OKLAHOMA CITY — The outfit said it all.
Russell Westbrook, ever the defiant sort, wore a torn turquoise t-shirt without sleeves and a red bandana at a time when a dull, gray suit would have done the trick. Always divisive, usually dominant, and occasionally destructive, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard who cost them Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs wasn’t about to go out quietly – sartorially or otherwise.
He said all the right things, falling on the proverbial sword while discussing the quintessential “Bad Russ” performance that we’ve come to know the past eight seasons: 10-of-31 shooting, three of his five turnovers in the fourth quarter, when a 12-2 Spurs run erased the Thunder’s four-point lead and led to a 2-1 series lead for San Antonio by way of the Spurs’ 100-96 win.
All this progress, all this evolution in his game, and Westbrook picks the worst possible time to justify the simplistic narrative that has surrounded him for so long.
But for a game, for a night, that’s what this was. Westbrook at his worst.
He needed to do the right things, to resist the temptation to shoot all those threes (10 in all, tying his season high) because, well, he’s the fifth-worst three-point shooter in the history of the game. According to Basketball-Reference.Com, Westbrook’s career three-point percentage of 30.2 is only better than Charles Barkley, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Ron Harper.
It’s the elephant in the room that simply must be acknowledged by Thunder coach Billy Donovan, the kind of thing that not only threatens to ruin their opportunity to upset the Spurs but could have a ripple effect on the uncertain future of Kevin Durant. Especially considering the contrast that comes with these two particular teams.
Spurs take lead in series with huge win at OKC.
The Spurs are nothing if not disciplined, their system demanding a dedication to the good-to-great offensive mentality that has played such a huge part in their five titles since 1999. Add in the fact that they’re widely known to be among the many teams looking to add Durant this summer, and this was about as bad a recruiting effort as Oklahoma City could have imagined.
“Just missed shots, man,” said Westbrook, who had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in all. “Execution. It starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of putting guys in position to score the basketball. Especially tonight. I think especially to beat this team. You need to find ways to move the ball around and that starts with me. I’ve got to do a better job of that leading into the next game.
“Just turnovers. I turned the ball over especially when the game rolled on. Just got to do a better job, man. Lock in. Take responsibility when the ball is in my hands and make plays for my teammates. I didn’t do that tonight.”.
Durant, ever the diplomat, knows like everyone else that there’s no running from the reality of this kind of game. He scored 26 points on 18 shots – 13 fewer than Westbrook took. Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard had 31 points on 17 shots, and even LaMarcus’ Aldridge’s inefficient game (8-of-21 shooting for 24 points) paled in comparison to Westbrook’s outing.
Westbrook’s stubbornness needs to come to end if the Thunder are going to pull off this daunting feat. He’s a special talent, the kind of player the NBA has never seen. But in this context, with this opponent, there’s simply no time to revert back to all those old habits that made him so infamous early in his career. It wasn’t just the long-range struggles, either, as Westbrook missed 10 of 17 shots in the paint.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Westbrook quandary was there for all to see. With the Spurs curiously using Kyle Anderson to guard Durant, and anyone who was paying attention begging for the ball to come his way, Westbrook failed to find his co-star on two consecutive possessions. Serge Ibaka buried a corner three-pointer on the first, and Westbrook hit a rare three on the second. The end results, however, didn’t justify the means.
Westbrook, in his attire and his hoops aptitude, stubborn until the end.