There is one game Russell Westbrook is interested in playing -- basketball.
He's not interested in playing the games that come with basketball. He's not terribly into the media sessions that sandwich the action that happens between the baselines. He's not interested in the games of comparing him to other players -- contemporaries or stars prior. He's simply interested in playing basketball and doing whatever he can to try to win those games.
Part of the problem for Westbrook may be that he actually cares too much about winning. His passion for winning becomes an obsession for overwhelming his opponents. If you can be dominant and tear down the man in front of you, you can have a huge advantage on the floor. When you have that huge advantage on the floor, you can will your team to a victory. That happens a lot for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook wills them to victories.
It certainly helps having Kevin Durant alongside him. Durant is one of the three best players in the world. Westbrook is probably in the top 5. If you want to be stingy in his placement, you can stretch that out to the top 7. Go any lower than that and you probably are unwilling to accept his game or just don't like his style of play altogether. But Westbrook is undeniably one of the two main reasons the Thunder have been in the Western Conference finals in four of his eight years in the NBA.
In Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook didn't quite perform up to snuff. Nineteen points, 13 assists, seven rebounds. It was just the fourth time since 1984 that a player went for at least 19-13-7 in a Game 7. Westbrook has done it two of those times. Magic Johnson and Rajon Rondo were the other two. Westbrook and Magic have won a game doing that. Westbrook and Rondo have lost a game doing that.
That sounds pretty good on the surface, and he kept the turnovers to three. When Westbrook turned the ball over three times, the Thunder were 31-12. The problem though was the shooting. Westbrook shot poorly in the WCF finale, needing 7-of-21 shooting just to get to those 19 points. It dropped his series shooting percentage down to 39.5 percent, which just won't cut it against a team like the Warriors. And yet, the team barely lost that series after going up 3-1. They could have won Game 6. They were within four points of the Warriors late in the game when Serge Ibaka fouled Stephen Curry on a 3-point attempt, which essentially sealed it.
You look at the problematic last two minutes in Game 6 at home and then a poor shooting night in Game 7, and some will walk away with the idea that Russ hurts their team as much as he helps them, or he choked away the series. That's a lazy way of eliminating nuance and trying to assign fault to not being able to close out a historically impressive team. And it's just not necessary. Westbrook was both unbelievable in this series and capable of being better. Most star players will fall into this category when trying to lead their team to the Finals and coming up short.
Westbrook totaled 187 points, 79 assists and 49 rebounds in the Western finals against the Warriors. He's the only player to compile those three thresholds in a conference finals since 1984, according to Basketball-Reference. Drop the thresholds down to 100 points, 75 assists and 40 rebounds, and you'll get Rajon Rondo (once) and Magic Johnson (three times) into the club.
In Game 7, Westbrook was uncharacteristically 3-of-10 inside the paint and 3-of-7 in the restricted area. In the series, he made 51.9 percent of his restricted area attempts, and kept firing up 3-pointers. His 31.7 percent was good for him, but it was especially bad considering the volume with which he took them against this Warriors team. The Warriors and the math problem they create is tough to overcome, but a bad shooter attempting to solve it makes it even worse.
If there's one key criticism to Westbrook's game, it's the 3-point shooting. He's often bad at it, and while the relentless pursuit of the demoralizing haymaker to his opponent is admirable, you can't afford to waste possessions by hoping Russ comes through on a shot he typically can't make. You live with the turnovers (most of them anyway) and you live with him being a wrecking ball going to the paint. You want him constantly putting that pressure on the defense to collapse because it works for the Thunder.
Westbrook set up teammates beautifully in this series, and even in the bad third quarter in which the Warriors took control in Game 7. The Thunder point guard set up his teammates for a lot of good looks. The ball movement was there. The shot-making wasn't. Couple that with the Warriors putting pressure on OKC with their hot shooting, and it was a recipe for disaster. But the overall process of Westbrook and his decision-making was a plus.
For the series, the Thunder needed him on the court at all times. They were a plus-1.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor against the Warriors, and a minus-10.3 per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Maybe the man who claims to decide not to be tired should've made that decision more, but we can't treat him like a video game capable of eliminating fatigue in the game play settings just because he puts up video game stat lines.
Now Westbrook and his teammates have to wait. They have to await Durant's decision in free agency, although most people believe worst-case scenario for the Thunder this offseason is a short-term deal for Durant to capitalize on maximizing salary earnings in an ever-growing salary cap and keeping his options open to know what Westbrook will want to do in 2017 when he has his own free agency to explore. They also have to wait for next season as they wonder how they keep building on the leaps they made this postseason to challenge two of the best teams we've seen in NBA history.
And they have to wait for the games to begin. That's all Westbrook will care about as he tries to help his team get back to the conference finals next season, and advance to competing for a championship once again.