Russell Westbrook is the sole reason the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the NBA playoffs. He was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1962. Westbrook has laid it all on the line for this Thunder team. It’s hard to believe that they won 47 games, especially in the Western Conference. The playoffs are a new season, though. Westbrook is now going up against fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the offensive juggernaut that is the Houston Rockets. The end of Game Two was a low point for Westbrook, and he did not play like the MVP.
Zero Ball: Russell Westbrook Game Two Buried MVP Case
The match-up of these two MVP candidates is what stands out in this first-round series. Both of these players are the catalysts for their respective offenses. They both have had historical seasons, with Westbrook’s triple-doubles obviously standing out to the casual fan. Harden was also the first player to ever score 2,000 points and assist on 2,000 points in a single season, per SB Nation’s Tim Cato. Needless to say, all eyes have been on these two in this first-round series.
The Games Begin
The first game wasn’t too noteworthy, as the Rockets blew out the Thunder and Westbrook shot just 26.1 percent from the field. Game Two was more up to par, as OKC had more success getting in the paint and in transition. Westbrook had 22 points and 10 assists in the first half. He also had plenty of highlights, using a plethora of spins and crossovers to get easy baskets. Westbrook was at his best being dynamic in the open floor, and the pull-ups were a good counter off of that. Patrick Beverley didn’t have as much success defending him as he did in Game One, and OKC was in pretty good shape after three quarters.
On the other hand, Harden didn’t have the greatest first half, or really even three quarters. The length of the Thunder and perimeter stopper Andre Roberson, in particular, prevented Harden from getting into a rhythm. With that said, the roles were reversed in the money period.
It’s clear that nobody has the workload of Westbrook. He had a massive usage rate of 41.7 percent in the regular season (per Basketball-Reference), and the Thunder needed every bit of his attacking approach. He led the NBA in box plus/minus (15.5), points per game (31.6), and assist rate (57.3 percent). Taking all that into consideration, though, Westbrook proved that he doesn’t deserve to be the MVP because he didn’t trust his teammates when it mattered most in Game Two.
Fourth Quarter: A Huge Turning Point
The Thunder let Harden and the Rockets back within striking distance at the end of the third, when Westbrook sat for a few minutes. It’s been clear all season that Westbrook creates almost every play in their offense. It’s ‘Westbrook or die’ for Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. Unfortunately, in the fourth quarter of a crucial Game Two, the Thunder died. In the closing period, Westbrook could not hit water if he fell out of a boat, going 4-for-18 as he sunk OKC.
The Westbrook fourth quarter takeovers are a one-trick pony for the Thunder, and against a team as talented as the Rockets, that won’t work. Sure, Westbrook doesn’t have a supporting cast nearly as good as that of Harden, but common sense should prevail eventually.
I’m not saying that Harden was the model of efficiency, either. The Beard shot just 41.2 percent from the field and had seven turnovers. However, he closed the game like an MVP should. He didn’t do too much in the fourth to give the game away, and he relied on his shooters to knock down open looks.
Harden also hit three crucial three-pointers to keep the Rockets moving. He finished 18-for-20 on free throws, too. He is a true master at taking advantage of defenders being caught in the cookie jar in screen-and-rolls. Moreover, he stayed the course and was even keel down the stretch. Westbrook kept jacking up shots instead, and he didn’t adjust.
This game showed why Westbrook missed the most shots of any player in the league, and he was often out of control even during crucial possessions. The tragic part of all this is that Westbrook posted a stat line of 51 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds. The Thunder need him to do everything, and I get that. But with that said, MVPs make the best plays to win games. They change their approach if they have to, especially in the playoffs.
Harden didn’t have 51 points, but he didn’t miss 14 shots in a single quarter. Now, Westbrook is in a danger zone, down 2-0 to Harden, and if this series is short, it may reflect poorly on Westbrook’s MVP candidacy. MVP votes were finalized before the playoffs started, but this series may prove who truly deserves to win the award. In the postgame press conference, Westbrook had some choice words, as well. Yes, the Thunder lost, but Westbrook acted as if they, as a team, were to blame, rather than taking on that responsibility himself.
Elite players should be criticized in losses as much as they are praised in wins. Furthermore, it’s not as if Westbrook has nobody out there. The Thunder have good bigs in Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Taj Gibson to go with very good wing defenders who can score in transition. If they are going to have a chance in this series, their superstar can’t be so stubborn.
BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 05: Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during the warm up prior to the NBA Global Games Spain 2016 match between FC Barcelona Lassa and Oklahoma City Thunder at Palau Sant Jordi on October 5, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images