctively or intentionally, Westbrook made the unilateral decision that the ball was better off in his own injured hands than Harden's healthy ones. It's the same decision he's been making throughout his career. Kevin Durant got sick of it. Paul George traded him in for Kawhi Leonard.
That same volume and energy that makes Westbrook so dangerous so often is what did him in against Oklahoma City. He's played one way his entire life. That style made him a millionaire. It made him an All-Star and an MVP. But it never made him a champion because he never made the internal admission that Paul once made, that champions make annually. That someone might be better than him.
It is the paradox of Westbrook's entire career. His value flows out of the same unwavering confidence that does his teams in when it counts. A weakened Westbrook is a useless Westbrook. Harden may have been better equipped to carry Houston home, but letting Westbrook linger off the ball as his man trapped Harden wouldn't necessarily have been any better. What Houston needed down the stretch was the sort of co-star that could supplement Harden without supplanting him. That co-star happened to play for the other team.
And if things don't change, Houston's spurned sidekick is probably to going to send them home on Wednesday as he takes Westbrook's team further than Oklahoma City's former MVP ever did on his own. That doesn't exactly bode well for Houston because change isn't in Westbrook's dictionary. Whether alongside Durant, George, Harden or none of the above, he is the same, flawed player that he's always been. He's Russell Westbrook, and he will be until the bitter end.