Russell Westbrook thinks he can make it from here (Getty Images)
On Tuesday night, in a one possession game late in the third quarter against the team with the best record in the Western conference, this is the shot that Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook decided to take:
Yes, that’s a 45-foot three-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. Half of an NBA court is 47 feet. That was a strange decision.
Westbrook attempted the shot because San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal was crowding him as he attempted to bring the ball past half court, and he presumed he could draw a foul (and three free throws) on the active Spurs guard if he caught Neal overreaching as Westbrook attempted a surprising three-point shot. Westbrook nailed the surprise part – nobody expected that – but Neal actually played the attempt quite well, the shot was an airball, and most importantly the referees declined to hand Russell the free throws.
Soon after, the Spurs took what was a close game and turned the remaining 15 minutes into a near-blowout, outscoring the Thunder 32-23 the rest of the way. Totally Russell’s fault, right?
Not really, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
The idea of taking those shots, and baiting the refs, isn’t new. Most of the attempts we’ve seen, though, come near the end of a quarter, with little left to lose and without a full possession to waste as Westbrook did. I’m sure there have been others we’ve forgotten, but the most notable attempt to pull this off came from Gilbert Arenas in a game from 2007 – and that goofball actually attempted one from just inside the three-point line on the other side of the court as the first quarter wound down.
(Then again, the referee that handed Gilbert Arenas the three foul shots was Violet Palmer, so I’m not sure if that should count.)
Even if Westbrook was given the free throws, it was a bum move. It’s a heady, cerebral play to reach for when the clock turns red and the last few seconds are ticking down. Not with 18 seconds left on a shot clock, though, and the ability to run a play for the league’s top-ranked offense still in place.
It should be noted that Westbrook’s move didn’t turn the tide on Tuesday. Westbrook’s absence – he was pulled from the game a minute later not because of this shot, but for his typical resting spot between the third and fourth quarters – did. The Spurs outscored the Thunder by nine points during Westbrook’s four minute rest, with a backcourt of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher failing to make any impact. Much less points, which Westbrook had 25 of.
Twenty-five points on 27 shots, we should point out, with Kevin Durant pouting at times during the second and third quarters because of Russell’s shot-happy ways. The Thunder are now 1-4 against the Miami Heat and Spurs this year, a worrying stat considering that OKC will have to take four in seven from each, within a month, if it wants to grab the 2012-13 NBA championship. A seamless stitching of their two talents will be needed, and though The Russell Westbrook Show is at times unstoppable, it can also be predictable. The Thunder has to be bigger than the sum of its impressive parts.
Darnell Mayberry, the fantastic Thunder beat writer at the Oklahoman, offered this aside from his always must-read game notes:
There was a moment of extraordinary growth seen between Durant and Westbrook, one that anyone who questions the relationship of the two All-Stars should have seen. And it centered on the controversial topic of shot selection and ball distribution between the two. With 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Westbrook led a fast break with Sefolosha on his right and Durant to his left. Westbrook over-dribbled a bit and finally dished to Sefolosha.
Durant threw up his hands and threw one of those 5-year-old fits he likes to give. Sefolosha missed a corner 3, but Westbrook corralled the rebound and nailed a 17-footer. The Spurs immediately called a timeout. Just before reaching the bench, Westbrook and Durant stopped in front of the scorer’s table and talked about that possession, specifically why Westbrook didn’t give it up. The brief exchange was filled with what appeared to be both positive dialogue and body language, Westbrook motioning with two fingers from his eyes to Durant and back, and Durant slapping Westbrook on the chest as if to say “it’s all good.” It was a classic moment that those that like to trumpet the Avon-Stringer Bell narrative never seem to see.
Are we saying that Westbrook is a detriment, and that the Thunder is a worse team when he goes into alpha dog mode? No. We’re not going there – not just out of hesitation, but because we’re not sure what to believe yet. Apologies for the nuance, but this stuff stays online forever, and I also don’t want to look like a chump when he potentially holds up his Finals MVP trophy this June. This can work, and it’s important to remind ourselves (in the era of expecting the Celtics, Heat and Lakers to win it all directly after making big moves) that the Thunder is ahead of schedule. Durant and Westbrook are superstars the team drafted, and those developing superstars made the Finals last season.
And, most importantly, there weren’t many among us that watched last night’s Spurs victory over the Thunder without reflecting back on the time Oklahoma City took four games in a row from San Antonio to close out the Western conference finals last spring. It’s true that the Spurs’ rotation has improved significantly since then, but it’s still San Antonio that has something to prove this spring. At least when it comes to this matchup.
Was it a dumb shot? Yeah. But you know it came from a smart basketball mind. This is a player that is attempting old man tricks at age 24. That’s nearly as impressive as an airball from 45 feet with 18 seconds left on the shot clock is funny.
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