Russell Westbrook is going places.
Just not the NBA Finals.
And that's OK.
There were vexing moments like usual throughout the playoffs—trenchant reminders that highlighted the faults and flaws of a star point guard who often fails to differentiate between when to defer and when to take over. Mostly, though, there was a ceaselessly spirited Westbrook playing his heart out, combating the bad with even more good.
Uneven performances remained the standard, but when he wasn't scoring, he found ways to contribute. Still dripping with emotion, Westbrook's volatility did far less harm than some might admit.
When all was said done, and the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs, Westbrook came out the other side of these playoffs a different player—still imperfect, but more than ready to continue moving forward.
Crazy. Westbrook's postseason output was crazy.
After 19 outings, Westbrook became the first player in NBA postseason history to average at least 26 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and 1.5 steals per game. His efficiency from the floor was unimpressive—42 percent overall; 28 percent deep—but he more than made up for his shooting transgressions by getting to the foul line more than eight times per night.
During Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Westbrook easily had the best night of his career, going for 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, pitting himself alongside one Michael Jordan:
Like always, there were some late-game warts and questionable decisions that put Oklahoma City in tight situations. But Westbrook also had his contest-saving moments.
Whether it was coming up with a crucial steal to help force overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies or drilling two clutch free throws to help extend Game 6 against the Spurs, Westbrook showed he's a player who won't take a backseat during crunch time.
Moreover, Westbrook quickly dispelled the notion that Oklahoma City is better off without him.
The Thunder offense improved by 21 points per 100 possessions (110) with him on the floor compared to with him off (89), according to NBA.com. When he was on the bench, they were outscored by an average of 15.5 points per 100 possessions. With him in the game, they were a plus-4.3—a 19.8-point swing.
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For added context, consider the Thunder were a plus-1.6 with Kevin Durant on the floor and a minus-10.3 without him, per NBA.com. Not one of those metrics means Westbrook is better or even more important.
But it's proof that both himself and Durant were equally paramount to Oklahoma City's playoff run.
Actually Taking That Next Step
Statistical dominance has never been Westbrook's issue. That he can actually build upon already ridiculous totals is nothing short of incredible.
Climbing the next rung on the superstar ladder demands that Westbrook continue finding ways to evolve, to better complement Durant and the rest of his teammates.
Three-point shooting remains a sore spot. Westbrook's attack mode is second to none, but he needs to stroke deep balls with more consistency. Knocking down 28 percent of his long-range attempts won't help the Thunder stretch defenses, and they need to stretch defenses.
They converted just 32.3 percent of their three-pointers through the playoffs, a disturbingly low number considering how much offensive firepower they house. The Thunder already field a point guard with limited range in Reggie Jackson. Westbrook cannot share the same shortcomings.
Establishing some semblance of a clutch-time game plan is also a must. According to NBA.com, Westbrook nailed just 30.4 percent of his shots in the final five minutes of games when the Thunder were ahead or behind by no more than five points.
Fourth-quarter performance was a problem for Westbrook in general. Though he shot at least 43.6 percent through each of the first three quarters, his field-goal percentage plummeted down to 40.8 in the fourth. And in five overtimes, he put down just 4.8 percent of his shot attempts.
Oklahoma City isn't going to get over its championship hump if it cannot count on Westbrook to make smarter decisions when it matters most. He shouldn't be forcing action late in games or waging overly reckless defensive gambles.
This is an issue he's battled for much of his career. Scoring economically is something he does sporadically. There needs to be more consistency to his offensive game, a shred of continuity that ensures he won't go cold like he did against San Antonio for much of Game 6.
Even his most stubborn detractors know now that the Thunder—who fell in the second round without him last season—need him. They know that he's a superstar.
All Westbrook needs to do moving forward is show them he's the right superstar for this Oklahoma City club.
Becoming that Right Superstar
Under no circumstance is Westbrook a problem for the Thunder.
On an individual scale, he has his up and downs, twists and turns, moments of clarity and stretches of confusion. Too often, however, Westbrook's responsibilities go overlooked.
Much like Durant, Westbrook is tasked with doing everything. His downfall isn't that he's inefficient, careless with the ball or prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve—it's that his inefficiency, turnovers and raw emotion are the byproducts of him trying to do too much, of him trying to do even more than everything.
Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated penned a fantastic piece following Oklahoma City's postseason exit, during which he detailed how an insufficient supporting cast helps bog Westbrook down:
Most of those regulars in Oklahoma City’s rotation were useful all the same in some capacity or another. Collectively, however, they were arranged in a way that called on Durant and Westbrook to initiate most every productive action. That lack of alternatives left precious little room for decoy or misdirection. Even when the Thunder executed clever plays capable of putting pressure on an opposing defense, those non-stars screening and cutting and spotting up on the perimeter were at times so harmless as to undercut that play’s effectiveness. A recipe is only as good as its ingredients.
Add uninventive coaching to that list. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has the support of his players, and his ability to foster a culture founded upon such loyalty isn't something to scorn.
But it's his archaic, simple-minded offensive sets that place so much pressure on Westbrook and Durant to do everything and frequently create something out of nothing. It's on him to make sure Durant is never relegated to bystander duty in the fourth quarter. Likewise, it's also on him to leash Westbrook.
The freedom he gives his two superstars is a double-edged sword. Ugly shots and unsightly decisions are going to remain fixtures of the Thunder offense if some hint of order isn't injected into their system.
If one must worry about anything, it's the Thunder's capacity—namely Brooks'—to balance Westbrook's rising star with Durant's constantly skyrocketing stock.
To say that Westbrook is becoming too good doesn't make sense, yet his continued progression does pose a dilemma.
Sacrifice is the only way for superstars to coexist, and Westbrook is reaching a point where he may feel he's too talented to compromise. If for some reason that's the case, Oklahoma City has a problem on its hands.
Expectations are only going to rise after this season. The Thunder's playoff campaign wasn't always pretty, but they still managed to finish two victories shy of another NBA Finals appearance. While Westbrook doesn't hinder those soaring standards, his ascendancy does complicate the path through which Oklahoma City must travel to actualize them.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that's a bad thing, but Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan does leave room for the opposite to occur:
And maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps OKC’s stock is such that the cries and clamor will strengthen, rather than snap, its resolve.
Perhaps then, when the window’s an inch from closed, will the Thunder finally realize that getting to the other side is no longer about squeezing through the ever-slimming sliver of space—shrinking to fit someone else's size and shape—but shattering the glass completely.
And why not?
Why can't Westbrook's upsurging preeminence be more encouraging than it is convoluted and problematic? He's had to adapt and adjust to get where he is now.
Journeying even further only asks that he continue to do just this.
“Our organization has done a great job of putting us in a position to be able to win a championship every season," he said at his exit interview. "Once we get to that point, it’s all up to us to make it happen.”
Westbrook has the tools to make things happen, and as the playoffs proved, there is still so much more to come.
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