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The Gravity of the Thunder’s Situation

One of the worst postseasons of Russell Westbrook’s career has Oklahoma City staring at a 3-1 series deficit to the Utah Jazz. A world of questions awaits should it lose again in the first round.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook entered Game 4 of the Thunder’s first-round series against the Utah Jazz wearing a web of kinesiology tape on both shoulders, perhaps to hide the bruises from the cupping procedure he’d had done earlier in the series. In Game 3, the faded circles around Westbrook’s shoulders were on full display, clustered above the scars along his right arm. Together, his right shoulder resembled an interstellar map from the 16th century: stars, planets, streaking comets, and all the detritus in between. Russ didn’t have the world on his shoulders; he had a galaxy.

Now, after a dispiriting 113-96 loss to the Jazz on Monday night, we see in full the weight those shoulders bear. All series, the reigning MVP has been outplayed by the Jazz backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio, a rookie and a player who took seven years to reach his first postseason. Westbrook finds himself in familiar territory, down 3-1, gazing into uncertainty. But this time, Game 5 could very well change the course of four different futures. As ever, it begins and ends with Russ.

Nothing in this series has gone right for Westbrook, who is in the midst of the worst postseason of his career. He still has almost averaged a triple-double, but considering how central he is to every aspect of OKC’s game plan, that’s saying only that he’s healthy enough to be on the court. The series matchup is a hackneyed study in contrasts between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and the latter is winning in a landslide.

It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect defense against a Westbrook-led offense than this Jazz squad helmed by Rudy Gobert. Westbrook’s effectiveness against most of the league revolves around his ability to magnetize the floor with his locomotive drives to the rim. He attracts as much attention as possible and finds holes quicker than the defense can recover, whether that means kicking it out to a 3-point shooter, hitting the roll man with a pocket pass, or finishing himself. What separates this strategy from every other point guard’s in the league is the sheer velocity of his actions. He attacks with such terrifying conviction that help defense becomes almost an instinctive, fight-or-flight response. Westbrook’s forays create a vortex effect in the middle of the lane, and no one is more equipped to use momentary chaos as an ally than the person who’s installing it. But the Jazz are built to ignore the chaos and trust in their sentinel at the rim. With Gobert capable of defending the entire painted area simply by extending his reach, all four Jazz defenders around him don’t have to worry about help defense.

Westbrook’s attempts around the rim have largely been stymied, and his passes have largely been under duress and thrown away into traffic. The pick-and-roll has long been one of Westbrook’s more reliable weapons, especially with the emergence of Steven Adams in the past two seasons. But against the Jazz, he’s been put in a vise. In the first three games, Westbrook scored 0.39 points per possession as the ball handler in the two-man game, the exact same level of putrid efficiency that sunk Damian Lillard in his hopeless performance against the Pelicans. On Monday night, it was both the Jazz’s swarming perimeter defense and Russ himself that forced him out of rhythm; Westbrook had four fouls before the end of the first half.

No one will ever question the energy he infuses into a game, but it might be fair to question how that energy is channeled. The reason the Thunder are underachieving in this series is the same reason they underachieved in the regular season. Now 86 games in, the team has yet to achieve an offensive cohesion on a level higher than the my-turn-your-turn stasis of the previous Thunder era—a habit that has been seared into muscle memory. You know what the plays look like: Westbrook hands the ball to Paul George or Carmelo Anthony and immediately becomes a bystander from behind the 3-point arc.

Perhaps that was always how Westbrook kept his rampaging drives apace, by taking the equivalent of an overworked employee’s bathroom break. But enabling Anthony on isolations at this stage in his career is a self-inflicted injury, and forcing George to create a shot by himself eliminates the advantage that his elite off-ball ability establishes for an offense. Teams at this point are very much aware of Westbrook’s inactivity without the ball in his hands, which makes the habit all the more frustrating during the postseason. It’s not like he’s never played off the ball before; when James Harden essentially played point guard during the Thunder’s 2012 NBA Finals run, Westbrook found success as a cutter. He is a player who demands so much attention that any kind of motion from him can lead to good results. Here, in Game 3, Westbrook sets a down screen for George, leading to a foul on Joe Ingles because the Jazz perimeter players were forced to scramble in tight space:

And here, in Game 4, Russ … kind of walks around looking ready to set a screen at three different points but never actually sets a screen.

It confused the hell out of the Jazz for a second, and maybe that was enough for George to get into rhythm on an admittedly tough 3 from the top of the arc. But hey, in the playoffs, you don’t argue with results. But these plays were two drops in a torrid sea, and it’s unclear who this is an indictment of: Russ or the coaching staff.

Two weeks ago, Westbrook, who has explained his role as a player with terse and nebulous language his entire career, delivered the clearest Russell Westbrook Job Description yet: “My job is to do everything,” he said hours before the final Thunder game of the regular season. “That’s what I do. I go out and do everything and I do it on a night-in, night-out basis. Nobody else do the same shit I do every night.”

He’s not wrong. If the San Antonio Spurs as a franchise have used Jacob Riis’s fabled stonecutter’s credo as an organizing principle for success, Westbrook’s success is a recording of the quote played back at 5x speed and set on infinite loop. In Russ’s world, something is being cracked in half every possession—it’s either going to be the rock or him. Insistence might be Westbrook’s most distinguishing stylistic trait, perhaps even more so than his inexpressible athleticism. He crams himself down a defense’s throat time and time again because that relentlessness is how he has come to define himself as a basketball player, consequences be damned.

Westbrook stands as the closest thing today’s NBA has to Kobe Bryant. Both future Hall of Famers have a compulsive drive to understand the game better, to dig deeper into what it means to play the right way—Russ spends his downtime on team flights watching game film and will wake up a teammate to discuss play errors if he notices them out of position. But on the court, their self-belief overrides all else, including the successes and failures of their teammates. Their play runs parallel to their teammates; the same laws don’t always apply. As such, they will always be the ones to decide a game, for better or worse.

But he can’t decide the future. He has no ultimate say over whether George stays or goes, or whether Anthony will mercifully turn down his forthcoming $28 million player option to maybe play with his best friends elsewhere. Sam Presti made a franchise-altering gambit on this season, but the Thunder are staring at the exact same fate they faced this time last year: a potential five-game first-round exit, ousted by a team that was simply better. By the fourth quarter, Westbrook had gotten in the face of a number of Jazz players, including Gobert and Ingles, raging against the dying of the light. It gave me the same sinking feeling as the desperation 3s he tends to hoist at the ends of close games. In prosperity, Westbrook’s force of will is galvanizing, but when games escape his control, his will flares in a way that the game can’t contain within its boundaries. The Thunder are in the midst of an indeterminate twilight. If we thought the past two years were the biggest challenges of Westbrook’s career, just wait until we see what lies on the other side.