Nearly cleared him. LOVE that he got a technical for staring him down following the cheap shot on Carmelo.
I place the blame on the coach for not making his team aware of the shot clock situation.
LeBron James sat and watched from the bench as his Miami teammates put the Heat within one win of an NBA title. He wasn’t in foul trouble, he wasn’t having a bad game, nor was he shrouded in shame. No, ill-timed leg cramps prevented the Heat’s MVP from playing the final minute of an outstanding Game 4 battle with the Thunder which was easily the best game of these NBA Finals. How fitting for James, after all these years of carrying awful lineups deep into the NBA playoffs, that it was his teammates who stepped up and carried him, both literally and figuratively to victory.
And what a game it was.
The Thunder exploded out of the opening whistle for by far their best first quarter of the Finals. They hit a barrage of jump shots from all over the court, led by Russell Westbrook. The talented Thunder guard had 8 points in the first 3:45 of the game, sending a message to the Heat that no one could change the style of his game, or stop it for that matter. Before the Heat knew what hit them they were down 10 in a shocking role reversal for the script that the first quarters have followed thus far.
Miami would cut the lead to five, but again the Thunder responded with terrific play. In a surprising break, the Thunder actually had a ton of success when Serge Ibaka left the floor with two quick fouls. It forced the Thunder into a small ball lineup featuring Nick Collison at center. This was the exact lineup Scott Brook’s critics had been begging for all series. You’re never going to believe this, but it worked! It worked so damn well that the Thunder rode Collison to a 14-point lead after one, which could have been 17 if not for a near buzzer beater.
As this series has taught NBA fans though, no big lead is safe. These teams are so talented, so quick to convert lazy passes into fast break layups, so good at finding the open man. By the second quarter Miami realized that LeBron James would have to resort back to the distributor role that fans are so used to seeing him in rather than the rebounding force of nature fans have witnessed thus far. Oklahoma City had made the decision to force the other Heat players to beat them, doubling LeBron any time he tried to get the ball in the post.
In the past these were the type of moments that frustrated James. He has the best passing vision of his generation and yet so many times his open teammates would let him down. When Mario Chalmers struggled to hit much of anything in the first quarter, many wondered whether it was all happening again. And then something funny happened. A rookie out of Cleveland State named Norris Cole hit a pair of threes, one to close the first, one to open the second, and suddenly Miami found its groove.
They cut the lead to a single point within four minutes and it would take the Thunder almost that same amount of time before they scored their first point of the quarter. From there a sort of hesitant back-and-forth ensued between the two teams. Miami would seem to be seizing the momentum of the game only to see Westbrook drive with ease to the hoop and hush the crowd. Punch. Counterpunch. The Heat would never get the lead before halftime but they trailed by only three at the break.
So many fans and analysts are currently attempting to hijack the NBA Finals and turning it into a narrative of dubious officiating and the ethics of the block/charge conundrum. These myopic fools are missing the best Finals since Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The third quarter proved it.
The great signature of a legendary Finals matchup is when two teams begin executing at such a high level that it leaves the fans wondering which team will miss first. One stretch in the third quarter saw seven straight possessions end with points, six of which were field goals. It’s the type of back-and-forth that can only be described by using language out of boxing. First Chris Bosh hit the Thunder with a driving and-one layup. Serge Ibaka countered with a fadeaway around the free throw line. Dwyane Wade crossed the Thunder with a jumper of his own. Thabo Sefolosha then counterpunched with a jumper fed by Kevin Durant. LeBron James then got inside and hit them with a layup. Russell Westbrook then bobbed and weaved to one of his patented two-pointers . It seemed no one would break. And finally Dwyane Wade slipped his way to the foul line while the basketball world could only stand and catch its breath. Wow.
And there was still a quarter to play.
LeBron James came within a single rebound of a triple-double, finishing with a 26-9-12 line. Dwyane Wade contributed a very solid 25-5-3. Mario Chalmers came back from the dead and chipped in a much-needed 25 points. And yet for all of those remarkable contributions, this game should have been remembered as the Russell Westbrook game.
How to explain a player that is so uniquely talented, yet so unanimously criticized by the mainstream media? Westbrook certainly exorcised many, if not all of the demons unfairly thrown upon him by the talking heads on this night. He was easily the most dominant player on the floor, and if not for his heroics, the Thunder probably would have faced an embarrassing loss that could have haunted them for years down the road. To measure his impact, consider that Westbrook scored THIRTEEN straight points for the Thunder during a five minute stretch to begin the fourth quarter to tie the game at 90-90.
The physical nature with which he was getting his baskets was something the Finals hasn’t seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal being simply unguardable in the low post. Westbrook is light years faster than every single player in the arena, even LeBron James is helpless to attempt staying in front of him. His violent attacks to the basket paired with his silky touch on mid-range jumpers is a set of skills that no other player in the league can lay claim to at the moment. He finished with 43 of the bravest points of the season but sadly, it was not enough.
For all of Westbrook’s gallantry, Oklahoma City’s two goats stole the show. James Harden failed to crack the double digit mark in points for the third time, finishing with a nightmarish 2/10 shooting line. One shot in particular gave fans insight into just how far he’s fallen. Harden found himself wide open with about two minutes left and the Thunder trailing by five, needing a bucket to stay in the game. He was so wide open that he had time to catch, hesitate, scan all four of his teammate’s positions on the court, and then fire off a shot before the Heat defense got around to covering him. It was the mark of a player afraid to pull the trigger, the biggest sign of a lack of confidence. This game should be the symbolic passing of the torch from Westbrook to Harden as the go-to player on which radio hosts can place their blame. And for once I don’t pity the player, not after rumors floated around on Twitter all week that Harden has been seen partying late into the night before these big games.
And finally there was Scott Brooks, he of the stubborn devotion and loyalty to his veterans. As awful as Harden has been, if the Oklahoma City Thunder do go on to lose the NBA Finals, Brooks needs to accept the overwhelming majority of the criticism. How else to explain the Kendrick Perkins lineups in spite of visual evidence that the Thunder play excellent small ball? How else to explain his decision tonight to leave Derek Fisher in late into the fourth quarter when the Thunder so desperately needed Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? And finally, how else to explain Brook’s ultimate brain fart, the lack of coaching he provided to his players following the bizarre jump ball sequence that decided the game.
On the play in the final minute of the game, the Thunder trailed by three and forced a jump ball with less than a second remaining on the shot clock in Miami’s possession. NBA rules state that the shot clock is to be set at five in that situation, but none of the Thunder players on the court were aware of this as it is such a rare situation. Brooks should have been screaming this at the top of his lungs to his players. Instead, Miami won the tip, and Russell Westbrook committed a cringe-inducing foul that was straight out of the Chris Webber playbook on dumb plays in clutch moments. But again, this was the fault of the head coach, not of the player. For all the talk of Phil Jackson coaching rumors, one can’t help but think he’s a potential candidate to land with this team after the awful performance of Brooks.
It’s worth mentioning that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title. It seems a foregone conclusion that by the end of the week we will be living in a world in which we say LeBron James, NBA Finals MVP or LeBron James, NBA Champion. His biggest critics will laugh that he was on the bench while his team sealed the deal, but there was something poetic about it all. For once, James could let someone else shoulder the burden. For once, he wasn’t on his own.
Finally, he has a real team.
A dream series for NBA fans was bound to produce one stinker of a game. Game 3 smelled of desperation, tension and anxiety. Miami took an all important 2-1 series lead in what traditionally turns out to be the deciding game in the seven-game playoff format. But gosh if it wasn’t a sloppy victory.
Nerves were bound to take over at some point. After both teams executed at the highest of levels in the first two games, it was clear that the Thunder and Heat both knew that the stakes were now raised. The heavyweight fighters had seen the other’s best punches, knew exactly what their opponent was capable of doing. And the best part about it is that both know that they’re equally talented. As tends to be the case in nervous bouts, fundamentals were the deciding factor.
How many times do NBA fans hear that rebounding and free throw shooting win basketball games? It’s a tiresome cliche and yet so often the team that prevails in those two statistical categories ends up going home with rings instead of disappointment. It should surprise no one then that the Heat won the rebounding battle 45-38. They also went an incredible 31-of-35 from the line while the Thunder struggled and finished 15-of-24.
This was not the Thunder team the basketball world is used to seeing.
For the second consecutive game Kevin Durant found himself in foul trouble and the irritation was written all over the Thunder star’s body language. For what seemed like the first time in this year’s playoffs, he began to force bad shots, attempting to get the Thunder back in the game all by himself. He was met by the surprising length of Chris Bosh and his terrific help defense as he struggled to convert baskets that he’s so used to making.
Then there was James Harden. For the third straight game the bearded third of the Oklahoma City Thunder big three failed to make an impact. He finished with an alarming 2-of-10 shooting performance and failed to crack the double-digit mark in points for the second time in the series. What’s frustrating for the Thunder is that there seems to be no particular reason for his recent poor play. So often it’s the slower Dwyane Wade in front of him on defense, a player that Harden should be feasting on with his quick dribble penetration. A chorus that is so quick to blame Russell Westbrook might soon be turning its critical gaze on Harden. And deservingly so.
And then there was Scott Brooks. The Thunder head coach made a bold decision prior to the game to keep Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. This despite all factual evidence proving that the Thunder would be far better off without him on the floor. It was a calculated decision with the clear intent of delivering a message to his team that they weren’t going to change their style for anyone. The Thunder way or the highway, if you will.
The message was well received as the Thunder didn’t find themselves with a double-digit deficit heading out of the first quarter for the first time this Finals. Unfortunately for them, it made them incredibly susceptible to Chris Bosh’s skillful cuts to the baskets and the Miami pick-and-roll. He made them pay with a quick six points in the first quarter despite an overall performance that would fall well short of what the Heat will continue to need out of him in this series. His final line was 10 points and 11 rebounds. That wasn’t the last time Brooks would make the wrong decision though.
Any bizarre game needs a bizarre quarter. The third quarter was just that. Both teams turned in poor performances in the first two periods. The Thunder allowed the Heat to stay in the game by failing to protect the rim (the Heat converted only three shot attempts outside the paint in that whole half). Miami allowed the Thunder to hang in the game when they had another opportunity to take a decisive lead. One team would surely come out in the second half and execute at the levels expected of them. Oklahoma City seemed to be the team.
The Thunder immediately turned a halftime deficit into a ten-point lead and looked to be taking over the game after Derek Fisher polished off a four-point play at the 4:33 mark. Right before that though, Kevin Durant was hit with his fourth foul and had to sit nearly the final six minutes of the third quarter. It would turn out to change the course of the game, and possibly the series.
For the final five minutes of the third quarter the Thunder fielded a lineup without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the results were devastating. They scored only three points after the Fisher four-point play and trailed by two entering the fourth quarter. This young team cannot afford such large mistakes by their head coach when the stakes are so high.
While it’s obvious Durant had to sit because of the fouls, there was no explanation as to why Westbrook wasn’t charged with keeping the Thunder lead. He wasn’t in foul trouble, was having rather a good game up to that point and as any NBA fan knows, he just doesn’t get tired. Miami took advantage of the weak Thunder lineup and got to the free throw line twice after James Jones and Shane Battier were fouled behind the three-point line.
The decision to pair Westbrook with Durant on the bench cost Oklahoma City Game 3.
Durant and Westbrook would rise from their seats and attempt a Thunder rally, but it never materialized. The long period on the bench took its toll on both players and robbed them of their shooting rhythm. Durant, who seemingly never misses free throws, missed a crucial pair in the fourth quarter. Westbrook was only able to contribute four points in the fourth.
Free throws and rebounding. LeBron James accomplished both of those down the stretch. He grabbed four boards in the fourth. He also hit the latest biggest free throw of his career to create a two-possession lead with only 16 seconds left in the game. It’s worth adding that he’s looking remarkably poised and mature when compared with the detached player from last year. Fitting then that his 29-14 line was something straight out of the Dirk Nowitzki playbook. His success as a power forward in this series has many wondering whether the latter stages of his career will see him there instead of the point-forward position he’s played thus far.
Alas, the series heads on to Game 4. Fans can surely expect the high level of play to resume. What team will make the better adjustment though? Can the Heat continue to make the Thunder pay with their small ball lineup? Will James Harden finally realize he’s playing in the NBA Finals? Game 4 will no doubt be the best game of the series. The Thunder can’t afford to fall behind 3-1. The Heat have to capitalize on their momentum in the last two games.
As has been the case so many times in NBA history, it’s now decision time for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Both have a chance to seize the title from Kobe Bryant as the alpha dog and face of the league. One player will enjoy a year as reigning NBA Finals MVP, while the other will have to deal with a calendar year of critics wondering if he’ll ever really be a champion. Quite frankly, neither can afford the latter.
Give this round to LeBron, but the title is still up for grabs.
A Game 2 win by the Miami Heat was ever so close to going up in flames. The Heat, holding the lead the entire game, were up five and coasting to an inevitable victory when they came out of a timeout with 48 seconds to go. Dwyane Wade received the inbounds pass and attempted to glide past Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher. The aging veteran Fisher, like he’s done so many times in his career, came up with a huge play in a big moment and forced a turnover.
Scrambling in transition, Kevin Durant knocked down a three to net his 26th point of the second half and set up a very nervous moment with the lead now cut to two. When LeBron James missed a poorly selected three of his own on the ensuing play, the whole world seemed to know what was happening next. Surely Durant would add to his legend and convert the game-winner. Surely the Heat would lose game two in devastating fashion for the second consecutive year. Surely LeBron James would be scapegoated again for a bad Miami loss.
Not on this night.
Durant caught a quick pass from Fisher out of the timeout because James wasn’t ready for play to resume. Unfortunately for the Thunder, he received it in an awkward position on the court and forced a leaning shot that missed. The replay clearly showed that he was fouled by James on the play, but like the gentlemen in stripes had done so many times on this night, they missed the call. And that really was the theme of game two. Poor officiating put a black eye on what was otherwise a very exciting game.
Kevin Durant picked up his second foul fairly early in the first quarter and was forced to take a seat. He eventually would earn his fifth foul with about 10:30 to go in the fourth. Credit should be given to the Heat for making a concerted effort to get LeBron James in the paint with a clear intent of achieving just that outcome. In the NBA Finals though, fans and analysts alike expect Durant to be given more leeway than he was. The officials hit him with a number of cheapies and the Thunder struggled mightily. If not for the first half heroics of James Harden (17 first half points), the Thunder may have been down by an insurmountable margin instead of the 12 they trailed at the break.
Unlike Game 1 when the Thunder took over in the second half, Miami refused to relinquish control of their double digit lead. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James continued with their first half mission of pounding the ball inside and there seemed to be little Oklahoma City could do to stop the elite Miami slashers. The LeBron James America has dreamed about for years finally arrived and schooled Durant with an emerging low-post game. And give all the credit in the world to Wade. Rumors circulated on Twitter all afternoon that he put in an extremely hard workout today on his mid-range shooting after a poor performance in the opener. It showed as Wade unleashed a number of difficult baskets that silenced the aggressive Thunder crowd on various occasions. The Heat needed someone else to step up and Wade answered the call. He finished with a 24-6-5.
And let us not forget Chris Bosh either. Though rather quiet in the second half, Bosh had a double-double before halftime with ten points and rebounds apiece. It was crucial for the Heat because six of the first-half rebounds came on the offensive glass. Answering Coach Erik Spoelstra’s call to the starting lineup, Bosh was a difference maker on this night and finished with a valuable 16-15 line. No doubt Spoelstra will continue to give him all the minutes he can handle as the Thunder have yet to counter the small ball lineups that have been so effective for the Heat.
Speaking of small ball, it’s necessary to point out that Scott Brooks deserves a lot of criticism for his insistence on playing Kendrick Perkins when he so clearly has a negative impact for the Thunder. Everyone knows Perkins was brought in to counter Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, not LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He’s too slow on rotations, too useless on the offensive side of the ball. Though a flawed stat, Perkins finished with a game-low -16 plus/minus rating. It is not hyperbole to say he’d been the worst and most ineffective player thus far and that he should see minimal, if any playing time the rest of the series. His replacement Nick Collison had an immediate positive impact on the game every time he hit the floor and fits better into the style of the series.
So many times in the NBA Finals, it is the role players making big plays that we remember. Bill Simmons calls them irrational confidence guys. We remember them all by their nicknames. Big Shot Bob, The Jet, and soon we might have to add the no-stats all star. For those unfamiliar with the moniker, Shane Battier made a reputation early in his career for being the first player highlighted by the advanced stats movement in basketball. He was a cult hero for years in the sports dork circles although never breaking through in the playoffs.
Through two games in these finals, he might be the Heat’s team MVP. Battier finished Game 2 with 17 points on 6/8 shooting that included an astounding 5/7 from deep. One three in particular, a rushed banking heave to beat the shot clock with 5:07 to go in the fourth, stymied yet another Thunder comeback attempt. He’s now hit four or more three-pointers in his last three playoff games going back to game seven against Boston. It’s the first time he’s achieved that feat in his entire career. Talk about great timing.
The tone of the game overall had a much different feeling than Game 1. Neither team was able to get comfortable. Again, blame the officials. The Thunder in particular had to completely adjust their offensive philosophy as a result. So successful in game one using the pick-and-roll, the Thunder largely had to abandon their main offensive weapon because of Durant’s foul trouble. They simply could not risk him getting nailed for his sixth foul while setting up Westbrook on their go-to play. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were forced into driving, but only Westbrook was able to find any success in the second half. Harden would finish with only 21 points after scoring 17 in the first two periods.
There is no doubt that the game was a wake up call for the Thunder. Too many times in these playoffs they’ve gotten away with poor starts in the first half of games only to pull out a great comeback in the second half. The Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs all witnessed this happen. It’s a great sign that the Thunder never feel like they’re out of a game, but it’s simply not the calling card of a mature team. They have to do a better job of not putting themselves out of games early because these Heat actually have the ability to punish them for their poor play, as evidenced tonight.
Going forward, look for a number of things. First is the Perkins issue. It can’t be reiterated enough how little he should play in the coming games. Second is whether Wade and Bosh can continue to answer the call for the Heat. They’ll have to at least match their great play tonight if the Heat want to have a legitimate shot at actually winning this thing. Third, James Harden has to do a better job of showing up for the entire game. He no showed in Game 1 and only had an impact in one half of Game 2. For a guy that is rumored to be worth max money, he has to live up to that reputation. Finally, the Heat have to continue to embrace their offensive philosophy of getting the ball down low once the fourth quarters start. In both games they’ve found success for three quarters before going into an isolation-heavy offense in the final quarter. They got away with it tonight, but let’s just say it’s not exactly efficient.
This will never make national headlines, but on this night LeBron James out-clutched Kevin Durant. It was LeBron who hit the clutch free throws that iced the game after Durant’s missed a potential game-tying shot. This series has more than lived up to expectations thus far. The only way it could possibly get better is if we are blessed with an overtime game or two in our future. There is no doubt the series will go at least six games. At the end, one great player will have his first NBA title.
It’s still unclear if it’s Heat or Thunder in the forecast though.
A game billed as a battle of big threes turned out to be two versus one. LeBron James simply did not have enough to defeat the combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in game one of the NBA Finals. Coming off a tiring seven game series against a physical Boston Celtics team, the Miami Heat very much looked like a team lacking the necessary energy it will take to win the title while the Thunder very much lived up to their reputation as a team that never tires.
The first half was interesting. The Thunder came out very apprehensive and seemed unable to score on a tight Miami defense. Whereas the Spurs could not defend against Russell Westbrook coming off pick-and-rolls, the Heat seemed to find a way to disrupt the talented Thunder guard, trapping him with a double team every time he tried to use the play. The strategy worked and caused the Thunder to turn over the ball eight times in the first half. Compared to Miami’s four this was the primary factor in the Heat’s seven point lead at the halfway point.
Miami also looked to exploit the Thunder’s decision to leave Kendrick Perkins in the game for fifteen minutes in the first half despite any hint of a post presence for the Heat. The sluggish Thunder big man struggled to defend against the Heat’s speed and ability to stretch the floor which led to a flurry of Miami three-pointers from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. No one doubts Perkins’ heart, but he seems a relic from a different era of basketball. It is no secret that the NBA made the turn into a more European style years ago, what with power forwards who consistently can knock down threes and supremely athletic guards who drive to the basket using their athleticism. Luckily for Perkins, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to not show up for game one.
Bosh and Wade combined to go 6/14 in the first half but were bailed out by the sensational shooting of the Heat role players. When that faucet ran dry in the second half, the poor play of the other two Heat superstars became the narrative of the game. They simply let LeBron James down, finishing a disappointing 11/30 between them.
For all the talk of Dwyane Wade turning the team over to LeBron James, there were several hints that he still believes himself to be the Heat’s best player. On numerous occasions he looked to isolate against the Thunder defense and came up empty time after time. The dirty secret of the NBA playoffs is how little Wade trusts his jump-shot right now and yet Wade continued to shoot ill-advised jumpers, desperately waving his pump fake at Thunder defenders who knew better than to fall for the aging player’s go-to move. It took him 19 shots to score 19 points. On a night when the Thunder struggled to guard LeBron James’ drives, it was especially frustrating to watch Wade sabotage the Heat’s efforts to steal game one on the road.
And don’t let columnists out there turn this into another failure of LeBron James. The three-time MVP was brilliant on this night, finishing with a 30-9-4 line in arguably his best ever Finals game. There was one moment in particular in the third quarter around the 9:00 mark when LeBron looked like he might be slipping back into the funk that has plagued his playoff reputation. The Thunder had just erased a seven-point halftime deficit to take their first lead and James was doing that thing where he hangs around the three-point line looking detached from the moment. He then proved that this is not your 2011 version of LeBron James by converting three consecutive drives to the basket that hushed a boisterous Thunder crowd.
Despite James’ brilliance though, Kevin Durant was even better.
The Thunder superstar finished with 36-8-4 line that included 12/20 shooting along with a highly efficient 4-8 from deep. The Heat had no answer for him in the second half as Durant used several ball screens from Russell Westbrook to take advantage of a number of mismatches. The cold truth is that if LeBron James isn’t guarding Durant every second he’s on the court, the Heat cannot stop him.
Durant comes across as a juggernaut in fourth quarters now. He shot 6/10 from the floor and added a perfect 4/4 from the free throw line to close out the game in the final period. He even did that Kevin Durant thing where he seemed to let his teammates take all of the shots in the first half before eventually throwing them on his back to win the game late.
Watching the Thunder’s play recently, it feels as though he never misses anymore when the game is on the line. The Heat will have to counter by doubling, even tripling Durant and forcing the Thunder’s other players to beat them. It doesn’t help them the Russell Westbrook is shutting up the Skip Baylesses of the world with his great play. He so clearly outplayed his counterpart Wade and was easily the best guard on the floor. He’d finish with an otherworldly 27-8-11 line to contribute to the game one victory.
Nick Collison also added to his reputation as one of the best role players in the NBA by finishing with ten rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. When he wasn’t pulling down the boards he was keeping possessions alive with several tips to his teammates and shooting 4/5 from the field.
If game one is any indication, this is going to be a great series. Despite the loss, Miami has to know that this Thunder team is very beatable. They exploited the Thunder’s reliance on pick-and-rolls in the first half by doubling the ball handler nearly every possession. This threw the Thunder’s rhythm off and disrupted the flow of the offense. Serge Ibaka found some success by realizing he could beat this by going to the rim unguarded, but for the most part Miami won that battle. However the Heat, for whatever reason, neglected to use this strategy in the second half and instead began to switch on every screen. The results were disastrous.
Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh need to step their games up in the coming games. James can create so many shots for them, Bosh in particular, that need to be knocked down. The telling plays of the game happened with 1:15 to go in the fourth. Clinging to a five-point lead, Kevin Durant drove to the basket facing a Miami defense that collapsed around him. He fed Collison with a beautiful bounce pass that led to a wide-open dunk. On the ensuing possession, LeBron James did the exact same thing to find Chris Bosh wide-open for a three that would have cut the deficit to four. Bosh bricked the attempt and the Heat’s chances at a comeback disappeared.
Also look for James Harden to play better after he was only able to muster five points. He survives any backlash (for now) due to the win and the monster games out of the other two thirds of the Thunder’s big three.
The coming days will hopefully yield a new level of appreciation for the NBA. So rare is it that fans get to see the two best players in the sport facing off against each other in the Finals. That the title will be either LeBron James or Kevin Durant’s first makes it all the more special an event.
Although one of them has to lose, we all win.
Of all the possible story lines left in the NBA playoffs, none fascinates me more than that of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the controversial point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder, now leading the San Antonio Spurs 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. On a game-to-game basis, only LeBron James faces more criticism. This makes no sense. Never in the history of the NBA has the second best player on a team been so unfairly burdened with expectations. It’s even more depressing because Russell Westbrook is the most entertaining player in basketball.
There is no sport that sucks the fun out of a conversation in this country quite like basketball. For whatever reason, America takes basketball way too seriously. No sport draws more snap judgements and polarizing opinions. Football strikes a passionate chord. Baseball hits on a more romantic nostalgia. But basketball, and in particular the NBA playoffs, turn sports fans into grumps. Too many people exist that defend the “integrity” of the game and remind everyone who the best teams really are.
I have a feeling this problem originated in some weird racial dynamic whereby a largely white viewing audience struggled to identify with a sport largely dominated by African-Americas, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that it exists. There are grown men in office buildings all across this country who fail to watch a single NBA game during the year but can argue for hours at a time that LeBron James isn’t clutch, that the Spurs are the definition of team basketball, and that Russell Westbrook needs to start deferring to Kevin Durant if he ever wants to win a championship. But you already know this.
I pray that if you’re reading this column, you don’t fall into that category of basketball curmudgeons. If so, it’s time to make the conversion to liberated fandom whereby wins and losses yield to the tenants of style and individuality (copyright: FreeDarko). What’s beautiful about the theory it is that championships are still possible, encouraged in fact. The idea is that you don’t live and die by the end result but rather enjoy the ride, in particular those players that make the game the most interesting. Russell Westbrook makes the game more than interesting.
There is a largely held belief in basketball that the point guard is the most important position on the floor. He is the floor general, charged with being the head coach’s eyes and ears on the court. The view also states that he should primarily look to create open shots for his teammates while also having the ability to take over the game offensively at any time, if the moment calls for it. I ask you: if you were going to construct the perfect point guard, what would he look like? What skills would you gift him?
Now don’t go off and say you’d make him like Chris Paul. By all accounts Paul is only 5’10” in person and you can’t bring up Paul without bringing up those knees. Derrick Rose was originally in the conversation, but he went and got himself a case of the problematic knees too. Rondo is interesting, but those big hands seem to prevent him from having a semblance of a normal jump shot, despite allowing him to exploit angles and passing lanes that science was quite positive did not exist. Parker and Nash can’t defend. Rubio and Wall don’t seem big enough. Deron Williams has that Dwight Howard attitude problem (no seriously, you don’t just get shipped by the franchise that drafted you, two years before your contract is up).
I believe there is no point guard in the NBA with the whole package quite like Russell Westbrook.
He’s easily the most athletic of the bunch. He runs faster and jumps higher than all of them. He has that scary kind of super strength that makes him come off on television as being the most powerful player on the floor, despite facing players up to nine inches taller than him. He’s an excellent defender as well as an elite scoring talent. He’s a triple double threat every time he takes the floor. Tell me again, what’s not to like?
And don’t you dare say that Russell Westbrook “doesn’t get it!” That’s the biggest cop out argument in the history of sports. It screams ignorance. If ever you meet someone who actually believes this opinion, I urge you to slap them in the face. Reasons it’s ridiculous: none of us have ever met Russell Westbrook, none of us have any idea what role his coach and fellow players urged him to play all season, and none of us are omniscient demi-gods that have the ability to read a player’s thoughts during a basketball game.
The only thing we can say for certain about Russell Westbrook is that he has a remarkable ability to leap towards the hoop while converting baskets in traffic, that he’s deadly at hitting off-balance jumpers immediately after receiving a screen, and that he’s absolutely sublime to behold on a fast break. I concede he has an odd taste in clothing though.
Take a minute and watch him play from a purely aesthetic perspective in the rest of this series with the Spurs (and likely the NBA finals). What that man accomplishes on a basketball court is living art work. We should be urging the Metropolitan Museum of Art to wrap him up and preserve him forever, so that other generations might get the pleasure of viewing his basketball talents. There is nothing like him right now.
Whereas Kevin Durant is a traditional superhero in the Captain America mold, Westbrook more closely resembles a guy like Spider-Man, a hero who is largely persecuted by those he swears to protect. The extension reaches into so many elements of Westbrook’s game that I could devote an entire column towards the comparisons. The one worth emphasizing is that he agonizes over the way the public suspects that he has ulterior motives, despite all the good that he achieves. He even has the nerdy post game outfits that symbolizes the transformation from Spider-Man back to Peter Parker.
I beg you to not miss out on his career because Colin Cowherd and Skip bayless think he’s immature. He possesses all of the super powers of his more highly regarded teammate with the added elements of flare and unpredictability that create far more attractive highlights. It’s really quite thrilling to root for him knowing the rest of the country hates his guts as well. I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty and delight in the many moments of jaw-dropping greatness. Combined with the steady doses of the all too predictable (and, quite frankly, boring) Durant, it makes for one of the best yin and yang partnerships in all of sports.
If these last three games are any indication, the Thunder are on their way to winning their first championship and, who knows? Maybe one day history will regard Westbrook in a kinder manner than they did these past two seasons. Winning heals all, as they say. But do you honestly want to look back one day and know deep down in your heart that you jumped on Westbrook’s bandwagon only after he got a ring? Hell no!
Join me, before it’s too late.