Russell Westbrook emerged as the NBA’s MVP favorite this season thanks to a bevy of historic numbers. From his triple-double records to his scoring title, Westbrook stood out as the biggest story of the regular season due to his assault on the records books and intense style. He was the best show in the league, and everyone hoped that he would offer the same incredible performances in his first postseason as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s sole superstar.
From that perspective, then, Westbrook’s Game 2 of OKC’s first-round series against the Houston Rockets was a smashing success. He bounced back from a poor 22-point, 6-of-23 showing in the Rockets’ Game 1 blowout win to put up astounding stats on Wednesday — 51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, and four steals in 41 minutes to register the first 50-point triple-double in NBA playoff history. It’s rare to see a player post numbers that quite possibly may never be reached again, but that’s exactly what Westbrook did at the Toyota Center.
However, those numbers will forever serve as a footnote to a late-game performance that helped the Rockets to a come-from-behind 115-111 win and a commanding 2-0 advantage in the series.
After shooting 13-of-25 from the field through three quarters, Westbrook went 4-of-18 in the fourth on a variety of forced, difficult shots. Meanwhile, fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets executed well to take control and reaffirm their superiority as a 55-win No. 3 seed.
Westbrook is often a boom-or-bust player whose performances cannot be viewed outside of his team’s needs, but his Game 2 will go down as a career lowlight. This fourth quarter shot chart shuts down most of the debate:
Russell Westbrook missed 14 shots in the 4th quarter, the most misses in any quarter in the last 20 postseasons. pic.twitter.com/gI4tIsmh0b
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2017
The experience of it was much worse than those shot locations indicate. Westbrook forced 3-pointers early in the shot clock, initiated slight contact with defenders in the hope of drawing unlikely fouls, and seemed largely disconnected from the rest of his teammates throughout the period.
He got very little help, and many members of the Thunder seemed unwilling to attempt shots when open. Yet a player who gets credit for taking on so much of the offensive burden also has to take the blame when things go wrong. Westbrook was terrible when OKC needed him to be great, and he’ll have a lot to answer for when he takes the court again for Friday’s Game 3. At least he’ll have the home crowd to support him.
Thunder's Russell Westbrook on posting NBA's first postseason 50-point triple-double: "I don't give a f— about the line. We lost." pic.twitter.com/hRZG4zUkSy
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 20, 2017
The fourth-quarter struggles were all the more glaring in comparison to Westbrook’s first three quarters. He initially responded to his poor Game 1 as a superstar should — with the kind of game-changing play that seemed to put the Thunder on course for a road split and home-court advantage over the rest of the series. Westbrook’s first half was excellent — he matched his Game 1 output with 22 points (8-of-15 FG, 6-of-6 FT) and nearly logged a triple-double by halftime with 10 assists, eight rebounds, two steals, and a block.
Even better, his teammates were able to succeed alongside him. Five other Thunder players hit the break with either seven or eight points, and the team combined to shoot 26-of-47 from the field and 13-of-14 from the line with only four turnovers. It was exactly the formula that was supposed to let the Thunder push the Rockets to the brink in this series.
A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Apr 20, 2017 at 7:12am PDT
It continued to work in the third quarter until Westbrook went to the bench with the Thunder up 86-74 and 2:20 on the clock. OKC went on to score just three points the rest of the period, whereas Houston put up 12 to make it a one-possession game.
The Thunder offense stagnated without its superstar and struggled to get shots until late in each possession. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Westbrook reentered to start the final period with the rightful belief that he needed to take over. He just happened to interpret that role especially poorly.
All this end-game nonsense aside, OKC was -15 in the 7.5 minutes Russ sat.
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) April 20, 2017
Guys: the control for Westbrook was his OWN 1st half performance w/ the same teammates. He found smart ways to set them up until he didn’t.
— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) April 20, 2017
By contrast, Harden impressed late with a startling level of command and control. Although he took just four shots in the fourth, he dominated the proceedings for the Rockets by baiting defenders into fouls, finding open teammates for good shots, and proceeding with a confidence that affected the rest of the team.
The Rockets’ late-season arguments for Harden as a more worthy MVP than Westbrook were rather poorly formed, but this game showed why virtually everyone agreed they were in a better position to compete for a championship. It’s somewhat odd to say a guy who scored 35 points on 18-of-19 free-throw shooting and dished out eight assists had a quiet night, but Harden excelled with steadiness and resourcefulness on a night when Westbrook’s maximalism drew most of the attention.
If Harden deserves credit for the win, though, then it’s also necessary to point out that his approach wouldn’t have worked half as well if not for the play of his teammates. Three other Rockets finished with at least 15 points, and the stellar bench scoring duo of Eric Gordon and Lou Williams arguably won the game with their combined 43 points on identical 8-of-14 shooting nights.
One late sequence exhibited the difference in the two sides especially well. With 3:00 on the clock, Harden got Thunder guard Victor Oladipo to tangle with him on a shot attempt and hit two free throws at the line to break 104-104 tie. Westbrook came back at the other end and forced a mid-range jumper 14 seconds into the shot clock in the hope of getting a foul, after which the Rockets worked through 19 seconds of possession for a backbreaking corner 3 from Game 1 hero Patrick Beverley.
Yet it wasn’t Harden who got Beverley the ball — he had to give it up to Gordon out of a trap, and the Sixth Man of the Year candidate made the play for Beverley’s big jumper. Westbrook just hasn’t had that secondary playmaker to cover for his mistakes.
— Positive Residual (@presidual) April 20, 2017
Two games in, the telling difference between this series’ two superstars is that Harden plays like someone who knows he doesn’t have to do it all, while Westbrook seems convinced he has no other choice. Perhaps the latter is misguided. So far, the results back him up.
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