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Nobody really thought Russell Westbrook was joking when he told reporters, prior to the playoffs, that a basketball would stand as his only friend during the 2017 postseason. That “Spalding” would act the part of his closest compatriot during his first shot at a playoff run without ex-teammate Kevin Durant. That he couldn’t be expected to dip into the typical, cheery on and off-court interactions with rival and good friend James Harden because “once you get on the floor, you got one friend.”
In Spalding’s defense, the pal has a much more celebrated history than Westbrook’s teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell is the only All-Star on the team, and he’s the only holdover from the franchise’s 2012 trip to the NBA Finals. This not only allows for the room necessary for Westbrook to pull off a triple-double average over the course of a regular season, but to classify himself among MVP candidates as the Thunder look to upset the Jazz.
Not content with his insistence from Saturday, Westbrook dove in a little deeper in this joking, slightly not safe for work appearance at Thunder practice on Tuesday:
Russ on Spalding being his friend: "Y'all didn't understand the importance of what I was saying…Y'all think it's a joke or some shit" pic.twitter.com/kOtwU83nyS
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 18, 2017
From USA Today’s quotation:
“I think y’all misunderstood what I was saying. Y’all didn’t understand the importance of what I was saying. Y’all think it’s a joke or some (expletive). This is a serious thing. This is something that’s important. I think y’all think like, ‘Oh, you only have one friend. The basketball’s your only friend.’ Like, all these guys are my brothers. My teammates are my brothers. James (Harden) is a friend of mine. There’s other friends I have in the league. But. At the same time, when I get on the floor, this is the most important thing for me and just how I do what I needed to do, so it’s actually not a joke.”
God, I love this time of year.
You might recall how Westbrook initiated discussion of this relationship prior to the postseason:
“Whatever the ball is, that’s who my friend is.”
“When I get on the floor, I got one friend, and that’s the basketball. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid. My dad told me that when I was younger, ‘You got one friend and your friend is Spalding. At the time maybe it was Wilson or some other s—.’
This is goofy and silly and also par for the course when you spend the better part of an entire NBA season either answering annoying questions about a teammate that chose to play without you, or Kevin Durant, or your triple-double chase.
Well before midseason in 2016-17, Westbrook was already copping to the acknowledgement that the statistical chase (as cheered on by fans and media alike) was “getting on my nerves” and that “all” the six-time All-Star cared “about is winning, honestly. All the numbers s*** don’t mean nothing to me.”
He’s certainly got a go-to exclamation. He’d also have us worrying if all of this were getting out of hand, were we not in the business of watching Westbrook nearly nightly from October until now.
The league and its observers are lucky to have Russell Westbrook, he made what could have been a dreary NBA regular season more interesting in ways most of the leagues stars wouldn’t dare to deign to. The sugar water advertisements and the dodgy, obviously pre-meditated bits of intrigue are there to annoy, but when Westbrook is in his particular open court, off the court, he remains a hoot.
It’s isn’t just a dumb sportswriter angle to suggest that it is not the best look to come out to meet the world alongside his silent, mostly inanimate (we don’t see the ball come to life when our backs are turned) buddy after a nearly 50 percent usage rate performance in Game 1.
It’s the best thing to see, though, for Thunder fans. Westbrook and Spalding, going it alone, will present the club with its best chance to succeed in this series.
The Thunder were a mess in Game 1. Andre Roberson helped spread the team’s floor by hitting 4-6 threes and 7-10 overall, but the inconsistent non-shooter will no doubt come to earth in the next few games just as Victor Oladipo (1-12 in his playoff debut) returns to his averages. The only consistent thing about this team isn’t its inconsistency, that would be too consistent of them, but its ability to confound. To many observers, this appears due to the rotation’s lingering uneasiness with the setup.
In the playoffs, with Westbrook’s cast of helpers either in new, Durant-less roles or on a brand new team altogether, absolutely nobody knows what to expect.
The Rockets scored just 30 points on 33 three-point attempts and Houston still rolled. Oklahoma City’s spacing on both ends was miserable, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson combined for just six rebounds in nearly 49 minutes while the Rockets hit half their shots and generally ran the roost during a knockout offensive and defensive performance.
The time to keep hands happy with extra passing is for October, Westbrook has already driven too far into the muck with his all-or-nothing show. If the Thunder are to go anywhere in this postseason it will be because Russell Westbrook pulled Oklahoma City toward a win with his somehow sustainable brand of all-out play. It’s either that, or a gimmick works – a standout game from a Thunder teammate that you still cannot reliably count upon to return to the fold the next time out.
Whether or not that is the fault of the teammate or Westbrook’s (to-date) pound-foolish friendship with Spalding (or some amalgamation of all the concerns) will be up for the Thunder and Russell to figure out. While we all watch.
If that doesn’t seem fair, in a team sport that has blessed the Rockets with a series of shooters and finishers that rank a full step above the limited OKC helpers, then dig Westbrook’s insistence from Tuesday, when asked about the work of Rockets guard Patrick Beverley:
“I don’t watch the other team,” he said. “I just watch what I’m doing. I never worry about what other guys are doing, or what they’re doing. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen it all already.”
Normal stuff so far. Westbrook continued:
“He’s a good defender for their team, but I don’t worry about nobody, how they’re defending. I can pretty much do what I want to do.”
That’s a problem. Loads of great NBA players have been afforded not only the talent and ability to “pretty much do what” they “want to do” over the course of the season, but also the environment in which to create. As dutifully supplied by team, teammates, media, representatives and knowledgeable Thunder fans who know that the team’s front office was left as absolute creatures in this instance, when Kevin Durant left a team built (kinda) for Kevin Durant, in exchange for no compensation.
Westbrook’s answer on Tuesday was a quote, not a statement, and it’s one that most pro basketball players will give after they’ve been limited to 6-23 shooting in a big game as Russell was in Game 1. The shots were there, the star will say, I just have to make them. And the less said about the history between Beverley and Westbrook, the better.
That’s not great, though. It’s good, but it’s not great.
This is Doug Collins basketball, and his track record within this style is hardly promising: Collins coached Michael
Jordan and Grant Hill through their most rambunctious years, only making it once to the third round of the postseason as an upset. As with Russell the caveats were in place – who are MJ and Grant supposed to give up the ball to, early in a possession, Sam Vincent and Lindsey Hunter? – and if a 48-minute sampling from Sunday is any indication, the Thunder are soon to meet the same fate.
A 48-minute run, one game, and two jokes during two different practices? This is enough to write a player, a historic season, off?
It shouldn’t be, but this is where the Thunder are at right now because of its commitment to this style in the autumn. The team had no choice but to make a pact with Westbrook at his daffiest, and that partnership kept the team in the playoffs and gave Westbrook the historical bent he couldn’t help but earn on his own: Russell Westbrook is the first player to average a triple-double in a half century, since the last time a guy on a 43-win team pulled it off. Just a week before his club was outed in the first round.
We’re now judging a brief pair of Russell Westbrook’s between-game antics in a way that blames the OKC guard for his role in letting Don Ohl average 24 points per game 55 years ago, but when one approaches the game (and, to hear Russell tell it, playoff life) with such a rigid outlook, it’s hard to rise above. The Thunder were never going to be better than the sum of their parts, and Russell Westbrook and his friend never had any interest in attempting the long way ‘round. Not because he’s selfish, just because there was too much work to do in the interim.
This is why the Thunder are left with Russell, and his friend, to make it alright. Disagree with the approach all you want, one can’t turn their head away from the fascinating way in which Westbrook and his buddy drag us all around.
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