Here we go again. The Oklahoma City Thunder will pack their bags one round short of reaching the NBA Finals. Why? Primarily because Russell Westbrook has forgotten one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history plays on the same team.
I have been waiting for this point all season. I am not a Thunder hater. I love watching exciting basketball teams and there are few teams more fun to watch than Oklahoma City.
However, around the same point last season, it became painfully evident that the Thunder would not take the next step in their development unless Westbrook changed his game.
And he hasn't. If anything, his bad habits have gotten worse.
When I looked at Westbrook's raw stats throughout the season, they did not have the look of a guy who had learned anything by being bottled up and forcing the issue deep in the NBA Playoffs last season.
His scoring was up and assists were down. He attempted nearly three times as many threes per game, even though his shooting percentage from deep dropped significantly. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was capturing his third straight scoring title, a feat accomplished in the NBA's modern era by only Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin and Michael Jordan.
The Thunder's play all season did allow me to doubt my own logic. Convincing wins over the Miami Heat and the rest of the NBA's elite had me thinking, "Maybe this team is different. Maybe Durant and Westbrook are so good they can with one on one ball."
But my NBA-purist brain would not truly allow me to believe that. Somewhere a veteran, mistake-free squad would take the the talented Thunder to school with great team play. The San Antonio Spurs are that team.
The problem is Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder are so good, they do not have to work out these flaws in the regular season. What is good enough to beat 99 percent of the teams will never get past a disciplined, complete team like last year's Dallas Mavericks or this year's Spurs.
I am not blaming Westbrook for all the team's problems. But so often, a team's pace is decided by the point guard. And when your point guard is averaging 5.5 assists and 3.6 turnovers while shooting 19 times per game, it does not bode well for a well-rounded brand of basketball.
Now, a team has stepped up that will not fall victim to Westbrook's elite athleticism and series of crossovers. But at this point, the mercurial young guard does not have anything left to rely on but the bad habits that were good enough to beat every other team.
I can excuse Westbrook for shooting too much. That will happen when you are the second-best player on a team with no bench and only three scorers.
What I cannot excuse is this stat: 45 to 36. That is the number of shot attempts for Westbrook (38 percent from the field) and Durant (50 percent) through two games in the series. For the record, forgotten man James Harden scored 30 points on just 13 shots last night.
Last night, when the Thunder were in the midst of a late-game comeback and desperately needed a bucket to keep the team's hopes alive, Westbrook raced down the court and shot a pull-up three.
Clank. Game over. 0-2 hole.
Durant has now shot the ball five times combined in the last two fourth quarters. Westbrook shot the ball nine times in the fourth in Game 2 alone.
Tony Parker, on the other hand, was a maestro. Parker does not have a single physical advantage over Westbrook, but that did not stop him from dominating his opposition. Parker scored seven more points on three fewer shots. Beyond the box score, everything Parker did looked so smooth, while everything Westbrook did looked so forced.
Russell Westrook desperately wants to be The Man.
When the chips are down, he wants the ball. There is nothing wrong with that. I'd rather have that than a star who shies away from the moment.
But until he slows down and let's the game come to him, he and the Thunder are always going to come up short in the NBA Playoffs.
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