Could Russell Westbrook's Selfishness Kill the OKC Thunder's Title Run?
Last night's game between the first-place Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers will be remembered for one thing: three minutes into the third quarter, Blake Griffin threw down an absolutely heinous, in-your-face-disgrace jam on the late Kendrick Perkins.
The other, not-so-positive story, is the possibility of more unrest in the Thunder locker room. In a postgame interview, Perkins lamented the Thunder's poor play, saying that if the Thunder have
"...got plans on winning a title it's called sacrifice," and that he "just came off a team that played with three Hall of Famers that didn't mind sacrificing, didn't mind taking a back seat. In order to win, sometimes you've got to sacrifice. You can win games and do that, but in order to get a ring, you've got to sacrifice."
The team Kendrick Perkins came from, the Boston Celtics, employed future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the former two who sacrificed statistics and individual accolades in the interest of winning an NBA Championship in 2008.
While Perkins' pointed remarks are much more easily allayed in the light of victory (and not being on the wrong side of the dunk of the year), they might help to explain why the Oklahoma City Thunder, on a full weekend's rest, lost to a Clippers team that caught a red-eye flight back to Los Angeles in the morning to catch the second leg of a back-to-back-to-back.
Who will come out of the Western Conference this year?
One player didn't sacrifice very much in the way of possessions last night: the Thunder's point guard, Russell Westbrook, had a whopping 26 FGA to leading scorer Kevin Durant's 23, and finished with 31 points to Durant's 36. Westbrook also committed his 20th turnover in three games, and finished with a fractional assist-to-turnover ratio with a lowly four assists for six turnovers committed.
Westbrook frequently got lost attempting to guard the Clippers' Chris Paul last night, including lethargically falling into a pick-and-roll which led to the aforementioned dunk of the year. To Westbrook's credit, he disrupted the passing lanes and managed five steals.
Unfortunately, the Thunder's defensive breakdown wasn't something able to be mitigated by impressive statistics. Defensively, the Thunder were dead on arrival, surrendering 36 points in the first quarter to the red-eyed Clippers.
While the Clippers would never relinquish the lead following the first quarter, the Thunder came within 11 points seven minutes into the fourth quarter. The Thunder looked a couple stops away from being able to start a late fourth quarter run...and then the following possessions happened:
Chris Paul 11-footer (90-103) contested by Serge Ibaka on a late rotation...Paul contested 23-footer (90-105), OKC timeout, Daequan Cook three-pointer (93-105)...Paul blow-by cradle-layup (93-107)...Westbrook missed 3PA, Westbrook replaced by Reggie Jackson...Paul 18-footer (93-109).
In other words, Paul simply outclassed Westbrook, which is to be expected. What wasn't expected, however, was that Paul would orchestrate the floor with such ease against a team that is currently the favorite to win the Western Conference.
While it is premature to suggest that Westbrook should assume the brunt of responsibility for the team's loss last night, his insistence upon playing on-the-ball and gambling for steals is costing the team floor position and points in the paint (at least 24 of the Clippers' 48 points in the paint were facilitated by penetration by perimeter players).
This phenomenon was actually explored earlier in the season by Portland Trailblazers point guard Raymond Felton, who went so far as to call out Westbrook by name as being expressly a one-on-one player, stating that Westbrook unnecessarily forces rotation by dabbling too often in the passing lane and compromising cooperation in the team defense for individual statistics.
An early-season loss is comparatively light stakes for issues which could be ironed out prior to a playoff run. However, Westbrook's issues have been well-documented and have apparently gone poorly addressed. If the Thunder cannot shore up defensive shortcomings at the point guard position, they could be facing a playoff exit short of the NBA Finals in the event they return to Lob City.
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