Westbrook can't do it all as Thunder drop Western Conference opportunity at San Antonio – ESPN


SAN ANTONIO — Russell Westbrook crossed midcourt, Paul George flanking him on the wing, the Oklahoma City Thunder down three with 18 seconds left. It was painstakingly obvious as to what was coming next; it was just a matter of how tough, how far and if this upcoming 3-point attempt went in or not.

Westbrook took a dribble to cut back to his left, clearing enough space from Patty Mills to launch. Westbrook knew it the second it left his hand, chasing after his shot as it missed everything and hit the baseline. Westbrook continued running, leaning onto the basket stanchion, slapping the padding. The San Antonio Spurs inbounded, hit some free throws, Paul George hit a 3, the Spurs hit some more free throws and that was it, a 103-99 loss as San Antonio seized control of the 4-seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Two minutes earlier, Westbrook caught all air on another 3-pointer, this one with the Thunder down five. The play-by-play lists it as a 28-footer, but it felt more like a 48-footer, and came with five seconds left on the shot clock.

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With the game close, Russell Westbrook shoots two air balls against the Spurs.

Westbrook loves late-clock shots, with his unflinching confidence often seeming to will the ball in the basket. This one didn’t have that outcome, and is the kind of shot that keeps Westbrook forever polarizing. He can take a defensive rebound and run 94 feet for a dunk in five seconds, but the call of the wild 3 is too much to turn down.

It put a cap on an ugly fourth quarter for the Thunder, with just 18 points, and Westbrook at the heart of it. He went 2-of-8 from the floor, and had two costly turnovers. He sat at his locker after the game in his full uniform, slouched deep into his chair, staring blankly at nothing in particular. He stood up, leaning over to grab his feet, and stood like that for a few seconds. The weight of the loss, and the aftermath of the misses, seemed to be hanging on Westbrook. But when asked if he looks back on them with any regret, Westbrook held serve.

“What do you think?” he said, his eyes blinking roughly 400 times, a classic Westbrook tell of annoyance. “You know me.”

The irony is obvious, because Westbrook won an MVP because of those moments. The round numbers were important, but it wasn’t an extra rebound that handed him the award. It was The Moments, the big shots, the game-changing plays, and featured most in all of those, the no-no-no-no-yes 3-pointers. His entire postgame interview consisted of three questions and a total of 55 words, and ended with him saying “you know me” and walking off.

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After the Thunder’s loss to the Spurs, when Russell Westbrook is asked about his two questionable 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter he responds, “What do you think? You know me.”

But that answer was like a picture, painting a thousand words of Westbrook and his mindset. He took the shots last season; many went in. He took the shots on Thursday; they didn’t go in (or hit any part of the basketball goal structure). And he’s going to take them again at some point in the future.

“I trust him in those situations. He’s very bright and he’s very smart,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m going to trust him in those situations.

“I never think it’s about that, as much as I think it’s about the competitiveness and the willingness to go out and try and win a game,” Donovan said. “I’ve always admired the fact that he doesn’t shy away from that. And it kind of makes him who he is as a player. And more often than not, you’re not going to make as many game-winning shots as you’re going to miss. That’s just the reality of it. But it’s the courage to go up there and do that night in and night out and have a belief in yourself to make those kind of shots.”

It has been the same story for Westbrook his entire career. He’s a brilliant playmaker, and a stone-cold shot-maker. His competitive spirit and will to win are what make him so great; and they’re also what can hold him back.

Donovan said, as a team, the Thunder didn’t generate good shots in the fourth quarter, and it’s true — it was about more than two Westbrook attempts. But everything connects back to him, whether that’s George getting only three shots in the fourth, or Carmelo Anthony zero, after he started 3-of-3 from 3-point territory.

“I think it was just us, to be honest,” Steven Adams said of the offense stagnating. “I think it was just us. Just trying to get better shots, mate. Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s just trying to win. Everyone’s trying to make the right play to win. But in that moment, whatever that play is, is what it is. Just got to live with that. I think that’s what it came down to. Execution, mate. Execution of our plays.”

The Thunder are well past any questions of if their big three experiment will work. There have been bumps along the way, but Westbrook, George and Anthony can play together. Sometimes quite beautifully. But as it goes in losses, the volume turns up and the failures of the evening get highlighted. What turned the Thunder season around was Westbrook realizing and embracing that everything still had to run through him. Their struggles early on, ironically, stemmed from him trying too hard to make the fit work, to peel back and play on even ground with Anthony and George. Once Westbrook grabbed the wheel and started driving the bus again, the Thunder found themselves.

On Thursday against the Spurs, the bus hit a pothole and spun out of control. Westbrook doesn’t live in the past, and doesn’t dwell on the misses, or the makes. He has become one of the NBA’s best at slamming the door in crunchtime, but with Anthony and George alongside, the unequivocal freedom from consequence is gone. The Thunder lost to the Spurs for a lot of reasons, but it’s Westbrook that shoulders the burden. It’s never really fazed him in the past, and clearly, doesn’t now.



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