With 43 points and one mistake, Russell Westbrook still learning in NBA Finals
MIAMI – Russell Westbrook hugged a couple well-wishers lining the arena's hallway, said his goodbyes and off he went to the Oklahoma City Thunder's idling bus. He exited the night as he entered it: throttle locked forward, no looking back, few, if any, regrets. This is both Westbrook's greatness and his curse. He's always moving at one pace, his dial forever cranked to 11.
Westbrook had just delivered one of the most relentless NBA Finals performances, scoring 43 points while attacking the Miami Heat from every angle. He'd nearly single-handedly squared the series, almost giving the Thunder an improbable victory in the closing minutes. "A hell of a game," LeBron James said.
And yet for all of Westbrook's brilliance, the Thunder didn't win, falling 104-98 in a Game 4 decision that's now left them a single loss from the end of their season. No glory on this night. Instead, Westbrook had to answer for the role he played in the stinging defeat. He's one of the true game-changing talents this league has, but he's also young and full of mistakes, and he committed a costly one in the game's closing moments.
With the Thunder down three with 17.3 seconds left, Udonis Haslem and James Harden lined up for a jump ball. If the Heat retained possession, they would have just five seconds left on the shot clock. Westbrook never recognized that, and when Mario Chalmers tracked down the tip, Westbrook intentionally fouled him.
"Just a miscommunication on my part," Westbrook said.
"Could have been a communication thing," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
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Thunder center Kendrick Perkins indicated the players were reminded about the shot clock. Harden said they weren't. This much is certain: There was confusion on the court when the situation called for a clear head.
That job usually falls to the point guard. Of all the responsibility a point guard carries, the most important is knowing score and time. For that, Westbrook failed his team. When the Thunder needed him to show restraint, he once again rushed full speed ahead.
The Thunder didn't lose the game because of that play. There was no guarantee the Heat wouldn't have scored on the possession or even that the Thunder would have made a tying 3-pointer. But the mistake did show why the Thunder are sitting in a 3-1 hole: They've played to their age too often in this series. For all their talent, they just can't get out of their own way. Against LeBron James, against these desperate Heat, brain-lock is fatal.
It's in these moments when the Thunder also must remind themselves: As dominant as their point guard has become, he's still so young.
The Finals have shaped up as a referendum on Westbrook, but he's among the least of Oklahoma City's problems. His performance in Game 4 merely reemphasized how big a mistake it was for Brooks to sit both him and Kevin Durant in the third quarter of Game 3 as OKC's 10-point lead shriveled. Brooks' substitution patterns again came under fire Tuesday – this time from his starting center. Perkins questioned why Brooks went away from the group that built a 17-point lead in the first quarter – a group that, coincidentally, included Perkins.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Perkins said.
[Related: Adrian Wojnarowski: LeBron James pushes past vulnerability to lift Heat to cusp of championship]
These are the cracks that begin to shy in a frustrated locker room. The Thunder's battle-tested backup point guard also hasn't shown the greatest decision-making. With Westbrook having scored 13 consecutive points for OKC to tie the game midway through the final quarter, Derek Fisher took it upon himself to barrel into the lane for a layup attempt that Dwyane Wade threw back. Among a point guard's other duties: knowing who has the hot hand.
If the Thunder were going to win, it would fall on Westbrook and Durant. For all the talk about their Big Three, the Thunder have been hurt by their Missing One. Harden is shooting just 35 percent in the series and has scored fewer than 10 points in three of the four games. Give Harden this much: He's making it less expensive, by the game, for OKC to re-sign him.
Westbrook did only what he's always done. When the Thunder needed someone to step up, he took the game into his own hands. He did the same in the Western Conference finals last season when Durant was content to float on the perimeter, and he did it again on Tuesday when only he and Durant seemed capable of making a shot.
"He was trying to win it by himself," Perkins said.
Perkins meant it as a compliment, though this also speaks to Westbrook's core. Asked earlier this season to explain why he plays with such fury, with such emotion, Westbrook told Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears: "My dad always emphasized growing up that the ball is my only friend."
Westbrook's teammates will laugh at that. Sometimes they have to remind him that they, too, are on his side. They're also quick to point out something else: Westbrook's aggressiveness is too often miscast as selfishness. He's a leader in OKC's locker room, and his sense of humor can lighten the mood as much as his scowl darkens it.
[Related: Heat's Pat Riley: No plans to return as coach]
Westbrook has forever been doubted, and the criticism has hardened him. He'd come under fire for his play in these Finals and he didn't wilt. On the 24-year anniversary of Isiah Thomas' epic 43-point night against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, Westbrook went for 43. Magic Johnson ripped him earlier in the series then apologized on the air after Tuesday's game. Not that it mattered much.
"Let me get this straight: What you guys say doesn't make me happy, make me said, doesn't do anything," Westbrook said. "It's all about my team and us winning a game. I don't have a personal challenge against you guys, and it's not me against the world. It's not the world against me.
"It's me and my teammates trying to win."
The 43 points, Westbrook said, "really doesn't mean nothing." Like Thomas and the Detroit Pistons 24 years ago, Westbrook and the Thunder lost. He'd made a mistake at the end of the game, and once again everyone wanted to know where his head was.
The Thunder will take the bad with all the good. Win or lose these Finals, everything is a lesson for Westbrook. He's only 23. There's still time to grow.
Westbrook walked out of the hallway and into the arena's loading dock early Wednesday. Full speed ahead, as always. For Westbrook and the Thunder, it's win or the season's over. No reason now to look back.
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