Russell Westbrook has been a subject of both criticism and faint praise throughout the Oklahoma City Thunder's Western Conference Semifinals with the San Antonio Spurs. The attack-first-and-second point guard missed 21 shots in a Game 3 home loss that gave homecourt advantage back to San Antonio and was criticized heavily for not sharing the ball enough with Kevin Durant, and then had a supposed "bounce-back" performance in a Durant-dominated Game 4 win that saw the normally hyper-intense Westbrook credited essentially for not getting in his co-star's way (and rendered mostly unnecessary in the process). The seeming on-court dissonance between Durant and Westbrook in that huge OKC victory even inspired thoughtful consideration that the longtime Thunder stars might no longer be able to play at their peaks simultaneously.
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Tuesday's Game 5 didn't necessarily solve that question forever, but it did prove without a doubt that Westbrook is plenty capable of tempering his most extreme tendencies in a way that doesn't detract from his overall effectiveness. After a somewhat inhibited first half, Westbrook was the best player on the floor in the third and fourth quarters, finishing with 35 points (12-of-27 FG, 3-of-7 3FG, 8-of-8 FT), 11 rebounds, and nine assists in a tight 95-91 victory. His stellar, balanced play gave the Thunder a 3-2 advantage in the series and an opportunity to oust the 67-win Spurs from the postseason at home in Thursday's Game 6.
Westbrook was especially terrific when it mattered most, scoring 21 points after the break and 11 in the fourth quarter, including the game-clinching and-one lay-up on the Thunder's controversial final possession. With Durant playing well but generally struggling to score consistently (21 points on 8-of-21 shooting), Westbrook took it upon himself to create much of OKC's offense without serving as an overbearing presence. He was instrumental in bringing the Thunder back from a 12-point deficit midway through the third quarter and scored or assisted on five of their seven successful possessions in the final 5:00 of regulation.
Though often a divisive figure, Westbrook played like a version of himself that everyone can agree on. His critics harp on his tendencies to force low-percentage perimeter jumpers and drive into crowds, but Westbrook picked his spots effectively and judiciously in Game 5. At the same time, he did not sacrifice that aggressiveness that gives him purpose.
In fact, Westbrook got better and made fewer mistakes as he took more chances. An up-and-down first half saw him play in relatively restrained fashion, an approach that led to a decent 14 points on 5-of-10 from the field but six of the Thunder's 13 turnovers. Westbrook took on much more responsibility in the second half and looked considerably better as a less efficient scorer (21 points on 7-of-17 from the field) but superior decision-maker (two turnovers). On some level, he's a player who needs to attack not just to thrive, but to be effective enough to win games.
With Westbrook providing so much, the other Thunder contributors were able to make plays when necessary. While Durant was not close to as dominant as he was in Game 4 and only took seven second-field shots, he got the line on several occasions and was plenty involved in the Thunder offense in crunch time. And although OKC's reserves did not provide scoring punch as they did in previous wins, they still won the bench scoring battle 20-11.
Curiously, the Spurs, a team known for its ball movement, looked like the less balanced and more isolation-dependent squad for the second-straight game. That's largely been an outcome of a much-improved defensive effort from the Thunder, whose Game 1 horrorshow looks more distant than ever. Committing to hustle and disruption has forced San Antonio away from its intricate five-man passing moves and into a style of play seemingly out of step with the trends they helped popularize. After thriving in the mid-range and post in the first two games of the series, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has seen his shooting form dip considerably against stauncher defense (and due to his own unavoidable regression to the mean):
LaMarcus Aldridge Games 1/2: 33-of-44 shooting, 79 points
LaMarcus Aldridge Games 3/4/5: 22-of-60 shooting, 64 points
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 11, 2016
Aldridge's Game 5 was one to forget — he scored 20 points on 6-of-21 from the field and went 1-of-4 in the fourth quarter. To make matters worse, the Spurs haven't been able to create much offense in his stead. Tony Parker has attempted to take on a larger creative role but simply cannot take on a major share of the responsibility a week shy of his 34th birthday — he impressed in bits but still finished with nine points on 12 attempts in 32 minutes. All that puts even more pressure on Kawhi Leonard, who now seems to relish his status as a top superstar and put up a strong 26 points on 12-of-21 shooting with five steals.
But all players can struggle to go one-on-one against a defender as lanky as long and talented as Durant in crunch time, and Leonard couldn't even get the ball on the Spurs' final four possessions. That stretch was indicative of San Antonio's long periods of ineffectiveness, which also popped up during a 16-point first quarter and a five-minute lull without a field goal to end the third quarter. If not for a 6-of-9 showing from three-point range for Danny Green, the Spurs offense would have looked even worse.
That's not to say that they're out of the series. Optimists can point out that a Parker jumper with 11 seconds remaining in regulation could have given the Spurs the lead, and it's arguable that a correctly called foul before Westbrook's controversial and-one on the next possession would have allowed them to force overtime. On the other hand, trusting that the Spurs will make contested shots under pressure looks like a rough proposition at this point in the series. They're having serious trouble scoring with any consistency and will have to find another path to extending their season on Thursday.
Five games in, the assumptions of this series have been overturned. The Spurs were the more battle-tested and pressure-resistant group, but they have now lost two straight home games after dropping just one the entire regular season and look heavily reliant on their best player. Meanwhile, the Thunder were at a severe coaching disadvantage but seem to have made the better adjustments and have had the more consistent performances throughout the rotation.
OKC now has an opportunity to close out the series on Thursday, a result that would send San Antonio to elimination at least a round before most expected following a franchise-record regular season. The outcome is still very much undecided, but it's clear which team has the upper hand. With Westbrook and Durant each capable of dominating and the defense playing as well as it has all season, the Thunder look to be in excellent shape.
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