Russell Westbrook's virtuoso performance in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs proved how integral he is to his team's success. On the same token, it also highlighted Oklahoma City's most glaring flaw.
With 4:48 left in the second quarter, Westbrook nearly intercepted a pass intended for point guard Tony Parker near the right baseline. Parker recovered, but only temporarily. Westbrook followed Parker, smacking the ball away from the longtime Spurs stalwart from behind. Westbrook sprinted towards the loose ball, recovered it around mid-court and slammed down an emphatic one-handed jam. Westbrook let out a thunderous roar, and the Thunder took a 42-32 lead.
When Westbrook plays to his full potential, as he did in the Thunder's 105-92 win, he can be the most dominant player on the court. On a team that includes the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant, Westbrook dominated with 40 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds. As evidenced by his second-quarter steal and subsequent slam, he often looks like the most gifted athlete in the league, bullying his way through opponents.
Such is the reason why the Thunder have gotten so far. And it is also the reason why they won't win the NBA Championship this year.
A very good case could be made that Westbrook and Durant are the most talented duo in the league. As of Tuesday night, they have combined to score 65 points or more in a playoff game four times this postseason.
But, what happens when both players aren't playing well? In Game 2, both players scored just 15 points a piece, and the Thunder were embarrassed in San Antonio, 112-77.
Now, with the series headed back to AT&T Center, fans should remember how one-dimensional the Thunder can become, and how helplessly pathetic they can sometimes look.
Coach Scott Brooks too often relies on stagnant isolation on offense. Often times, when things aren't working, Brooks lets Westbrook or Durant get the ball, dribble for a few seconds, and hoist an ill-advised shot. The funny thing is, sometimes this works. Sometimes they draw contact on the way to the rim. This method of play, however, is not sustainable.
If the Thunder do advance past the Spurs, they will likely be tasked with overcoming LeBron James and a finely tuned Miami Heat team that is way better than the 2012 squad that beat them in five games in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James essentially operates like a point guard, weaving in and out of defense coverages, facilitating ball movement and creating open looks for his teammates. The Thunder, meanwhile, regularly tend to stand around and watch one of their two star players try to create a shot.
This isn't to say that the Thunder winning a title is impossible. As evidenced by tonight, when both Westbrook and Durant get in a groove, the team is really, really hard to beat. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested his starters for most of the second half. Tim Duncan watched Westbrook's theatrics from the bench, often resting his head on his arm in powerless exasperation.
With about a minute left in the contest, Westbrook checked out of the game for the final time to a standing ovation from the capacity blue-and-white-clad crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Finally, the magician was able to rest.
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