There is nobody in sports who provokes the kind of visceral responses that Russell Westbrook provokes in people who love basketball. Sometimes it's disgust, other times it's delight, and most often it's probably dumbstruck awe.
That last one is me after Game 5 of Spurs-Thunder.
This whole Thunder season has been everything that was always crazy about this team, except now it's cranked up to 150%. Durant doesn't get the ball enough? Well, that's still true, and now Durant might leave. They traded James Harden? Yes, and now they've got Dion Waiters playing the role of Harden. Scott Brooks has been replaced by Billy Donovan, who's spent all season making most of the same mistakes, but with even less authority over Westbrook and Durant than Brooks had. Instead of Serge Ibaka, they are going to war with Enes Kanter. And Westbrook is both better than ever and so empowered and radioactive that it risks bringing it all down.
Game 3 was the ultimate Westbrook experience, great and terrible all at once. First of all, he showed up in a neon Patagonia tank top looking like he just left Burning Man, and even for Russ, it was taking things to another level. Then he mocked a ref on national television, in the middle of playoff game. Then, as Durant was clearly hot (10–18, 26 points), Russ proceeded to look him off over and over again on the way to 31 shots. Thirty-one.
He made 10 of 31, including 3–10 from three. It's like a basketball war crime to play that way in a series this close, with Durant calling for the ball right alongside him. Did you know Westbrook has the second-most 30-shot playoff games of any active player, behind only LeBron James? In Game 3 Friday, he also had two critical turnovers toward the end, his defense was bad (again), and he generally took the offense to a place that made no sense. Even Westbrook admitted as much.
"Execution," he said. "That starts with me. I've got to do a better job of executing and putting guys in position to score the basketball, especially late. And especially against good defense. You've got to find ways to move the ball around and that starts with me, so I've got to do a better job leading into the next game."
In Game 4, he was the player everyone's always wanted him to be. He was chastened. He got his teammates involved, starting with Steven Adams, who took only one shot in 41 minutes of Game 3, and then went 6 of 8 for 15 points in Game 4.
But Game 4 was about KD. Obviously. With Westbrook deferring, Durant had 41 points and took over the fourth quarter, and it confirmed everyone's suspicions about this team: It could work in OKC, if only Russ would give up the ball and get out of his way. If anything, Westbrook's critics were louder after Game 4 than they were after Game 3.
These are all obviously over-simplified narratives, but that's OK. We'll get to that. First, Game 5.
Westbrook started the game with six turnovers in the first two quarters, and OKC was down five points at the half. The Spurs used back-to-back Danny Green threes to take a 13-point lead in the third quarter, and I was sure the Thunder were done. When the Spurs went up six in the fourth quarter, I was again positive they'd pull away. This San Antonio team lost once at home this season, and the Thunder have been making a mess of fourth quarters all year long. OKC wouldn't die, though.
The shot I'll remember most is Westbrook pulling up from 30 feet to drain a three at the end of a wasted possession. A split-second and one fast break later, Durant drained a three of his own, and it was tied. That's the whole Thunder experience in one frame. That's why they always had a chance in this series.
To understand what makes that Westbrook shot incredible, it helps to have watched every other second of this series. Russ has been horrendous from three-point range. It's been true all season, and most of his career. He's shooting 27% in this series, though, and if there's one thing critics and believers can all agree on, it's that most of these shots are probably not a great idea. He's 16 of 51 for the playoffs, and he just keeps on pulling up. And last night was the most ridiculous look of them all, and it swung the biggest game of the series.
So, that was where the awe began for me. It wasn't even about the game from Westbrook or the win for the Thunder. Some people will talk about the blown call at the end involving Kawhi Leonard, or others will focus on Westbrook's outrageous second half (21 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 0 turnovers), but these are secondary. After this week, it's the whole experience.
There's always been an impulse among educated basketball fans to dismiss the narratives that follow the Thunder, and I'm not sure why. First of all, the "narratives" are more true than not. OKC is generally better and more stable with Durant shooting more than Westbrook. Game 3 really was a nightmare. Durant really might leave if this ends badly. Donovan has been uneven all year, and Waiters really is a crucial player on one of the best teams in the NBA.
More importantly, the narratives have always been what makes Oklahoma City addictive. Narratives are stories, and stories are interesting. OKC gives us some of the most vivid characters in the league, with fraught back stories, raw emotions, and uncertain futures. And then the talent is explosive enough to give them a chance against anyone. They are more human than most teams, but also capable of making everyone else look boring and ordinary.
Can Russ control his game without losing what makes him great? Will KD leave, or will he be so dominant that OKC wins and he stays? It's a thousand times more interesting than whether LaMarcus Aldridge will hit enough midrange jumpers to power San Antonio's offense. It's maddening and exhilarating and stupid and great. One minute they are dead, and the next, they are running poor Patty Mills to the floor.
Westbrook's game personifies all of this, of course. Durant is wonderful and as close to unstoppable as any scorer this side of Steph Curry, but Russ is the Thunder's heartbeat.
And I don't know how it ends for Westbrook. I used to assume that he would cost the Thunder a crucial playoff loss and Durant would leave and Russ would eventually turn into a new kind of Allen Iverson—lionized by people who saw him in person, pitied by future fans who see him in context with where the game went without him. Maybe that will happen. The Spurs are absolutely capable of stealing Game 6 and forcing a Game 7 in San Antonio. Then, OKC's future is as uncertain as it was 72 hours ago.
Or maybe the Thunder can finish San Antonio and move on to push Golden State. Durant will stay, and they can keep driving the world insane for a few more years. However it ends, this series has been a good reminder of what Westbrook and the Thunder can do to basketball fans. Win or lose, we will all remember this for a long time.