At some point, the Oklahoma City Thunder will reminisce about their 2014 playoff run, either wondering where it all went wrong or looking for somebody to thank.
The blame or privilege will belong to Russell Westbrook, the stickling floor general with an inexhaustible motor, uninhibited shot selection and towering self-confidence.
There is no figuring out Westbrook. Six years into his NBA career, he's still a mystery, equal parts encouraging and frustrating, excessive and necessary. He will hurt you. He will carry you. On some nights, he will do both, like he has for much of these playoffs, and like he did for Oklahoma City in its 105-104 Game 5 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday.
League MVP Kevin Durant remains the Thunder's best player, their most important player. But Westbrook's performance has ample power—enough to define Oklahoma City's playoff run for all the right and wrong reasons.
Game 5 to Remember
Both the beauty and elegance of Westbrook was on full display in Game 5.
Durant fell short of awful. He tallied 27 points, hit all 12 of his free throws and drilled two key shots in the final minute, but he was still bad. The wiry forward connected on just six of his 22 field-goal attempts and struggled to get in any sort of rhythm for the entire game.
That's the beauty of having Westbrook, a superstar.
When Durant is misfiring, Westbrook can bear the playmaking and scoring responsibilities, which is just what he did. Though the Thunder trailed by as many as 15 points, Westbrook kept pressing. He kept coming, pouring in 38 points and six assists on 11-of-23 shooting. He added five rebounds and three steals as well.
Only four other players this side of 2000 have registered at least 38 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals in a single playoff game—Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. Rondo was the most recent player to do it (2012).
Westbrook capped off his performance with comeback-completing, game-clinching free throws. Chris Paul fouled him on a three-point attempt inside 10 seconds to play with Oklahoma City down two. The tension was unbearable, the pressure paralyzing. Durant couldn't even watch.
A poised Westbrook sank all three, as if it was nothing, like he was at practice, nonchalantly taking reps at the charity stripe.
"I told myself I was gonna stay in attack mode," he explained to TNT afterward.
Attack he did. It was beautiful.
After shooting a very economical 8-of-14 from the floor through the first three quarters, Westbrook let loose in the fourth. He went 3-of-9 from the field, negating what was, until then, an incredibly efficient shooting display.
Not even his three clutch free throws came without a cyclopean caveat. Paul bailed Westbrook out on his three-point attempt, or the refs bailed him out. However you want to look at it.
Plenty of time was still on the clock, yet Westbrook settled for a contested three-pointer rather than do what he does best: attack. While it all worked out in the end, Westbrook, the same player who kept the Thunder alive for most of the game, nearly cost them their comeback, too.
You can't make this stuff up.
So Westbrook shaped the outcome in Game 5. When's the last time that happened?
Try Game 4.
The Thunder led by as many as 22 points in Game 4. They were rolling along for most of the afternoon, withstanding any run the Clippers attempted to stage. Westbrook was particularly sensational for most of the game, scoring 17 points and dropping seven assists on 6-of-12 shooting through the first three quarters.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
Westbrook shot 4-of-10 and handed out only one assist. He doubled Durant's shot total, couldn't stop himself from taking a few mid-range jumpers down the stretch and the Thunder blew a 16-point lead.
This is Westbrook. He can go from efficient to erratic in seconds, from helpful to harmful in an instant. That's why the Thunder find themselves locked in another tight battle. They don't quite know which version of Westbrook they're going to get by the game, quarter or minute.
Look at how his stats differ in wins and losses this postseason:
|Westbrook's Playoff Push|
What about this makes sense when you compare it to Westbrook's tendencies and his Game 5 heroics?
When Westbrook attempts at least 20 shots, the Thunder have a losing playoff record (15-17). And when he puts in at least 30 points, they still have a losing record (5-6). It's baffling, and so is his fourth-quarter efficiency of late.
According to NBA.com, Westbrook is shooting 48.5 percent from the floor through the first three quarters of playoff games this year. That number plummets to 39.7 in fourth quarters, yet he's averaging more shot attempts in the fourth (6.6) than any other quarter. Durant, meanwhile, is only taking 4.4 shots in the fourth quarter.
Other than chalking it it up to Westbrook being Westbrook, you can't.
Making Sense of Westbrook's Value
Solving Westbrook is impossible. There will always be unanswered questions. There will always be doubt. There will always be faith.
For all we don't know about Westbrook, though, we do know this: He is not a savior. He is someone who will cause the Thunder problems just as much as he will help them.
Writing for Grantland, Zach Lowe put the point guard's flaws in perspective:
Westbrook is undeniably a problematic player, though it’s hard to untangle his individual warts from those of Scott Brooks and the Thunder’s woefully uncreative offensive non-system. He takes some irresponsible shots, some of which are little more than blind flings tossed so hard they endanger the integrity of the backboard. He is almost frighteningly hyperactive, shooting just before a play really develops because he can’t help it, throwing himself into transition chances that aren’t there, and crashing the offensive glass when he should probably get back on defense. He has become perhaps the league’s worst leg kicker on jump shots, wildly star-fishing his limbs in blatant (and too often successful) attempts to draw fouls on stupid shots.
Everything for the Thunder comes down to Westbrook understanding these issues. He must be able to differentiate between which version of him they need.
Sometimes they need him to take over. Other times, he needs to take a step back, taper his shot volume and curb what can be feckless aggression. It all comes down to him recognizing that, which he has rarely done for an entire game this postseason, Tuesday night included.
That is Westbrook. Game 5 is Westbrook. He will always come with a warning label. His triumphs will always be followed by a "but." That's who he is.
And depending how their postseason ultimately shakes out, the Thunder may or may not have it any other way.