- How the Thunder play when Russell Westbrook is off the court is as important as how the team plays when he’s on.
The entire Russell Westbrook experience was on display during the Thunder’s Game 2 loss to the Rockets on Wednesday. For three quarters, Russ was brilliant, and had seemingly put his team in position to steal a game in Houston and head back to OKC with the series tied at one. Until the final frame, Westbrook was playing efficient, controlled basketball and carrying his team offensively while keeping his teammates in the fold.
Then, in the fourth, we saw the “worst” of Russ, as he relentlessly launched jump shots while his teammates could only watch from afar. The final statline was gaudy—51 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists and a 55.3 usage rate—but the Rockets pulled away in the last 12 minutes, and they now own a comfortable 2–0 lead as the series shifts north.
If anyone wants to make this game a referendum on Russ and his style of play, that’s their right. For me, in the context of this seven-game series between the Thunder and Rockets, Game 2 proved that no matter which way Russ plays, it won’t be enough to lift Oklahoma City unless somebody else steps up when Westbrook sits.
Is it Russ’s job to get teammates involved? Sure. But Westbrook can’t do anything about Enes Kanter’s turnstile defense. Or Andre Roberson’s offensive limitations. Or Semaj Christon’s ineffectiveness. Or Billy Donovan’s refusal to play more of Taj Gibson. Ultimately, the Thunder are a deeply flawed team, and there’s no group of five players on the roster that can play together without having at least one significant weakness on the court. At some point, those weaknesses always catch up to OKC.
The Rockets’ make the Thunder’s imbalance even more glaring. When Houston took its first lead of the game Wednesday, James Harden was on the bench. Instead, Patrick Beverley was injecting energy into the second unit while Eric Gordon stretched the defense with his shooting. Beverley, Gordon and Lou Williams all hit clutch threes in the fourth, and that made Harden’s job as closer much easier. For all of Russ’s chucking in the fourth quarter, he was a plus-11 in 41 minutes on the court. In the seven minutes he sat, the Thunder were a minus-15.
Westbrook will always be assigned the blame or the credit, and that’s his own doing. But the Thunder can’t even go seven minutes without their superstar and not fall apart. It’s not about the MVP race anymore, but the fact remains, the Thunder are a disaster when Westbrook is off the court.
Those seven minutes were a bigger deciding factor Wednesday night than Russ’s abysmal shooting down the stretch. His three quarters of outstanding basketball built a lead that was lost in a precious few minutes by his backups. By the time Westbrook re-entered the game, Houston was energized, and the Thunder’s role players had just shown they weren’t quite ready for the moment.
It’s easy to argue about what Russ needs to do when he’s on the court, if he needs to pass more or if he’s the reason his teammates don’t perform better. Except most of those questions have already been answered. In 71% of their total regular season minutes, with Russ on the court, the Thunder shot better, scored more, played better defense, rebounded the ball better, assisted on more shots and turned the ball over less compared to when he sat down.
Russell Westbrook is always going to be a positive force for the Thunder. He may not have won the game for his team on Wednesday. But Russ also wasn’t the reason OKC lost. Every playoff minute is important, and as long as the Thunder keep digging holes for Russ to climb out of, they’ll have to live with the results of Westbrook doing things his own way.