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The Thunder Keep Their Faith in Russell Westbrook, Remain Winless

Let Westbrook beat Westbrook?

Sacramento Kings v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Truths are passed down from generation to generation, older sibling to younger sibling, NBA season to NBA season. During his junior year at Michigan State in 2011, a 21-year-old Draymond Green would hand down his own truth, when he put an adage out in the world that’s still reshared to this day:

Russell Westbrook isn’t adored because he’s an efficient basketball player. You either love him or you hate him, and the passionate group of Westbrook naysayers use his inefficiencies as tinder for their hatred. Those who love him try to ignore those same inefficiencies for his other, better qualities. Westbrook is the 6-foot-3 lovechild of power and energy. Other players drive to the basket in a Subaru WRX; Russ crashes a Lamborghini on every possession and just hops into a new one on the next.

It can be mesmerizing to behold. But it’s difficult to make the case for Westbrook in moments when the Thunder find themselves trailing in crunch time. Because no matter the outcome, good or bad, the events that lead up to the final buzzer often play out the same. He will decide he’s the best option for the last shot with the game on the line. And he will force up a 3. That self-belief is what makes him who he is. It’s also what kept Oklahoma City winless on Thursday, falling to Boston 101-95, as he shot and missed six jumpers in the final six minutes. The Thunder are now 0-4 on the season, their worst start in the decade since the franchise moved to OKC.

Throughout the first half, the Celtics offense was the most painful thing about the game. It was hard to believe anything could top their shooting; Gordon Hayward made Boston’s first 3-pointer of the night on their opening possession in the third quarter. (Boston went 0-for-11 in the first half.) But then the Celtics briefly returned to form in the third quarter, dropping 40 points in the frame, including nine 3-pointers. It was the kind of offensive explosion that seemed like a matter of time for a team with as many considerable offensive options as the Celtics have. Boston’s big third allowed them to keep the game close. From there, they let the Thunder hurt themselves.

With the game falling away from the Thunder, Westbrook Westbrooked. He took three 3s and three midrange pull-ups in the final six minutes and 13 seconds of the game, missing all six.

His final shot was written in the books before he even caught the ball. Down three, Westbrook caught the inbound following a full Thunder timeout. Less than a second after catching the ball—26.5 left in the game—he pulled up 28 feet out.

It was a predictable way for the Thunder to go out, and that predictability is inevitable when an offense is as limited on the perimeter as OKC is. They’re top-heavy, with Westbrook and Paul George providing nearly all of the juice. As reliable as Steven Adams is, he can’t create his own shot to bail his team out. After Adams, the hierarchy gets murky, and that’s when the Thunder fall off a cliff.

The best defense one can make in favor of Westbrook’s aggressive shooting is the lack of options around him and George. But we aren’t talking about the clutch gene or someone whose efficiency dwindles late in games. He’s inefficient throughout. This is just a part of the whole. Against the Celtics, Westbrook scored 13 points on 20 field goal attempts. Shooting is a probability game, but in down-to-the-wire situations, Westbrook’s awareness shuts down and it becomes a matter of blind faith.

Two seasons ago, Westbrook was Oklahoma City’s only choice. If he cost the game on a last-possession shot—which was rare, for what it’s worth—there was always the same excuse to fall back on: What other choice did he have? That’s no longer true, yet Draymond’s tweet still holds.

In Westbrook’s postgame game interview, he admitted the 0-4 start was hardly ideal. “Obviously,” he said, “we’re not starting the way we wanted to, but we’ll be OK. I will make sure of that.” It’s the Westbrook mentality in one quote: It’s his responsibility to win, one that he doesn’t feel comfortable putting in someone else’s hands. Other elements of the Thunder offense desperately need to grow to be able to compete. Maybe that’s Dennis Schröder becoming more involved or Patrick Patterson finding consistency from the arc. Westbrook becoming self-aware in crunch time is a necessary part of that evolution.