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After Incredible Stretch Run, Russell Westbrook's Reputation Takes Another Blow

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMay 19, 2021

Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

BOSTON—The buzz around the Boston Celtics this weekend has centered around Kevin Garnett being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest to ever don an NBA uniform.

Celtics Nation got a bonus soon after Garnett's induction when it was announced that his teammate from the 2008 championship team, Paul Pierce, would be joining him next year after Pierce was among those chosen to be part of the 2021 Hall of Fame class that will be officially inducted next year. 

But there was another future Hall of Famer, Washington's Russell Westbrook, who was in town looking to add to what has been an otherworldly resume that includes him passing Oscar Robertson earlier this month for the most triple-doubles in NBA history. 

And in Tuesday's play-in game against the Celtics, Westbrook had the kind of final line—20 points, 14 rebounds, five assists—that would be a game to celebrate for most players. 

But the Celtics made him a shell of the often-dominant superstar we normally see on the court. 

Westbrook had 20 points, but he got it on 6-of-18 shooting from the field. And while he was a perfect 8-of-8 from the free-throw line, the Wizards came into Tuesday's game leading the NBA in free-throw makes (20.1) and attempts (26.2). They fell short in both of those categories Tuesday night, with 17 made free throws on 20 attempts.   

It was indeed an off night for Westbrook and the rest of the Wizards.

But don't get it twisted. 

Even on an off night, Westbrook is still a better player than most of the NBA.

A combination of fiery competitiveness and elite instincts getting into the paint combined with an uncanny knack at rebounding the ball unlike any 6'3" guard has ever done, he is indeed a basketball unicorn on so many levels.

Westbrook is a nine-time All-Star and former league MVP (2017) who has averaged a triple-double— averagedfor four consecutive seasons. You won't find any argument about whether he is one of the NBA's top guards playing now.

But from there, things get kind of… complicated. 

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

While no one questions his talent, questions continue to persist as to whether Westbrook is indeed one of the all-time greats to ever play the game, or whether he's the physical embodiment of this fantasy league, data-driven era of NBA basketball that we're currently living in. 

One thing we do know. 

His play, and that of the Wizards, didn't provide any kind of clarity on the matter, as Boston pulled away in the second half for a 118-100 play-in victory. With the win, Boston moves on to the playoffs as the seventh seed, where they will face the Brooklyn Nets

Meanwhile, the Wizards' season will come down to Thursday's game against the Indiana Pacers, who kept their postseason hopes alive with a 144-117 thumping of the Charlotte Hornets

It's pretty simple. 

Wizards win, and they move on to the playoffs and face top-seed Philadelphia

If they lose, their season is over and the narrative that Westbrook's success is about individual accomplishments more than team success will live another day.  While the Pacers' personnel is different than the Celtics, Indiana will look to take away at least one of Westbrook's Big three skills—scoring, rebounding and passing—akin to what Boston did on Tuesday in limiting him to just five assists. 

In Westbrook's defense, Washington was far from full strength against the Celtics with Westbrook's fellow All-Star Bradley Beal (hamstring) acknowledging earlier that he wouldn't be 100 percent for Tuesday's game.

Beal had 22 points but got them on 10-of-25 shooting to go with nine rebounds and six assists.

But the Celtics are the last team that wants to hear anyone else complain about not having main guys available. Boston played Tuesday's game without its No. 2 scorer Jaylen Brown (wrist) and went the entire season without a single game played with its top seven players.  

Regardless of who is healthy or not, it doesn't change the fact that the narrative that has dogged Westbrook for the bulk of his career is alive and well heading into Thursday's must-win matchup with the Pacers. 

But what does that mean?

And maybe more significant, what will it look like when Westbrook takes the floor in a game that will decide whether the Wizards' season is over or whether they live to face the best team in the East.

For the Wizards' season to end like this, it doesn't do justice to how Westbrook elevated the play of a squad that for many was dead on arrival a while ago. Washington's surge in May was the perfect storm, consisting of playing well while fielding a schedule of really bad-playing teams.

The Wizards ran off 10 wins in 11 games, beating down back-of-the-pack squads like Cleveland (twice), sprinkled in a few other non-postseason qualifiers like Oklahoma City (twice) and Sacramento.

His play was good enough to earn Eastern Conference player of the month in May, averaging 26.3 points, 16.1 assists and 13.8 rebounds per game.

But all that is in the past now.   

Thursday's game against Indiana has more on the line than just advancing to the playoffs. For Westbrook, it becomes another entry into the narrative of Westbrook, one that's long on individual accomplishment and short on team success.

Getting to the playoffs won't garner a parade in the nation's capital for the Wizards. But for Westbrook, it does strengthen the argument that he and his longtime coach Scott Brooks (first in Oklahoma City, now in Washington) have maintained for a while: that when the dust settles, Westbrook's place in the annals of basketball lore should be among the greatest to ever play the game. 

"I used to always say he's probably gonna go down as the third-best point guard ever," Brooks said, "but I think he's passed one and he's gonna probably go down as the second-best."

In Brooks' eyes, only Lakers legend Magic Johnson was a better point guard in the NBA than Brooks. 

"There might be some that probably shoot better, there might be some that can probably do certain things better," Brooks said. "But there's nobody in the history of the game that can do what he does throughout the stat sheet."

He's right about the impact that Westbrook consistently makes on the stat sheet. 

But that comment in itself raises a lot of questions and concerns about Westbrook, especially heading into Thursday's matchup with the Pacers. 

Which matters more to Westbrook: racking up numbers or winning? 

You won't find anyone questioning Westbrook's competitive nature.

"He's as elite as elite gets in this league when it comes to competing," said an Eastern Conference scout to Bleacher Report. "But wanting to compete and competing, isn't the same as winning. And that's the big question we all have had with Russ going back to his days in OKC. He wants to compete like no other; but does he want to win? Is he willing to do, or not do, what it takes?"

Westbrook will get another chance to answer those questions, and then some, on Thursday.   

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