After Oklahoma City’s Game 4 loss to Houston on Sunday, reporter Berry Tramel asked Steven Adams why the Thunder are significantly worse when Russell Westbrook comes out of the game. But Adams never answered: Westbrook swooped in and said the question was divisive, that all the Thunder’s flaws were earned collectively, and barked, “NEXT QUESTION.”
While Westbrook’s outburst was delightful for sports pundits and other folks who live for drama, it seemed to be a big bummer for Tramel, who tried in vain to get a response from Adams as Westbrook repeatedly shut him down. So as a public service to him, we’re going to attempt to answer his question.
Westbrook is the presumptive MVP after one of the greatest statistical seasons in league history. He is OKC’s best scorer, rebounder, and passer; it is not altogether surprising that the team struggles when he leaves the game.
But it’s stunning how much the Thunder struggle. They’re plus-3 when Westbrook is playing in this series, and he has played more than anybody else on the team, registering 153 of 192 possible minutes. They are minus-40 in the 39 minutes he has rested. They are as good, if not better than the Rockets when Westbrook plays; they are more than a point a minute worse when Westbrook sits.
The flurries of failure led to collapses in Games 2 and 4. In each of those games, the Thunder outscored the Rockets by at least 10 points with Westbrook playing. In each game, he sat only twice, for no longer than five minutes at a time. And yet, the Thunder lost. They were minus-15 in 6:38 without Westbrook in Game 2, they were minus-18 without Westbrook in 9:18 in Game 4; they lost each game by just four points.
What the hell happens when Russ leaves the floor? Do the Rockets instantly grow taller? Is Westbrook holding up pictures of his teammates’ pets and threatening to kill them if they score? Have the refs been allowing the Rockets to carry machetes on the court when Westbrook leaves? Would the intimidation factor of holding a machete on the court outweigh the inherent disadvantage of using one of your two basketball-playing hands for machete-holding?
To find out, I watched all 39 minutes in which Westbrook has restbrooked in these playoffs. Occasionally the non-Russ Thunder glance at competence, and occasionally, the Rockets’ successes aren’t the fault of Russ’s Thunderstudies. But they are a deeply broken team without Westbrook, a cast of players with easily exploitable flaws and no way of consistently creating points.
Restbrook No. 1 (Game 1, 1:43 1st to 9:21 2nd)
Units: Semaj Christon, Alex Abrines, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Enes Kanter / Christon, Victor Oladipo, Abrines, Grant, Kanter
Summary: The Thunder looked surprisingly decent offensively, but allowed buckets on almost every Rockets possession.
Highlight: Westbrook’s primary backup, Semaj Christon — a.k.a. Backward James with the Backward Game — took a 3 on the first possession despite being a 19 percent 3-point shooter and banked it in!
He called Ssalg!
Lowlights: The Rockets could not be stopped. They went 6-for-10 from the field with three offensive rebounds. All six baskets came in the paint. Enes Kanter, a decent offensive player who is useless defensively, looked doomed against Rockets center Nenê, who has three offensive boards and two putbacks.
Restbrook No. 2 (Game 1, 2:37 3rd to 9:14 4th)
Summary: In a blowout, the bench was unable to stem the tide.
Unit: Christon, Abrines, Roberson, Grant, Kanter / Christon, Oladipo, Abrines, Grant, Kanter
Highlight: Roberson, who has been the primary player defending James Harden all series, blocked a Harden shot and turned it into a bucket at the other end after a nice pass by Christon.
Lowlight: Kanter’s defensive masterpiece:
He looked like a compass after you put a magnet over it. It was a bad stretch for Kanter, who also decked Nenê for an offensive foul.
Restbrook No. 3 (Game 1, 4:14 4th to end)
Units: Christon, Oladipo, Roberson, Grant, Steven Adams / Christon, Oladipo, Grant, Abrines, and Sabonis / Christon, Abrines, Doug McDermott, Grant, Domantas Sabonis
Summary: Harmless garbage time.
Highlights: The Thunder didn’t get totally burned by Bobby Brown, who was shamelessly gunning in his first career playoff game after spending the last seven years playing overseas.
Lowlight: Roberson might be good at defending Harden, but he isn’t much of a scorer. Here, he screamed, “OH SHIT,” while missing a 1-foot layup off the backboard.
Restbrook No. 4 (Game 2, 1:31 1st to 9:14 2nd)
Units: Christon, Abrines, Roberson, Grant, Adams / Christon, Abrines, Roberson, Grant, Taj Gibson / Christon, Oladipo, McDermott, Grant, Kanter
Summary: For the first time, the bench squad got torched. A 32–20 OKC lead turned to 41–35 as the Rockets scored 15 points in four minutes.
Highlight: The Thunder didn’t shoot well, but they did have three offensive boards and two putbacks.
Lowlights: Lou Williams scored seven straight points. He missed a layup, but Kanter’s attempt to block that shot brought him 8 feet away from the glass, allowing Williams to easily grab the rebound and score.
Remember what we were saying about Roberson not being a scorer? He’s a 26 percent career 3-point shooter. Watch:
It’s stunning that Adams dribbling one-on-four in the post was an actual offensive set here. It tells you a lot about the Rockets’ opinion of Roberson that they were fine with leaving him open even though there wasn’t much else going on here.
Restbrook No. 5 (Game 2, 2:21 3rd to end 3rd)
Unit: Christon, Oladipo, Kyle Singler, Roberson, Grant
Summary: A catastrophe. A 12-point lead evaporated into three points in under 150 seconds. The Thunder went 1-for-5 and the Rockets go 5-for-5 with two 3s. On 10 possessions, they got one good result.
The performance was so bad, coach Billy Donovan opted to stop the bleeding by reinserting Westbrook into the lineup to start the fourth — in spite of data the team reportedly has indicating Westbrook plays poorly when asked to play entire 12-minute quarters. That data appeared to have been accurate — Westbrook looked gassed while shooting 4-for-18 in the fourth.
Highlight: The Thunder hit one shot, an Oladipo 3.
Lowlights: OKC did not get a single stop. I can’t actually be too upset about this. OKC didn’t even do anything wrong — in fact, some of the possessions are defended really well — but Houston can score on anybody.
This offense, on the other hand …
This, I believe, is supposed to be a Christon-Grant pick-and-roll.
Doomed. Even worse, this is Kyle Singler’s haircut.
It’s like he got a mohawk and then decided to repurpose it into a man bun but didn’t have enough hair to pull it off.
Restbrook No. 6 (Game 3, 2:05 1st to 8:38 2nd)
Units: Norris Cole, Abrines, McDermott, Roberson, Adams / Cole, Oladipo, Abrines, Grant, Kanter
Summary: After the Game 3 catastrophe, Christon was banished. He was replaced with two-time NBA Champion® Norris Cole, who signed with the team in March. With a net score of zero, this was the best performance by the Thunderstudies thus far in the series.
Highlights: Norris Cole hit a 3! OKC went 7-for-11 from the field. Everything is fixed.
Lowlights: Houston hit three 3s. Again, hard to blame the bench squad for Houston drilling 3s. They always do.
Restbrook No. 7 (Game 3, 0:57 3rd to 8:57 4th)
Units: Cole, Abrines, McDermott, Roberson, Adams / Cole, Oladipo, McDermott, Grant, Kanter
Summary: Nothing goes to hell. Westbrook recharges and comes back to help earn OKC’s lone win of the series to date. (This is how bench units are supposed to operate.)
Highlights: Roberson got a stop on Harden on the final possession of the third quarter, fist-pumping at his success.
McDermott, an excellent shooter, did his job, getting open for three 3s and hitting two.
Lowlight: This Jerami Grant … dunk attempt that doesn’t get within five feet of the rim.
Restbrook No. 8 (Game 4, 2:21 1st to 9:49 2nd)
Units: Cole, Abrines, McDermott, Roberson, Adams / Cole, Oladipo, McDermott, Grant, Kanter
Summary: OKC’s offense totally stalled, as an early double-digit lead was cut to just three points. Houston scored more points on foul shots (six) than OKC did total (four).
Highlights: The Thunder actually clamped down on the Rockets! Kinda! They recorded two blocks, including one on Harden.
Lowlights: That defensive toughness came with three fouls and six made Houston free throws. Cole’s offensive magic was gone, as he went 0-for-3 from the field. McDermott did something besides shooting, and it went poorly:
Restbrook No. 9 (Game 4, 2:28 3rd to 9:42 4th)
Units: Cole, Abrines, McDermott, Roberson, Adams / Cole, Abrines, Oladipo, Roberson, Adams / Cole, Abrines, Oladipo, Roberson, Gibson / Cole, Abrines, Oladipo, Grant, Kanter
Summary: All is lost. Westbrook left with a seven-point lead; he returned down two.
Highlights: Oladipo went 2-for-2 from the field! In nine non-Westbrook shifts, Oladipo is the only player to record a positive offensive statistic in two of them.
Lowlights: The four non-Oladipo players went a combined 0-for-4 with three turnovers. Cole was particularly hurtful, twice turning over the ball. Kanter hurled the ball at the side of the backboard:
Things were even worse on defense, where the Rockets hit three 3s. Cole is not as good as Christon defensively: The Rockets easily shot over him and Williams got an and-1 bucket against him.
Tramel seemed to be looking for some cosmic reason why OKC was flailing without Russ. Were the players’ spirits sapped without their emotional leader? Did Russ bring much-needed energy?
The answer is crueler. Normally, the Thunder play four players alongside Westbrook. He is capable of destruction, slamming rims into nonexistence; he is capable of creation, making the majority of the team’s points, even the ones he doesn’t score.
When he leaves the court, he is replaced with two players who probably don’t belong in the NBA. They are point guards, and therefore hypothetically capable of filling Westbrook’s role, but calling Westbrook a “point guard” doesn’t quite capture what he does or how he does it. He’s a driving demigod. Replacing him with a player trying to play point guard is like putting the regular engine from a used PT Cruiser in a Formula One race car.
Neither Cole nor Christon can shoot, and the Rockets don’t respect their shot. Christon seems to be a good passer, but he’s not beating anybody off the dribble. Although Cole was modestly useful for the championship Heat teams a few years back, he was recently playing in China. The four players surrounding Cole or Christon are used to Westbrook making miracles and occasionally finding them in position to score. Now, they get nothing.
The Thunder have two players who seem capable of scoring without Westbrook’s guidance, Oladipo and Kanter. But Kanter is such a sieve on defense that putting him in the game almost certainly means the opponent will score a ton of buckets inside. They’re almost better off punting on offense than playing him.
Oklahoma City is playing against an innovative, explosive offense, capable of hanging 3s on anybody. With Westbrook, there is at least some hope of fighting back; without him, those barrages go unanswered.
The Thunderstudies didn’t get dominated every time they took the floor. In short doses, they were capable of holding the opponent even, or of being outscored by only a little bit. When they were able to get stops, they scored well in transition. But they can’t compete with the Rockets for any meaningful period of time.
With Westbrook on the floor, this team is among the best in the NBA. When he rests for even a moment, it instantly turns into a trash inferno, stoked by sucky, sub-NBA scrubs. I don’t know if he’s the NBA’s best player, but the argument for calling him most valuable is clear. We’re witnessing his VORP in real time, and it is massive.