Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has been one of the leading figures of the 2014-15 season, an overwhelming force who has taken on near-unprecedented levels of responsibility with long-term injuries to teammates Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. He is no longer an especially serious MVP candidate, but it's arguable that Westbrook is the single-most fascinating player in the NBA right now.
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It's also now quite possible that he'll only play one more game this season. Westbrook scored a career-high 54 points (on an even more notable 43 shots) in Sunday's big game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but it was not enough to avoid a 116-104 loss. The Thunder are now fighting for their playoff lives and must hope for at least one more loss from the New Orleans Pelicans in order to enter the postseason as the West's No. 8 seed.
The bigger problem is that they are probably going to need to win both their remaining games, the first of which could come without their essential star. Referee Ed Malloy tagged Westbrook with his 16th technical foul of the season at the 5:57 mark of the fourth quarter after he said some words following a foul call on the perimeter. Take a look:
That's Westbrook's league-leading 16th technical foul of the season, a threshold that automatically triggers a one-game suspension. It's possible that the league will rescind the foul on Monday — it can be interpreted as looking a little soft, as Durant tweeted right after it happened:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 13, 2015
If the foul isn't taken away, though, then Westbrook will miss Monday's crucial game against the Northwest champion Portland Trail Blazers in Oklahoma City. While the Blazers are struggling with their own key absences, it's very hard to imagine the Thunder beating a playoff team without the player who accounts for so much of their offense. In fact, their best hope would be that the Blazers, already entrenched in the No. 4 seed with no chance of gaining homecourt advantage over whichever team finishes at No. 5, simply opt to rest stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
If that seems pessimistic, then it's probably because you haven't watched the Thunder much over the past few months. Westbrook has played something like a basketball version of total war, throwing himself into every possession as if losing (a single play, not just the game) would require him to quit the sport in shame. The highlights from Sunday provide a taste of what he's like:
But they definitely don't tell the full story. Westbrook's 43 field-goal attempts (he made 21 of them) put him on a list of just four other players who have taken as many in the last 30 seasons, and the majority of those instances involved overtime. Plus, Westbrook also dished out nine assists (with only two turnovers, somehow). There is no clear precedence for what he has done for this team.
Westbrook has been so overwhelming, in fact, that it's easy to overlook what this game meant to the Pacers. At 37-43, they're now tied with the Brooklyn Nets for eighth place in the East and are only out of the playoffs due to having lost two of their three matchups in the season series. With remaining games against the Washington Wizards and at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Pacers would not appear to be likely to pass the Nets, who host the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic. But it's arguable that this season has already been a success, because it looked lost as soon as Paul George went down with his gruesomely broken leg in a Team USA exhibition this summer.
The same cannot be said of the Thunder, a franchise that has been among the league's elite for the past several years. Injuries or not, missing out on the playoffs would be a major disappointment after an NBA Finals appearance in 2012 and four-straight division titles. On a more selfish note, the league would become significantly less interesting and epic with Westbrook on the sidelines. If he does not play Monday and the Thunder are eliminated, then at least he went out as he lived — in an awesome, not entirely rational blaze of glory.
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