Damian “Lame Time” Lillard and Hassan “$27 Million on the Table” Whiteside have thoroughly disappointed their respective fanbases with incredibly underwhelming performances, as shown by their physical (and emotional) dismantling by newly minted postseason stars Jrue Holiday and Joel Embiid. Eric “LeBron James, Jr.” Bledsoe continues to get schooled by a player whose name he can’t still quite recall (Terry Rozier). Hard to believe there was a time when NBA fans thought Bledsoe was a gamechanger for the Phoenix Suns.
Kawhi “Sellout” Leonard has been teasing his appearance since his rehab absences in March, but his continued inability to stand together with his teammates against the league’s championship favorite—especially with Gregg Popovich grieving away from the team—proved to be the ultimate villain origin story, and paints a truly deplorable picture of a once-beloved local superstar now being stripped down to his true colors as the lights grow brighter.
But if anyone deserved the title of supervillain team, it would have to be the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have been head-scratching their way into Game 5 with no game plan and momentum whatsoever.
As Thanos and his world-enders serve as counterweights for Marvel’s Avengers, OKC continues their battle against the core principles of NBA team basketball. The Thunder’s insistence to continue their “Hot Potato” Basketball—a “me too” type of rotational scoring that is devilishly reliant on hero-ball and devoid of off-ball movement—leaves too many gaps for the Utah Jazz to pounce on.
But everything begins and ends with the return of Russell “Ball Hog” Westbrook, his significantly less entertaining alter-ego, who continues to amaze crowds by both being completely unstoppable in offense as well as by being completely unable to influence the game without the ball in his hands. Too often, Westbrook would force uneven shot selections, and set screens only to demand the ball back without cutting or moving in any strategic direction.
NBA’s The Starters quoted in their Twitter show that in many ways, Russ resembles today’s Allen Iverson, and we wholeheartedly agree: he is a natural-born rebel in and out of the court, a fashion icon and trendsetter, an overconfident personality with an unmatched machismo and god complex, and above all, a collateral playmaker that changes the complexion of the game only when he’s shooting well.
While last year’s MVP award lends credence to his superiority, his statistics and overall usage this year points toward Westbrook becoming more and more of an irrational confidence scorer—and not the good kind.
He is currently fifth in usage percentage at 32.6%, next only to James Harden, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, and Kevin Durant. He’s also shooting a career-low fg%, 3p%, and efg%, and sporting a career-high turnover ratio this season. For as many triple-doubles Westbrook manages to collect, Oklahoma still struggles at finding the right tempo, ball movement, and defensive intensity that should keep fledgling Utah at bay. Westbrook’s basketball genius cannot seem to positively affect how his teammates play, and being surrounded by another notorious ball hog Carmelo Anthony and score-first Paul “Playoff P” George certainly doesn’t help.
One can say the Game 1 was won by Playoff P’s hot hand from the three—these weren’t plays, but more closely resembled ballsy, contested volume chucks. Melo hasn’t had a signature moment for the whole series—and one might argue the whole season. It’s as if Melo is stuck playing mid-range or nothing with Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose in a minor league.
But Westbrook and the Thunder’s historic inefficiency just happened to cross paths with the unexpected Jazz fury coming into the postseason.
Utah has suddenly found itself steadied amidst the drama with a symphony composed of the returning Rudy Gobert’s ability to singlehandedly deter isolation drives and free up help defenses in hectic moments. That, combined with an unpredictable and free-flowing backcourt motion led by Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles. Yup, Evil Westbrook is being whooped by an Aussie, a rookie, and a guy who’s getting his first taste of the playoffs in seven years.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the Jazz-Thunder matchup was Westbrook being called for his fourth foul minutes before the end of the first half, a few days before he verbally committed to “shutting (Rubio’s) s*** down.” The foul came from an offensive charge drawn by—who else—a doe-eyed, uninterested Rubio, who’s probably just really happy to be there watching ROY candidate Mitchell tear up OKC’s halfhearted defense. Perhaps it is Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s fault, or perhaps Westbrook’s own hardheadedness, but surely Oklahoma could’ve lived with Rubio shooting like that for the rest of the series instead of opening up the floor for Ingles and Donovan to operate? Rubio, while he has improved his 3PT shooting, hasn’t been known to be the most consistent scorer in the league. Russ should’ve singled out Mitchell instead, who feasted his way to 33 pts, 7 reb, and 4 ast.
The Jazz have flexibility and versatility: Rubio and Mitchell can both play on and off the ball, and are both above average perimeter defenders. Rubio, Mitchell, and Ingles can shoot reasonably well when fed off a cut or a spot-up opportunity, and so can bench guys Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder. Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Gobert can defend with their long limbs. Coach Quin Snyder can change up Utah’s offense and defense on the fly, and when all else fails, "Spidaman" can slither his way into the paint with his aerial dives.
Westbrook’s insistence to blindly commit to his emotions without considering the team’s needs led to their downfall, and his downright refusal to answer any questions in the post-game presser confirms it. OKC is supposed to adjust to the Jazz, but Russ might secretly be thinking he can do even better just by trying harder. In trying harder, he just might ignore the timely contributions of Steven Adams, whom many consider to be the lone hero in OKC’s roster, as well as undermine the development of young guns Josh Huestis, Terrance Ferguson, and Alex Abrines.
As of today Evil Westbrook is the Anti-Jason Kidd: a guy who insists on not pumping the brakes when the situation calls for strategic adjustment. He needs to be more cerebral and more patient with his teammates or risk fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the series.
But should Westbrook heartily refuse changes to his play, then this is the Westbrook we will end up with. This is the Westbrook that Durant secretly hated, and this is the Westbrook that just might lose to team that was supposed to rebuild this year.
And perhaps, more tellingly, this is the Westbrook that George and Melo will abandon in the near future for greener pastures.