The 2011 NBA Playoffs have provided some of the most entertaining first round games that we have seen in quite a while and if these games are any indicator of things to come, the next ten months (roughly the time it seems to take to get to the finals) could be winning beyond Charlie Sheen’s wildest dreams. If these playoffs have been the definition of excitement, they have also been the cause of severe knee-jerk reactions by the media and fans. After Derrick Rose murdered the Pacers in games one and two, people were ready to crown him not only as the regular season MVP, but player of the playoffs. Media members, including Chicago man Michael Wilbon, were tossing around the MJ comparisons as if there was no debate on the subject. Then came a poor game three performance and a game four loss and now we are asking what’s up with the Bulls. The Heat clearly dominated the 76ers through three games then after a game four lapse the media seems to suddenly forget the prior games. The Spurs are too old, the Lakers can’t find the switch, etc etc. The problem is, most of this chatter is based on single games, single moments, and series that aren’t even complete. As I wrap up my intro describing how annoying these type of responses are, I’m going to use a single instance myself to try to paint a broad picture. Allow me to explain.
Russell Westbrook is arguably the most important player for the Oklahoma City Thunder both now and in the immediate future. Don’t mistake most important for best. Kevin Durant is the Thunder’s best player and he is the guy the Thunder will revolve around for as long as he is there. Westbrook is the most important player, in my opinion, because of what he can bring to the team on any given night. He can slash to the hoop with the best of them and help take some of the scoring load off of Durant. He plays good defense and his athleticism puts him a step ahead of a lot of players. Over his three years with the Thunder, he’s improved in about every possible area. Points per game, shooting percentage (FG, 3pt, and FT), assists, and steals have all increased over time. Despite improvements he is not known for his shooting touch, and certainly not from distance. The biggest question mark for Westbrook heading into the playoffs was his decision making. He’s a young point guard on a young team that hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs before. He’s had a tendency to try to do a little too much at times and when this involves taking one of the best young offensive players, Kevin Durant, out of the game, people will raise eyebrows. In game 4 of the Thunder-Nuggets series, Westbrook’s late game decision making raised plenty of eyebrows, including mine.*
As you can read below, I’m not judging Westbrook because he happened to miss three 3 point attempts late in game 4. While making them would have obviously been better, I’d still be critical. The point here is that Westbrook seemed to forget he had Kevin Durant on his team for that final minute. It was a game where they could have finished off the series and headed back to OKC to prepare for the second round. It was decisions like the decisions he made late in this game that were exactly what people were worried about. At the end of the day it isn’t going to matter. The Thunder aren’t going to blow a 3-0 lead by losing four in a row. But what if game one of their second round series ended like this? Bigger deal then. Durant has made more 3’s this year than Westbrook has attempted, yet Westbrook decided to take the game into his hands. If it were a tie game or a one point game where Westbrook could attack the rim, that too is a different story. But this game situation called for three point shots. At the end of the game, Durant was 5-6 from beyond the arc. Westbrook was 0-7. One game isn’t a big deal, but are we looking at something that is going to become a problem over time?
Skip Bayless recently tweeted about some Westbrook – Marbury comparisons. While Westbrook would have to tumble hard to wind up with a Marbury like career, it wouldn’t be impossible. Westbrook, like Marbury was, is a shoot first point guard who has a gift of getting to the rim and a respectable, but certainly not lethal, outside shot. Marbury played along side Kevin Garnett for the first three years of his career before tiring of sharing the spotlight and heading to New Jersey. Marbury and the Wolves had made the playoffs in each of his three seasons there and were at the time a team that was just a piece or two away from being a contender in the West. Instead, Marbury went to the Nets and didn’t make the playoffs while he was there. Westbrook and the Thunder have made the playoffs in back to back years and, like Marbury, Westbrook finds himself in the shadow of a better player. That being said, it’s hard to think of a better guy to share the spotlight with than Kevin Durant, who seems about as selfish as Mother Teresa at this point.
When looking at shots per 36 minutes, this season Westbrook shot just 0.6 shots less per game than Durant. Overall, Durant took 130 fewer shots this year compared to last while Westbrook took 230 more. Considering Durant played nearly 200 more minutes than Westbrook this year, there is no excuse why Russell should be shooting that much more when Durant is shooting less. My fear is that Westbrook is hearing all the praise that fellow point guards Derrick Rose and Chris Paul are getting for their fantastic play in the postseason and is looking to make his mark and establish his place amongst the game’s elite. What he perhaps isn’t seeing is the fact that both Paul and Rose don’t have a Durant on their team and literally need to carry their teams offensively for entire games. Westbrook will have his opportunities to score on this team, and perhaps better scoring opportunities than Paul and Rose as opposing defenses have to focus primarily on Durant. Forcing the issue offensively and ignoring last year’s scoring champ will result in an early exit from the playoffs in a year that is truly wide open. Creating questions about who is the top dog on a team where top dog position is already clearly established won’t do good for anyone (except opponents).
I hope none of this is true and it’s just part of the maturation process for Russell Westbrook. I like the Thunder and they way the team was put together (through good draft picks and good trades, not off-season Heat like conspiracies). I hope he realizes, sooner than later, the impact he can have on the court playing the role of facilitator and scorer when needed. With his speed and athleticism he can create all sorts of problems for opponents and get good looks for teammates and receive good looks in return. I hope that he learned a lot from game 4 against the Nuggets and will be more team focused in close games throughout the rest of the playoffs. And finally, I hope, that come this time next year when his contract is up, Russell Westbrook will realize all the good things that are going on in Oklahoma City and put team ambitions over personal ones. I hope that he chooses not to chase a big contract that teams will undoubtedly throw at him to play on a team where he can be “the man” and instead choose to be part of “the team” that looks like it could be a contender for a long time.
*Allow me to digress for a moment. I am not basing an entire argument out of the late game performance of one game. I am also not going to get sucked into the death spiral that is the argument about the last second (potential) game winning or tying shots determining a players “clutch” status. It seems beyond stupid to me to base an entire players game, or even season, performance based on a last second shot that occurs during a situation that doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the 48 minutes of the game. Game winning shot attempts are often coming off of timeouts which can completely change the rhythm of the game. Often times these attempts are as much off-balanced Hail Mary shots as they are legitimate, high quality attempts. The defenses ramp up and the refs swallow whistles. It is a situation that clearly favors the defense. Considering that the league as a whole drops in field goal percentage from 45.9% overall to just 25.7% during game winning/tying situations, this really isn’t a situation we should expect a lot of makes. But we do. We as fans will be struck with acute onset amnesia in these situations and effectively forget the previous 47 minutes and 50 seconds and base our opinion of our favorite teams and players based on that last shot. Psychology is screaming that the fans and media are victims of the recency effect in these situations. Robert Horry has hit a ton of late game shots in the playoffs, but I’m not placing him above all of his past teammates who did ten times more during the game itself to even get to the position that made a last second shot relevant. Without guys like Shaq, Kobe, and Duncan, there would be no Big Shot Bob. In my opinion, in a close game the shot that went up when the game was tied with four minutes to go is just as important as the shot with the game tied and ten seconds to go. Games aren’t simply won and lost on the last play just because it’s the last play. There are an infinite number of variables and situations that lead up to that point. If those things didn’t matter, we might as well just make games ten seconds long and see who can make the final shot. There’s a reason we play the full game and a reason why people who know basketball will marvel when a player puts on a 48 minute basketball clinic. The entire game matters, and acting like the entire game is predicated by what happens in the final moments is simply ignoring too much basketball.