It was the best of Westbrook, it was the worst of Westbrook. For three quarters on Tuesday, it seemed possible that Russell Westbrook did not care about the MVP award. He looked like he was on track to turn in one of his best performances of 2016–17 — the type of game he surely would have reserved for the regular season if he was worried about votes. He did things like shed his nemesis Pat Beverley and spin behind Clint Capela in a matter of strides.
He hit one-legged Dirk fadeaways, and then found the time to taunt Houston fans.
He made Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, and even Jerami Grant seem like competent, worthy teammates. To be fair, Roberson solidly guarded James Harden for most of the night, helping the Thunder lead by as many as 15 in the first quarter and 12 in the third. Billy Donovan even seemed on track for plaudits. After he was caught on camera during Game 1 telling his assistant coach Mo Cheeks, “Can’t play Kanter,” he made an adjustment: Enes was only allowed on the floor when James Harden sat. But managing to find eight meaningful minutes for a bench player incapable of defense does not a win make.
Russ went to the bench at the 2:21 mark in the third quarter, with a comfortable 12-point lead for the Thunder, and watched as the margin fell to as few as three in about 90 seconds. When he came back in, MVP Westbrook turned into the guy that Kevin Durant got sick of playing with. The silky jumper and surprising assists that propelled his MVP case all season turned back into ugly heaves and ill-advised pull-ups, none of which could be blamed on his subpar surrounding cast. No one has missed 2015–16 Westbrook, but that’s whom we got in his team’s Game 2 115–111 loss.
He was clearly gassed from carrying the team so heavily through three quarters (and another 82 games this season), but his sloppy fourth is ultimately why they lost. It has not been true for most of this year, but on Wednesday, Westbrook beat Westbrook.