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For Russ

Russell Westbrook’s polarizing season has come to a chaotic close. Here’s a defense of the most present-tense, impulsive, maddening, and thrilling player in the game today.

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

With a 105–99 win Tuesday night, the Rockets sent the presumptive MVP home early.

Russell Westbrook sat just six minutes in the contest, and in that time, the Thunder were outscored 27–9. But after accounting for 26 of his team’s 33 third-quarter points, Westbrook went 2-for-11 in the fourth quarter and came up an assist shy of a triple-double. Down the stretch, he literally — actually, in real life — blocked a teammate’s putback attempt. And worse still, Patrick Beverley was right:

Everywhere you looked, there was some sort of symbolism to be loaded into the cannon and fired across the bow.

This season’s debate over which of the NBA’s best players has had the best season deepened the ideological rift between those who watch basketball with their eyes and those who watch it with an open Basketball-Reference tab. More so than usual, we’re prone to shouting across that rift, at each other. Somewhere between getting bashed over the head with PER scatterplots and pounding your fist on the bar about how a Shammgod-to-dish move literally saved your life, it becomes clear that the argument isn’t actually about Russell Westbrook or James Harden or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but about competing assessments of what does and doesn’t matter. Now that superlatives won’t be announced until after the NBA Finals conclude in June, that friction only causes even more heat in the postseason.

Unlike regular-degular 1-of-82 basketball, everything matters in the playoffs. Bringing your disarmingly cute child to the postgame podium becomes not only an attempt to evade tough questions, but a demonstrative lack of respect for the Media. Shutting down a question that may or may not qualify as “loaded” — a question which, to be fair, should have been asked all the same — doesn’t just signal that disrespect, but is also emblematic of all a player’s shortcomings, as well as a reminder of their close and recurrent proximity to failure. And losing a first-round series that your underpowered team was never in danger of winning means retconning the last five years of a career.

This much is unavoidable. As a person who makes things out of words for money, heaping outsize importance onto small moments is How It All Works. But we have to, you know, have those moments, in order to read anything into or feel a way about them. Westbrook is, for better and for worse, an endless supply of those moments. In alternate revelations that crash over me — usually single possessions apart — I resolve that he’s my favorite athlete, or my least favorite athlete. I almost envy anyone who has clarity on that one way or the other. But the only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t afford to not pay attention to him.

Sean Fennessey, the captain of this here ship, snatched at why, likening Westbrook to you in a traffic jam “[driving] your monster truck over the masses into the great open road.” But I’d go a step further: Russell Westbrook is most like all the parts of myself that I never get to, nor should I, indulge. And that’s due either to earthly limitations, an unhealthy need for validation from people I don’t personally know, or an appreciation that wearing a bandana on top of a camp shirt with all but two buttons undone is a lewk that, like the accompanying attitude, doesn’t much work without fame.

You can’t ably apply logic or ascribe intention to anything Westbrook does, because few things seem to matter to him for longer than eight seconds at a time.

What feels right must then be right; the choice made is the only one that could be made given the circumstances, the reasoning only as knowable as what he might do next. Russ doesn’t strictly make sense, because adhering to norms wastes energy that could be better expended elsewhere, toward something he actually wants to do, like win. And he plows along in that general direction, the best way he knows how. He’s all knee-jerk reactions, gut feelings, and incidentally, something of a daily affirmation.

True enough, we couldn’t use our inside voices when talking about Allen Iverson, either. He, too, took an “ass-kicking” for being himself. He, too, shot his team out of games. He, too, was evasive but magnetic, unyielding but imminently conquerable, a rebel with a loosely defined cause who frequently mistimed leaps to glory and ended up skewered on bad ideas.

That A.I. teetered — like, a lot — did not matter to me, so long as I could see him bring eternal shame upon Antonio Daniels, twice. On the same play. That infatuation could be considered contradictory, but then again, Iverson was full of contradictions. As am I, a person who is right-handed and left-footed.

By way of explanation, let me switch the subject to Val Kilmer for a second. Specifically Val Kilmer as a sickly Doc Holliday that spends the entire runtime of Tombstone coughing and sweating, and a fifth of it bedridden. Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp is the film’s nominal lead, but Kilmer is the star. Holliday gambles and drinks, but is neither a gambler nor a drunk. He has a distaste for religion, though mainly for coming in between him and those vices. Moreover, he’s reliable and dutiful, but authority makes his ass itch. Needing Holliday’s services as the Fastest Gun in the West, Earp offers to deputize him, but Doc says his “hypocrisy only goes so far.”

Holliday is fiercely loyal. He later steals Wyatt’s badge to take Wyatt’s place in a duel he knows the marshal can’t win. Asked to explain himself on his deathbed, Doc offers that his “hypocrisy knows no bounds.”

Like Doc, Westbrook is another doomed legend whose means, to whatever end, are almost never not questionable. He is a doomed gunslinger, equal parts misconstrued and beloved.

Everything else that we claim to want from a basketball player, from a pro athlete, we have in Westbrook. He stayed instead of agitating to join a better team or go to a bigger market; he plays hard, and he gives everything. The weird commonality among Westbrook’s detractors — aside from pretending that double-digit numbers (in triples) don’t mean more to us than single-digit ones — is that none of them are satisfied with just the consistent application of those values. Westbrook needs to play a more efficient brand of basketball that fits more neatly into the bigger picture of modernity. He needs to be less like himself.

Like everyone else, I saw that—Westbrook being less Westbrook, I mean—in Game 4 of the Thunder’s second-round series last season, when Kevin Durant hung 41 on the Spurs. Durant blacked completely out to even the series at two games apiece, scoring 29 second-half points, with 17 of those coming on perfect 6-for-6 shooting in the final quarter. Russ willingly deferred to the hot hand, as well he should have. KD’s performance was divine, and I felt nothing for most of it.

To watch Durant do Durant is to appreciate aesthetically perfect basketball at an awed distance. To watch Russ do Russ is to be emotionally present in it; to survive a pseudo-near-death experience. Or to not survive it. In the preceding Game 3 loss, Russ had 31 points, but he also took 31 shots. This was admittedly hurtful to his team, and arguably self-serving.

But it was distracting only if you were trying to look at something else. And even so, that was last year. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea that Westbrook is holding back the Thunder is absurd. He’s the only one propping them up.