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Understanding the Russell Westbrook Question

Russell Westbrook has become synonymous with “historical performance.” It’s also become synonymous with doomed drives, bad shots, and looking off open teammates. Can the Thunder win a game against the Rockets with Westbrook being Westbrook?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Wednesday night Russell Westbrook played the game that may come to define him: a glorious disaster of a performance.

He had 51 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first-round series against the Rockets. It was one of the greatest statistical evenings in the history of basketball, postseason or otherwise. The Thunder also lost, 115–111, and many felt Westbrook was in large part responsible. Here’s a highlight reel of Westbrook’s evening, aptly preceded by a dude advertising something called “Ball Hog Gloves.”

This season’s MVP votes have already been cast, but the debate over the award has been the primary discussion point surrounding this series. Westbrook led the league in scoring during the regular season, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in 55 years. Houston’s James Harden also had excellent regular-season statistics on a team that is proving itself to be much better than Westbrook’s team.

This is Peak Russell Westbrook: He had a night unlike any in NBA history, and we can’t decide whether it was good.

Holy Hell, Russell Westbrook Just Had a 51-Point Triple-Double in the Playoffs

A 51-point triple-double. In the playoffs.

Before this season, nobody had scored 50 points in a triple-double since 1975. This was Westbrook’s fourth 50-point triple-double of the season, and the first in NBA playoff history.

Do you realize how ludicrous this is? In Basketball-Reference’s database, which goes back to 1963–64 and therefore excludes some of Wilt Chamberlain’s early work, there have been 28 50-point performances in NBA playoff history. Eight are by Michael Jordan. The only 50-point playoff performance in the past decade was by Ray Allen in 2009, and Allen played 59 minutes in that triple-OT game.

I mean, look at this dude:

But he didn’t just score 51: He had a triple-double while doing it! Westbrook was a flurry of brilliance, explosive yet versatile. In 2017, NBA basketball is played at an astoundingly high level, and in the playoffs the chaff is left behind. For Westbrook to post such a preposterous stat line pushes the limits of what should be possible in a basketball game. OKC may have lost, but this was a performance for the ages.

But OKC Lost Due to Russ’s Hideous Fourth Quarter

While Westbrook may have been statistically spectacular, his play probably hurt the Thunder.

In the last seven minutes of the game, Westbrook had zero assists and took 14 shots, going 3-for-14 from the field. You can watch those 14 shots here. It was ugly, as Westbrook ignored teammates who had been shooting well in a furious attempt to get buckets at all costs.

His drives were doomed ventures into heavy defense. Some of his jumpers were wildly inaccurate. Two of his final shots were blatant attempts to draw fouls, although he didn’t come close to getting the call or hitting the basket. You can hear him yelling throughout the clips, frenzied screams of a man madly driving his team toward failure.

Yeah, but Russ’s Teammates Are All Trash

Westbrook sat twice Wednesday night. He left with 1:31 remaining in the first quarter and the Thunder up by 12 points; he returned at the 9:14 mark of the second quarter with the Thunder up by only six. He left again with 2:21 left in the third quarter with a 12-point Thunder lead, and by the time he came back to start the fourth quarter, OKC was up by only three. In the 6:38 that Westbrook didn’t play, the Thunder were minus-15.

We can knock Westbrook for going 4-for-18 in the fourth quarter, but his teammates went 3-for-11 — and two of those were off assists by Westbrook.

Westbrook’s backup is Semaj Christon, a player whose NBA skill set is about as backward as his first name. And when Westbrook is on the floor, virtually every player requires Westbrook to create something for them in order to score. Who is capable of creating their own shot on the Thunder? Victor Oladipo?

Oklahoma City had a fighting chance to win this game in the fourth quarter because, during the first three periods, Westbrook made miracles.

Yeah, but Many of OKC’s Flaws Begin With Russ

It’s true that Westbrook is far and away the best player on the Thunder. But their complete dependence on him is something he’s had a hand in.

Westbrook has seen a potential NBA dynasty crumble around him. OKC traded James Harden and Serge Ibaka; Kevin Durant left. He strapped on his yellow motorcycle outfit and prepared to Kill Bill the NBA, going on a one-man personal vengeance tour. But, like, yo, there aren’t any white ladies defeating hundreds of Yakuza in a sword fight out there. In real life, one of those 88 dudes catches Uma Thurman with a blade, or, um, shoots her.

It is nearly impossible to win a playoff series by yourself. Just look at Russ in the fourth quarter. He’s tired: His drives lacked explosion; his shots hit front rim. He barely contested on defense at various points in the quarter. For the Thunder to win, Westbrook would need to find the energy even he doesn’t have — and he’d have to do it in four games.

The team around him is stunted by Russball. They’re out of rhythm from 47 minutes of being uninvolved — and out of practice from a season where all strategy besides Westbrook has been abandoned. So they turn back to Russ, who just hoists hopelessly.

One can imagine this Thunder roster being competitive with Westbrook functioning like a normal superstar. Instead, he’s turned into the crazed captain of his ship, and his insistence on trying to catch the white whale on every possession will lead to disaster.

There is truth in all of these things. I think it’s possible to appreciate the majesty of his games while cringing at what the Thunder have become. This is a situation uniquely created for Westbrook — and in large part, by Westbrook. Few players would have the talent to pull off the things he’s been able to. Few would have the gall to try.

There is little recourse at this point. Eighty-four games into the post-KD Thunder, there is no Plan B. They have two options: die, or let Westbrook try to save them.

Honestly, he might. He is that good. It is entirely possible that Westbrook pulls off another 50-plus point triple-double and single-handedly takes down one of the best teams in the NBA. But can he do that four times?

In each game, Westbrook goes off. Some will gawk at the brilliance of the explosion; others will deride the wastefulness. Awesome and awful both come from the same root, and the doomed Westbrook spectacle explains why.