BY TIM BONTEMPS
April 23, 2017
Russell Westbrook found himself at the podium in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday afternoon, a short time after he and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates fell to within one loss of going home for the summer after a 113-109 victory for the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.
This NBA season has, in so many ways, been dominated by Westbrook, from his chase to average a triple-double for the year to his propping up the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure before leading it back to the playoffs. Much more so, though, in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook’s status as the sole star remaining from the core that, five years ago, looked destined to win multiple championships, has made the guard the axis of the franchise’s existence.
So when Westbrook, seated next to center Steven Adams, heard venerable local columnist Berry Tramel ask Adams — the best interview on the entire team — about the team’s struggles without the guard on the floor, Westbrook decided to take the question for himself.
“I don’t want nobody to try and split us up,” Westbrook said, after advising Adams to “hold on.”
“We [are] all one team,” he continued. “Regardless, if I go to the bench, or Steven’s on the floor, or if I’m off the floor, we in this together. Don’t split us up. Don’t try to make us go against each other, try to make it ‘Russell and the rest of the guys,’ or ‘Russell against Houston.’ I don’t want to hear that. We’re in this together. We play as a team, and that’s all that matters, and that’s that.”
Westbrook then steamrolled further attempts at a follow up.
“That’s fine,” Westbrook said. “Then say, ‘Russell, you ain’t played well at all.’ Or say, ‘Russell, the team hasn’t played well.’ Don’t say, ‘When Russell goes out, the team doesn’t play well.’ It don’t matter. We’re in this together.”
Here’s the problem, though: The question was legitimate because it’s the reason Oklahoma City is about to exit the postseason early. It’s also the same reason Westbrook is almost certain to be named the NBA’s MVP.
In Game 4, Westbrook was plus-14 in his 40 minutes. In the eight he didn’t play, the Thunder was a minus-18 and got run off the court. It was a similar story in Game 2, when Westbrook was a plus-11 in 41 minutes while everyone else was a minus-15 when he sat.
It all comes back to the same narrative that has surrounded Westbrook, and his teammates, all season. Westbrook is doing this by himself, carrying the Thunder despite having little to no help around him.
Westbrook feeds into this narrative with the way he plays. He was remarkable down the stretch this season, leading the Thunder to several dramatic comebacks with superhuman stretches of production. But when that approach doesn’t work, it can look like the end of Game 2, when he took an absurd 18 shots in the fourth quarter and shot the Thunder out of the game. Or like the final few minutes of Game 4, when he chucked up a couple of wild three-pointers inside the final few minutes as the Thunder tried to regain a lead it had coughed up with Westbrook on the bench earlier in the quarter.
This is the yin and yang of Westbrook, and why he has become the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test. Everything about him — including his postgame news conference — can be interpreted in multiple ways. For some, stepping in front of Adams to answer that question was a sign of leadership, of him lending some much-needed support with the Thunder on the brink of elimination. For others, it was an emasculation of Adams, a player who was given a $100 million contract extension before this season because he’s seen as a long-term fixture next to Westbrook who is perfectly capable of answering an eminently reasonable question.
Either way, the end result showed how Westbrook is fully in charge of everything that’s happening in Oklahoma City. And while he didn’t want to talk about his team’s struggles when he’s on the bench, it’s something Thunder Coach Billy Donovan has to address.
The first move should be to drop backup point guard Norris Cole from the rotation as Donovan already had done with Semaj Christon, and use Victor Oladipo as the team’s default ballhandler when Westbrook sits. Donovan also needs to leave Enes Kanter, whose issues on defense continue to be relentlessly exposed whenever he checks into a game, nailed to the bench.
But even if these moves are made, it will still be tough for the Thunder when Westbrook watches from the sidelines. That’s been the case throughout the season, often to Westbrook’s benefit. Sunday afternoon, however, he wasn’t having any of it and wasn’t letting Adams either. And this NBA season, both in Oklahoma City and throughout the league, continued to revolve around him.