You know how some TV shows get disclaimers on them? Well, this post needs one too. This post may not be suitable for emotional Thunder fans still not over yesterday’s loss. Reader discretion is advised.
Following the Thunder’s incredible fourth quarter meltdown in Game 3 which gave away a big swing game, a lot of focus was on Russell Westbrook and his now infamous “hero mode.” I saw it differently. I didn’t think Westbrook had a whole lot to do with it. I saw it more as a product of bad team offense, no James Harden and predictable, elementary offensive sets. Westbrook was a part of it, but it’s not on him exclusively.
I don’t think me just saying it convinced everyone — not even myself necessarily — so I re-watched the Thunder’s fourth quarter again, specifically those last seven minutes. The video of every Thunder offensive possession the last seven minutes of the game is above. If you’re one of the many pinning this on Westbrook, you’re probably going to see what you want to see and I’m not going to change your mind. But going through it, I just don’t see how Westbrook went “hero” or tried to subvert Durant here.
Possession 1, 7:13
OKC runs its simple little Durant-Westbrook screen-and-roll/screen-and-post play. Durant is battling Tony Allen on the wing and Westbrook intends to get him the ball. KD is most likely fouled as Allen employs the “hugholdgrabpull” move and Westbrook gets hit with a turnover.
Possession 2, 6:32
A good, clean open look for Westbrook from a spot he’s proven he can hit from. If you truly have a problem with Westbrook taking this shot, then you’ll just have to sit him down. I’d actually be throwing and yelling at him if he didn’t take that shot. It was a rhythm jumper that was open. Yes, there were 16 seconds on the shot clock when he took it. But he’s a good scorer and capable shooter from there. Just didn’t make it.
Possession 3, 5:45
Durant tries to post on Allen on the right win. Westbrook can’t give him the ball because Zach Randolph is shading to double KD on the catch. So Russ does the correct thing and reverses it to James Harden with 10 on the shot clock. Harden probably should’ve called for a pick-and-roll, but gives it back to Westbrook. With only a few ticks on the shot clock, Westbrook is forced to make a play and he knocks down a little midrange jumper.
Possession 4, 4:54
OKC runs that high post isolation thing for KD, but he never gets free. Westbrook is clearly trying to get it to him, but there’s no room for it. Look at the other three guys though. Standing. Not moving. Not screening anyone. And after KD doesn’t get it, he just remains well behind the 3-point line. Westbrook does a nice job getting into the paint and to the rim. He misses a somewhat difficult layup.
Possession 5, 4:31
After a nice steal, Westbrook looks up court and finds Durant on the fly. KD attacks, is likely fouled but the ball is knocked out, off Memphis.
Possession 6, 4:24
Ball is thrown in to Durant, he gives it to Ibaka who gives it to Westbrook. Nobody is moving, nobody is screening. KD is standing on the wing. This is the one time you actually see Westbrook wave Durant off, but I assume it’s just that Russ doesn’t want to run the screen-and-pop thing. Shot clock grinds down, Westbrook takes a contested jumper.
Possession 7, 3:40
I think this possession illustrates my frustration with the entire offense more than anything. There’s good action off the ball to start, but then it dissolves into a two-man game with KD and Westbrook again. Westbrook drives and kicks to Thabo — who should be James Harden — who gives it back to Durant who gives it back to Thabo — who should be James Harden — who is forced into an ugly 3-point attempt.
Possession 8, 3:14
A quick 3-point attempt for Durant. It’s contested, but I don’t entirely hate the shot. However, that’s the only type of shot KD took in these last few minutes. Nothing from midrange. Nothing going to the hole. Everything was outside.
Possession 9, 2:35
It looked like the Thunder were running a real set here for a second. Except Westbrook lost the ball in the paint. He wasn’t out of control, wasn’t doing something selfishly. I think he was actually trying to slip it to KD who made a baseline cut.
Possession 10, 2:17
Another 3 attempt from KD. Good screen from Perk, good on time pass from Westbrook. KD airballs, but it’s because he was very clearly fouled on the shot. The reason I say so is because it wasn’t blocked and there’s no way KD comes up four feet short on an open jumper like that without a reason for it.
Possession 11, 1:42
I would say this is Westbrook’s worst and maybe only bad shot during this stretch. It came with 14 on the shot clock, without a single pass and the most important part, he missed it. It’s probably not a bad look in the second quarter, but here he probably should’ve went elsewhere. Really though, the biggest problem is that he stopped to pull up. I thought he could’ve went all the way to the rim here.
Possession 12, 1:06
Westbrook does exactly what we want to see. He drives hard, collapses the defense around him and kicks out to an open Serge Ibaka. But for whatever reason, Ibaka turns down the shot. Now Westbrook has to come and get the ball again with just nine on the shot clock. It’s up to him to make something happen and he draws a shooting foul and knocks down both free throws.
Possession 13, 0:14
OKC’s chance to win the game despite all of this. It’s the high post iso play for Durant who catches the ball with four on the shot clock. Tough fadeaway shot for KD and he misses. A question here though: Honestly, do you think Russell Westbrook could’ve gotten himself a better look than that in that situation? I absolutely think so. Now, I’ve always said KD has to be the guy taking that shot and I have no problem with that here. And if Westbrook takes it and misses, whoa boy, we’d be hearing a lot more about it.
But still, that’s what’s at the heart of all this. Westbrook can and does get himself good looks. He searches for the first option and once it wasn’t there, he becomes the next in line to do something.
Again, the issue here is the entire offense in general. One or two passes, one or two options. That’s not the way to beat a team playing the kind of defense Memphis was. You’ve got to keep moving the ball, keeping spacing well, keep cutting and screening. The Thunder were killing the clock trying to set up isolation for Durant and as a result, they backed themselves into a corner offensively.
Some will still see this as Westbrook’s fault. I’ve had countless people say to me, “That’s the point guards job though! He’s got to get everyone moving. It’s his responsibility to make the offense work.” Most say that because “point guard” is attached to Westbrook’s name, but he can make his teammates move. He can’t make them set screens. He can’t make them move the ball.
If you’re saying things like “Westbrook isn’t a point guard, Eric Maynor is a better pure point guard,” then I’m not sure I can convince you of anything. If your mind is made up with what you think a point guard’s job is on any team regardless of the situation, then forget it. But reality is, if Maynor is in there instead of Westbrook, OKC runs the same futile offense except this time it’s Maynor and not Westbrook trying to make something happen with six on the 24. Now what would you rather have?
This halfcourt execution has been a challenge for the Thunder all year. It’s on all five guys and the coaches for not developing an answer. But watch those possessions over and over again. I think at some point your eyes will tell you that Russell Westbrook isn’t the man to blame for it. At least that’s the hope.