2017 NBA Playoffs Running Diary: Russell Westbrook’s Last Stand

I knew that at some point during these NBA Playoffs this day would come … I didn’t know when for sure, but I knew because the league is so talent rich, because I feel more locked in and invested this year than any other season in the past, and because there is potential for so many intriguing match-up’s throughout the postseason, it was only a matter of time until I decided to put together an in-the-moment NBA running diary.

The last time I did any sort of running diary for an NBA game was when I broke down a 2002 New Jersey Nets vs. Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals Game for my “Thank God It’s Flashback Friday” series, which will be returning this Summer, all the way back in January of 2015. Forgive me if I’m rusty, but I couldn’t resist getting back into the Running Diary game for last night’s Game 5 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets.

Among the many reasons I wanted to do a Running Diary for this game, the one that was most important to me was making sure I documented what could possibly be Russell Westbrook‘s final game of the 2016-17 season. It wasn’t the best individual season ever or even the most entertaining (I tackled the latter claim in the first edition of my new-ish Mailbag column “Sonny Says,” which like Thank God It’s Flashback Friday will be returning after the NBA Playoffs)  but it was tremendously compelling for a variety of aesthetic and philosophical reasons that made this NBA season all the more enjoyable. With all of that said, let’s get to it!

9:55 remaining in the 3rd Quarter – Sloppy first two minutes of the 3rd quarter, which is displeasing if you’re either team. The Thunder ideally would have wanted to open the 3rd quarter with a greater sense of urgency after blowing a six point 1st quarter lead. Instead, they looked very blah. If you’re the Rockets, you’d hope for an early death blow that would put the reeling Thunder away early. It didn’t come.

8:40 – As Russ is at the free throw line, sideline reporter David Aldridge is talking about Westbrook’s minutes, and how Billy Donovan didn’t want to have to play him more than 40 tonight. Russ already played 21 in the 1st half. The only way he won’t go over 40 tonight is if the Rockets put this game away before he can get there. And this is entirely possible. It’s hard to imagine the Thunder hanging around unless Westbrook can play in Point Godzilla mode for a prolonged period of time.

8:00 – Another Russ turnover, his 5th of the game already. I know it may seem like I would be picking nits if I were to critique Russ for something like this during a season where his usage rate is at an all-time NBA high and he’s putting up such prolific numbers on a night to night basis, but this is a legitimate gripe and something that is a product of his never-ending style of frantic, balls to the wall play. Russ had to play so many grueling minutes for OKC this year, and a good number of his turnovers came when he was pushing the tempo or playing under pressure. It’s endearing that Russ always plays at 100 miles per hour. But it would be better for him, and the Thunder, if he could occasionally dial it back to like 70 or 80.

7:15Patrick Beverley, the Rockets designated pain-in-the-ass and premiere Russ irritator grabs his fifth offensive rebound of the game and finishes with a putback that puts the Rockets up 11. Billy Donovan takes a quick timeout. One of the areas where the Thunder were supposedly going to have the advantage in this series was on the glass and in the paint. Through four games the Rockets are outrebounding the Thunder in total, and grabbing a higher percentage of their offensive rebounds than Oklahoma City is. That right there might be the biggest difference between the Rockets winning in five games (spoiler alert: this is where this whole thing ends up heading) and the Rockets winning in seven games (where I anticipated the series would go).

5:50 – After a Taj Gibson lay-in and a Victor Oladipo corner three-pointer cut Rockets lead to 4, James Harden draws a shooting foul on the three as Andre Roberson chases him around a Nene screen. I love the NBA more than anything aside from most members of my family, my girlfriend and my closest friends … and I say with complete sincerity and seriousness that I, pardon my French, despise this fucking call. And no, I don’t blame the players. If the refs are going to fall for this type of trickery and deception, the players are right to do it. Listen, I hear all the time that Michael Jordan would do whatever he had to do to gain a competitive advantage over his opponent. You actually think if refs were calling that bullshit in 1992 that MJ wouldn’t have spent an entire summer making sure he mastered this to the point where he was getting to the free throw line 12 times per game? Come on, be real. This is a problem with the Officials, not the players.

3:29 – Russ scores 10 straight points for OKC (including two three-pointers) and then he dishes an assist to Adams which gives the Thunder a 1-point lead. As of right now, the Thunder are plus-7 with Russ on the court, minus-6 in three minutes and thirty seconds without him. This isn’t far off from the rate this has been going throughout the entire series. The Thunder just haven’t been able to survive in the short stints when Russ was on the bench, and when he’s been on the floor they’ve been slightly better than Houston. It’s pretty simple.

1:50 – Russ misses two FT’s, gets his own offensive rebound, dribbles out and drills a deep and contested three-pointer (his fourth of the quarter). Kevin Harlan calls Russ a man possessed, and that means we’re now officially one three-pointer away from Harlan gushing that Westbrook is “a flamethrower.” That’s one of my favorite semi-regular moments we are treated to each spring during the Playoffs. The Thunder now lead by seven.

End of 3rd quarter – Thunder lead 77-72, an impressive turnaround after falling in an 11 point hole 5 minutes into the quarter. The big question heading into the 4th Quarter: What is Billy Donovan going to do with Russell Westbrook? Will Westbrook start the quarter on the bench or will Donovan let Russ try to go wire to wire in the 2nd half?

12:00 remaining in the 4th Quarter – Russ starts the 4th Quarter on the bench. These next two to four minutes will decide the game. If OKC can hold a lead until Westbrook comes back, he might have just enough juice to carry OKC down the stretch. If Houston digs themselves out of this hole and has a lead when Russ comes back, this series will only last twelve more minutes.

10:18 – Lou Williams draws a shooting foul on Alex Abrines on a three, and his 3 FT’s could tie the game. It took the Rockets 1 minute, 42 seconds to even it up …

9:15 – And 2 minutes and 45 seconds to take a five point lead. Holy shit. This was all done with James Harden on the bench too. The Thunder are now a minus-16 without Westbrook in Game 5 in less than 6 minutes of playing time. Here’s the underrated thing that doesn’t get discussed as much as it should … when the Thunder blow these leads Russ built for them, he’s playing against momentum too. It’s hard to put value on something like that, but think about the scenario:

The Rockets are playing in a win-and-advance game in front of their home crowd which was pounding $1 beers in the hour and a half leading up to the game. They’re ready to scream and holler their drunken heads off, only the Thunder have hung around, avoiding disaster for 36 minutes. Now, with their best player on the bench, OKC’s offense AND defense shit the bed and Houston makes their run. The Rockets outscore the Thunder by ten points in under three minutes and now the crowd is in a frenzy, the Rockets are in a rhythm and OKC’s role players are shook knowing that they, in all likelihood blew this game. They’ll be useless for the rest of the game. And now it’s on the shoulders of Russell Westbrook, who has played 32 minutes already, to do EVERYTHING for the Thunder down the stretch.

6:56Reggie Miller advises Russ, who can’t possibly hear him, that he should trust his teammates. This is followed an Oladipo iso and hideous and heavily contested runner. Look, I get it. I played Point Guard all my life, and by basically any measure, I would have been considered a pass-first Point Guard who put a priority on getting teammates involved, even if some of these teammates were less than stellar offensive threats. I get that people want Russ to get these guys shots so they stay in the game mentally and that was something I was always aware of, but man, there is a serious lack of shot creators in OKC and when you are a super-duper competitive dude who has put his team on his back a dozen times this year already, I get why Russ presses in these situations.

6:10 – With all of that said though, Russ is officially tired. It’s always hard to tell because he’s never breathing heavy or sweating or putting his hands on his knees like other guys do when they are gassed. But he’s shot three consecutive jumpers, all short, partly because he can’t summon the energy to relentlessly attack the basket like he was doing in the 1st Quarter. He’s played 80 plus games, a ton of minutes and he’s taken an ass-beating. At the other end, Harden, who has played four fewer minutes than Russ thus far and can coast more offensively because of the number of scorers he plays alongside, explodes off a pick and roll and gets a lay-up. Rockets up 5.

3:44 – Here’s what I love about James Harden … even though his shtick can be frustrating for basketball fans who don’t also identify Rockets fans, this guy never quits attacking the hoop. His jumper has been off all night, but in the 4th quarter he’s continued to get to the basket, get to the line (12-13 FT’s in the game) and make smart decisions. Rockets up 9 and Russ is officially at E.

2:44 – If you love free-flowing basketball being played at a healthy pace, then you must love when teams resort to the Hack-A-Shaq strategy on shitty free throw shooters. The Rockets foul Andre Roberson, who went 2 for 12 at the line in Game 4 and is 2 for 17 in the series. Roberson, a Small Forward, clanks both Free Throws, on par with his season average of 42 percent from the charity stripe. I love Roberson’s defense and he’s a great cutter off the ball … but this is a serious problem.

0:12 – As the Thunder are barely clinging to life, Russ gets an Offensive Rebound, puts it up and draws the foul. To continue to build on the Scarface comparison I made back in October, this was like when Tony Montana knew he was done for in the final scene shoot-out at his mansion, but defiantly he stood there taking the bullets screaming “You need a fucking army if you’re gonna take me! I’ll take you all to fuckin’ hell!” 

Russ finished with 47 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists, a fitting conclusion for a powerful season. There are certain areas of his game that are easy to critique (turnovers, too many jumpers, etc.), but nobody will ever be able to say this dude didn’t pour everything he had into the 2016-17 season. That’s why he’s both the MVP and the MMP (Most Memorable Player) of the season. And that’s why it took an entire army to take him down.

Meanwhile, the Rockets will advance to Round 2, and tonight shows why they’re such a tough out in the postseason. They shot only 6 for 37 from three (where they were best in the league during the regular season) and Harden was off the majority of the night, but they got to the line and hit 31 of 37 FT’s, hung with OKC on the glass (when this was supposed to be one of OKC’s few advantages) and continued fighting back, weathering the Westbrook storm. They have an army of shooters and scorers, and in this new era of the NBA, that makes them incredibly dangerous in a best of seven series.

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