Following game one of the 2017 NBA playoffs, things looked dire for Russell Westbrook and his team. Losing 118-87, it appeared the Thunder would need monster games from the Brodie to have a chance. Westbrook, as he is want to do, obliged and delivered the highest-scoring playoff triple-double in NBA history (51pts 10rebs 13asts). An inevitability for a player who accumulates triple doubles like the ground collects leaves in fall and demands subservience from every player on his team.
It is that subservient culture Russell cultivated that may have just lead to the Thunders collapse in Game two.
Oklahoma City was rolling early in the game. Westbrook could not miss and his mid-range jumper was working. A sign that the opposing team is usually in for a long night. It was not just Russ that was dominant early, the bigs for the Thunder were fierce, outrebounding the Rockets by 14 in the first half, while Roberson was shutting down Harden and finding holes on the purposely inexistent defense on him.
All of this should have lead to an easy victory for the non-lightning bolts, but then, the bench of the Houston Rockets performed like the arch-heroes everyone has praised them to be. Lou Williams, known for his faults in the playoffs, shooting just 36% in his career, hit multiple three-pointers and acrobatic layups where he did not try to simply draw the foul. This one game lifted his playoff average nearly one whole percent.
Eric Gordon was instrumental due to his ability to drive into the lane and kick the ball out to create ball movement. His dish to Patrick Beverley for a 3 late in the game was crucial for Houston. Pat Bev also brought the fire in the 4th quarter. He was flying around and getting the crowd, who finally arrived, amped for nearly every play. When he is clicking there are very few hustle focused players that emit such energy throughout an arena.
It was not just the Rockets bench that rose to the occasion but the Thunder’s that faltered, hiding behind their giant leader. Steven Adams committed his 5th foul early, forcing Bill Donavon to play bigs that simply could not defend any player the Rockets threw out there. Roberson could no longer contain Harden, who scored 35 points on 17 shots, and after Oladipo hit a few big buckets, he again shrank. Then, Russell did what he has been doing all season, attempted to beat a team simply on the immense strength of his back. Only this time he failed, falling to the Rockets 115-111.
The problem is not only that Russell Westbrook took more shots in the 4th quarter (18) than James Harden did in the entire game (17). It is not only that he made 4 of those 18 shots, many of which were even more out of control than his reckless play usually generates. It was that this was the norm. Russell doing EVERYTHING is not enough, he demands more of himself in the 4th quarter.
He expects to be the game-winning, fist pumping, vein popping hero after every single game. His teammates also expect it. Westbrooks immense greatness has made them figures to cheer instead of humans that play basketball at a high level.
His teammates have to find those versions of themselves again. Taj Gibson is excellent defensively, Enes Kanter can get his own shot at any time, Victor Oladipo has played well as Russ’ second fiddle, Andre Roberson is a shutdown player that can consistently find holes in Houston’s lacking defense, Alex Abrines shot 38% from 3 this season, and Steven Adams looked like a foundational center in last years playoffs.
Russell Westbrook’s unmatched greatness and his team’s unselfish attitude produced a historic season for the Brodie. It also created a conundrum for them in the playoffs. His heroics work over the course of 82 games. But, you need every player to play to their strengths come playoff time. Hopefully, Westbrooks demand for dutiful teammates did not perpetually alter their play. Those players need to show up for the Thunder to have any chance at making a comeback.