Wake Up Call: Living & Dying By Westbrook

Remember 24 hours ago when everyone thought the Thunder were totally outmatched in this series and didn’t stand a chance? That’s been disproven, but why does this somehow feel even worse?

It was a night where everything seemed to go right for the Thunder, until it didn’t. The energy and effort were substantially better, the pick-and-roll defense was improved, and Russell Westbrook was on fire…for 33 minutes and 40 seconds, anyway. With 2:20 left in the third quarter, Westbrook subbed out. After all, it was his time in the rotation to come out. But as we know, it was so much more.

The offense wasn’t just being propped up by Russ, the offense WAS Russ. When he subbed out, he had scored 14 of the team’s 18 second half points, assisting on two of the remaining four. In fact, here is a rundown of all of the Thunder’s third quarter offensive possessions until Westbrook came out:

  • Westbrook draws foul – makes both free throws
  • Taj Gibson misses two point shot (Westbrook passed it in)
  • Westbrook draws foul – makes one of two free throws
  • Andre Roberson two point shot (Westbrook assists)
  • Westbrook makes two-point shot
  • Victor Oladipo gets ball stolen by the villain Patrick Beverley
  • Westbrook makes two-point shot
  • Oladipo misses three-point shot
  • Westbrook makes two-point shot
  • Westbrook misses two-point shot
  • Westbrook misses two-point shot
  • Westbrook commits turnover (bad pass)
  • Westbrook misses two-point shot (offensive rebounded)
  • Oladipo gets put-back blocked by Ryan Anderson
  • Jerami Grant draws foul – makes both free throws
  • Westbrook makes two-point shot
  • Westbrook makes three-point shot
  • Andre Roberson misses three-point shot
  • Westbrook misses three-point shot
  • Westbrook misses two-point shot (offensive rebounded)
  • Grant turns it over (loses ball)
  • Westbrook subbed out

All told there were 21 possessions, but let’s discount the two offensive rebounds since those weren’t half court sets. Of the 19 sets, Westbrook shot the ball on 12 of them. Throw in the assist and the turnover and that number is raised to 14. Without the data or a replay of the game in front of me, I am not certain if the other shots taken were off of Westbrook passes, but I’d be willing to bet some were. But even without those, the usage rate for the quarter would be 73.7%. WOW.

And here’s the thing: The Thunder doubled their lead. After being up by six at halftime, the lead had been stretched to 12 before that fateful substitution. As anyone who watched the game knows, the next two minutes resulted in a 12-3 Rockets run that cut the lead to three.

It truly is The Westbrook Paradox.

If you’re head coach Billy Donovan, a teammate, or Joe Schmo Thunder fan watching the Thunder dribble the ball up the floor on any given possession, who do you want shooting for your team? Who do you want running your offense, controlling the ball and deciding who shoots? That would be Russell Westbrook, hands down. He’s the guy you trust.

What about on the next possession? Still him. And the next, and the next, and the next. Westbrook is so incredible that it really doesn’t make sense for him to NOT attempt to score or assist on every possession. Yet reliance is built up, a dependence on Westbrook. Without him on the floor, or even when he’s on the floor without the ball, no one knows what to do. It’s not that he doesn’t make his teammates around him better, as the common refrain goes, but that he makes them so much better when he’s playing with them that they almost forget how to be good on their own.

It would be like if you were born with one hand, and your whole life you’ve learned how to do everything you needed to do one-handed. Then one day you’re given a perfect prosthetic hand, and you learn to do everything normally with two hands. Did the second hand make you less functional? No of course not, it made you twice as functional. That hand has changed your life! But now that you have two hands, you have to have two hands. You can’t go back. If that prosthetic was taken away, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. (Side note, that’s why Russell Westbrook is the MVP)

Westbrook wears that dependency on his shoulders, and in games as important as last night’s he responds as he should, by carrying the team. For 33 minutes and 40 seconds, he did just that.

As he waited on the bench about as peacefully as a starved and caged animal, it’s fairly obvious that he wasn’t thinking about how he needed to spend less time dominating the ball, based on what he was seeing on the court. When he subbed back in…well you know the rest of the story. 4/18 from the field in the fourth quarter, 1/7 from three-point territory, and a 115-111 loss to fall to 0-2 in the series.

For the game it was 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. Or you can look at it as 43 times he decided to shoot, 13 times where he directly decided that someone else shoot, and four turnovers. He decided 60 of the Thunder’s 97 possessions (again, not including passes to missed shots).

When the Superman cape fits, Westbrook wears it. When it doesn’t fit, he cuts a hole in it and jams his head through and jumps off the top of the building anyway. The Thunder really have no choice but to hope and pray that he can fly.

The eternal question hanging over the season, this series, and on into this summer is simply, “who do you put around Russell Westbrook?” Billy Donovan was searching for that answer last night, playing an astonishing 12 players. The result was a disastrous -64 for the Thunder bench.

As the series returns to Oklahoma City, there’s reason to be optimistic. The Thunder are a much better team statistically on their home court, and the Rockets aren’t as good on the road. We know full well just how difficult it is for opponents to win playoff games inside the ‘Peake. Last night proved the Thunder can compete and win, something we weren’t sure of after Sunday’s contest. But win or lose, it will all be because of one man.

We live and die by the Brodie.