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  • Russell Westbrook came under fire after the Thunder lost their first-round series to Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers. The OKC star is often controversial, but was there much to criticize about his Game 5 performance? The Open Floor podcast considers.
By Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver
April 26, 2019

Russell Westbrook is always polarizing. That didn't change when the Oklahoma City Thunder took on the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. His latest postseason complete with a square off with Damian Lillard and a 118-115 Game 5 loss that will go down in history, another chapter has been added to the book on Westbrook. While Lillard was the star of the night and was defended by Paul George when his final shot secured the series, Westbrook still became the focus of much ire on the Internet. Andrew Sharp and The Washington Post's Ben Golliver talk about Westbrook's performance and whether he deserved to be condemned.  

(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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Ben Golliver: Let's get to this e-mail from Jacob because he's coming at your throat, Andrew. 

Andrew Sharp: OK, so Jacob says, 'Do you remember the scene in The Naked Gun, where a guy crashes his car into a gas tanker, which then crashes into a ballistic missile, which crashes into a fireworks factory and has explosives and fireworks light up the sky, Lieutenant Frank Drebin urges a crowd of spectators to please disperse because there's nothing to see here. That's what I thought of when I saw Andrew Sharp's tweets heaping generic praise on Russell Westbrook and saying that this is about Lillard, not Russ, and that of all the knights to crush Westbrook this isn't one of them. Ben, do you want to start here or should I just respond?

Golliver: Go ahead and make your case. I mean, I'm not going to make some movie analogies, but I didn't totally agree with you. But go ahead make a case.

Sharp: OK. Well, first of all I responded to Jake individually and we had a nice exchange after this. I appreciate any sort of Naked Gun analogy emailers want to make. And as far as the Westbrook thing, it did kind of drive me crazy, to be honest with you. After that Game 5, after Lillard has basically like an out of body experience and then everybody as soon as the buzzer sounds starts pulling up Westbrook numbers and saying, 'Here we go again. This guy can never win. What a fraud, etc, etc. This is why Kevin Durant left.'

And to me all of those criticisms are fair, and yet they seemed like wildly misplaced on the heels of that Game 5 because I came in expecting the Thunder to fold, expecting Russ to be the absolute worst version of himself and neither one of those things happened. The Thunder played their a--es off, fought back when they were down. I believe it was eight or 10 in the third quarter and the game looked over, and then they just refused to disappear. And Westbrook, his shooting numbers were not great, he missed a lot of layups around the rim. His shot selection was actually really impressive, like he wasn't taking the bad threes, he wasn't getting into the pissing contest with Lillard and he was keeping his teammates involved and keeping his team in the game.

And I think the lesson from this series is that Westbrook isn't the same player, and a lot of that shows up in those finishes around the rim. He doesn't have that explosion anymore or quite as much explosion; he's still like an absolute freak of nature. But that little drop off has really hurt him, and his jumper is broken and his future is uncertain. But given all those limitation—all of which were known coming into Game 5—I thought Westbrook went out and had a really dignified, proud, impressive performance in that game where he played his ass off and made the Blazers be incredible to get that win, and they really had to fight and Lillard had to play the game of his career to get that win. And so I don't know I didn't come away from that game being like, 'Oh, man, Westbrook, we got to talk about what a f---ing clown this guy is.' It seems like everybody else was on that page so a drive it drove me a little crazy.

Golliver: Well, the narrative was definitely prewritten. You know it was clear that Westbrook was gonna be taking the abuse. We had already talked about it. Everybody had already talked about it. That's how it was gonna go down if they lost, and so that part didn't really surprise me. I understand what you're saying a little bit in terms of his Game 5 effort, but I don't think you ever showed this leeway to a guy like James Harden. I mean, 11 for 31, and I think also there were some real faltering moments late. I tweeted this, but they go on a 13-2 run, the Blazers do, in the final three minutes of the game and Oklahoma City's final eight possessions—and this has been the time they've always struggled dating back to even the Kevin Durant era, right? It's that late game stuff where it's my turn, your turn. They don't get the good shots, they succumb to their worst tendencies.

I mean, their final eight possessions are Dennis Schroder misses a three, Westbrook misses a two, George chokes two free throws, Westbrook gets called for a charge, Grant misses a two, George commits a turnover. Finally, George actually made a mid-range two and then Westbrook missed a layup to kind of set up Damien's three-pointer. That's just not good enough, man. That's just not, even for a guy if we're saying look you're no longer a top-10 player. Maybe now you're a top-15 or -20 range player in the case of Westbrook. You still have to do better than that or you're going to get criticized.

And I think if they had still lost the same way, Lillard still hits the game-winning three pointer but Oklahoma City was just a little bit more stable down the stretch, I would be more inclined to agree with your interpretation of events. But I think that it was a case of some really bad ghost coming back to bite them at the worst possible time, and some of the fundamental criticisms of Westbrook whether it's self control with the turnover and the missed a layup and some of the other things. Honestly, Andrew, if Harden had had that same stretch in the final three minutes you would just be crushing him, you'd be killing him, man. You know that.

Sharp: Well, I don't know if that's true because Westbrook willed them into the game and Harden I think has had a lot of moments where he's not exerting that kind of influence on games in the playoffs. And that's the whole problem, where you kind of watch him and you're like, 'Is he here? Where's his head at?' Whereas Westbrook was locked in the entire night and playing the right way, playing with a purpose or whatever you want him to do. 

Golliver: He was not playing with a purpose. 

Sharp: Yes, he was. Look, he wasn't for most of the series and was getting involved in a lot of going back and forth with Lillard and not being able to match him shot for shot because he can't shoot anymore.

Golliver: And that's a caveat. That's a big caveat. Isn't that a big caveat, though? He missed 20 shots. It's still a closeout game and he missed 20 shots.

Sharp: No, no, no. He didn't miss 20 jump shots. He missed a lot of chippies around the rim because he's not the same player anymore. But he wasn't maniac Westbrook. This was not Game 6 against Utah where he goes down and shoots like 15-of-45. This was a different player and people just had already made up their mind that they were gonna get crush Westbrook.

Golliver: I agree with you that it was predetermined. There's no question about it. I just think that he still failed in some of the same ways we've seen before. It wasn't to the same degree, but the same issuesmaybe they're exacerbated in one direction or the otherbut he does the same fundamental flaws: the lack of self-control, the lack of playing with a purpose and the lack of a jump shot all bit him in Game 5.

Sharp: I don't agree. I really don't agree because I think that a lot of his fundamental flaws can be put into two categories: One, there are some fundamental limits in his game that complicate his fit in the modern NBA. And I think that's what we saw in Game 5 because those limits were have been exacerbated as his game has deteriorated.

Golliver: OK, so let me ask you this: How come they only had two points in the final three minutes? If he's playing with a purpose, he's got everything under control and he's a changed player, how do you explain the end game?

Sharp: That leads me to my second category, where he's not always approaching the game the right way. And you absolutely can question his mentality in some of these games. But the mentality in this game was completely fine. And when you look at the final three minutes... He had a charge call go against the Thunder that was a 50-50 call, and it would have been a three-point play and that would have sealed the game for OKC. And it was an incredible finish from Westbrook. It was vintage Westbrook. So I'm not really going to kill him for those final three minutes. He had played the entire second half. 

The same was true of Paul George. Everybody was running out of gas and and so that's the way it goes sometimes. It's hard to win on the road in the playoffs and the Thunder were right there and lost on like literally one of the most iconic shots we've seen in the last 15 years. So it just all kind of struck me as odd. I think all the Westbrook criticism is fair but that was a pretty gutsy performance from him that honestly kind of caught me off guard as someone who's watched the last 10 years of his career.

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