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Monday NBA Roundup: Any Criticism of Russell Westbrook Must Come with Sympathy

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts to a play against the Washington Wizards in the first half at Verizon Center on February 13, 2017 in Washington, DC.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2017

I'm not sure anything could make Russell Westbrook angrier than knowing he was the object of pity, which is why we should probably whisper about how it's hard not to feel bad for the guy these days.

And not just because of this:

A 120-98 blowout loss at Scott Brooks' Washington Wizards dropped Westbrook's mini-reunion tour record to 0-2. And though this meeting was nowhere near as emotionally charged as Saturday's 130-114 loss to Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors, it offered a similarly telling contrast.

Both Durant and Brooks have found far better situations since leaving Westbrook behind. Both seem to have grown in new environments. Golden State is the NBA's great foregone conclusion, ticketed for a title and producing historic stats. Washington is the best team in the East since Jan. 1, its win over OKC running its record in 2017 to 17-5.

Durant and Brooks are parts of happy new collectives these days, while Westbrook lingers behind in isolation.

Things aren't all bad for Westbrook, who produced 17 points, four rebounds and four assists on 5-of-19 shooting in just 24 minutes against the Wizards. He will almost certainly make the playoffs and finish in the top three in MVP voting by season's end. Let's not feel too sorry for him.

But the failures against old pals over the past few days brought forth a compelling idea of Westbrook as a tragic hero.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hits the floor going after a loose ball in the first half against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on February 13, 2017 in Washington, DC.  NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The guy just can't be anything other than what he is: wildly competitive, stubborn, confrontational and individualistic. That he's doubled down on those traits in the face of adversity (which, in this case, is less surrounding talent than he's had in years) is telling. Rather than switch gears, Westbrook has mashed the pedal. 

And though his greatest qualities are what make him so effective and entertaining, it also seems reasonable to say his inability to change them is part of the reason both Durant and Brooks are gone.

Yes, Brooks was fired after the 2014-15 season. He didn't choose to go anywhere—least of all away from Russ. But what if the reason he got the boot—his offense always seemed so turn-based and simplistic—was because Westbrook's presence prevented it from being anything else. That OKC's attack remains largely based on Westbrook's dominating every possession suggests that's a reasonable take.

Durant's exit seemed to stem from several factors, but the way Westbrook effectively disowned him afterward indicates that relationship was always a little contentious. That Durant is thriving and getting along with his new teammates says plenty.

This isn't to say Westbrook is some kind of villain. He's not a malcontent or a cancer or anything like that. He's downright magnanimous toward Brooks:

It's to say he can't help himself, and that because he's a player and personality that only operates on one specific frequency, maybe this was the only outcome possible.

And that's kind of sad, right?

Because, just as one example, if he had John Wall's wiring, maybe everything turns out differently.

Wall can't change his makeup either. The guy's a born passer who uses his gifts to set others up with three-steps-ahead floor-surveying vision like this:

Maybe we're taking too much agency away from Westbrook here. But complaining about an inability to change feels less cruel than skewering him for unwillingness. Besides, we've been down the "Russ is selfish" road too many times before, and it always dead-ends. He clearly wants his team to win.

It's just that he's only ever seen one way to make that happen.

So as Westbrook goes at it alone these next couple of months, we can still marvel at his feats and gasp at his numbers.

But maybe save a little room for sympathy.

 

There Are No Shortcuts to Success

The same goes for back cuts.

Early on, it seemed like the Charlotte Hornets were going to sneak their way to a victory—which was good news for Nicolas Batum, who guaranteed one.

Unfortunately for the unraveling Hornets, the Philadelphia 76ers aren't a pushover anymore. Philly won its third in a row, despite Joel Embiid extending his streak of missed games to 10.

Six Sixers (try saying that three times fast) scored in double figures, led by Dario Saric's 18 points off the bench. And T.J. McConnell, who has finished a handful of games with clutch buckets this season, did his closing with words this time:

Philadelphia's 21 wins are more than double its total from last season. Process that for a moment.

As for the Hornets, they've lost 10 of their last 11 games and may be headed for a very active trade deadline. Short-term wins have always been the priority with this Charlotte regime, so this kind of collapse is going to spur some changes.

 

Those Record-Setting Warriors Just Won't Quit

You know the threes are going to fly and all-time marks are liable to fall whenever the Golden State Warriors take the floor.

Usually you expect the Dubs to be the ones doing the history-making, though.

The Denver Nuggets flipped things around on the Warriors, using just nine active players in a 132-110 home win that featured a couple of mind-blowing statistics.

Nikola Jokic's breakout continues, and if it's possible, the numbers he posted Monday are somehow unsurprising. What's perhaps more intriguing for Denver's bigger plans is the phenomenal way Juancho Hernangomez fit alongside him.

Hernangomez hit six triples and finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds in 43 minutes. Kenneth Faried (ankle) will return eventually, as will Danilo Gallinari (groin) and Wilson Chandler (illness). But after a showing like this, maybe the Nuggets will look to follow their trade for Mason Plumlee with another move that frees up more minutes for their Spanish power forward.

Finally, at least the Warriors have a challenge for the rest of the regular season:

 

This Is Why the Jazz Can't Have Nice Things

In this case, the nice thing in question is our unqualified trust as a serious postseason threat.

The Utah Jazz are almost always good, but when they're bad, they're bad. And when they're BAD (adding capitals because in the two seconds it took to start this sentence, the Jazz missed 19 more shots), it's because they can't score.

Utah shot 32.2 percent against the Los Angeles Clippers, including 4-of-23 from long range in a ghastly 88-72 loss. Chris Paul, statistically the key to L.A.'s defensive integrity, did not play.

No wonder the home fans got vocal:

The Jazz still own the 12th-best offense in the league, but there are times when it's impossible to imagine how they ever score enough to compete. In addition to errant shooting, Utah often gets stuck spinning its wheels, moving the ball without purpose and failing to pierce the first layer of its opponent's defense.

That shortcoming has partially contributed to a three-game losing streak, and the inability to generate points is largely responsible for the Jazz's 8-15 record against teams above the .500 mark.

It's hard to get too concerned about a team with a defense as good as the Jazz's, but until the offense stops producing duds like this, questions about real contention will linger.

 

Miami Is Still Streaking

The good news is the Miami Heat are still 13-2 in their last 15 games.

But a more thinly sliced assessment of their schedule reveals the Heat are 0-2 in their two most recent contests, and it's easy to understand why the victories have disappeared if you're head coach Erik Spoelstra:

First of all, somebody had better alert PFT Commenter with hacky football cliches like that. But second, Spoelstra's not wrong. The undermanned Heat got their run going by defending and winning the effort battle, which is what teams at a significant talent disadvantage have to do.

The margin for error—particularly in terms of defensive focus and intensity—is basically nil. So allowing the putrid Orlando Magic to shoot 48.9 percent from the field while getting hammered on the boards by a margin of 52-37 doesn't come close to cutting it.

The Heat are still just two games out of the eighth spot in the East, but the group that showed up Monday didn't look much like a playoff team.

 

Rick Carlisle Has Spoken

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle gestures during an NBA Global Games match against the Phoenix Suns at the Mexico City Arena, on January 12, 2017, in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO        (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
PEDRO PARDO/Getty Images

Even if Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle hadn't just seen his team fall to yet another fourth-quarter blitz by the Boston Celtics (this one was 28-16) in a 111-98 defeat...even if he weren't one of the league's most respected minds...even if he didn't know exactly what it takes to win a championship...

We should still take Carlisle's assessment seriously because—and there's no way to disprove this—he's a wizard.

The assessment in question:

Now, if you're not on board with attributing supernatural powers to Carlisle, please provide an alternative explanation for the way he fashions viable offenses around ill-fitting, frequently washed-up flotsam—which he is doing with this year's Mavs before our eyes.

Failing that, Google "Rick Carlisle Warlock" and marvel at the hundreds of thousands of results.

Anyway, the Celtics have won 10 of their last 11 contests and reside just two games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. With Isaiah Thomas (29 points) and Marcus Smart (437 different intangible contributions...and also 19 points) playing this well, you can see where Carlisle's coming from.

 

Monday's Final Scores

  • Memphis Grizzlies 112, Brooklyn Nets 103
  • San Antonio Spurs 110, Indiana Pacers 106
  • Philadelphia 76ers 105, Charlotte Hornets 99
  • Orlando Magic 116, Miami Heat 107
  • Milwaukee Bucks 102, Detroit Pistons 89
  • Washington Wizards 120, Oklahoma City Thunder 98
  • Boston Celtics 111, Dallas Mavericks 98
  • Denver Nuggets 132, Golden State Warriors 110
  • Los Angeles Clippers 88, Utah Jazz 72
  • New Orleans Pelicans 110, Phoenix Suns 108
  • Atlanta Hawks 109, Portland Trail Blazers 104

 

Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Monday.

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