Russ is Titanium
You shoot him down, but he just won’t fall
Let’s be honest: The game against the Warriors on January 18 was difficult to watch. The Thunder hung tight until late in the third, but it never really felt like OKC was close to winning. Somehow, every game against the Warriors makes us feel like the team didn’t just lose the game, but also the war.
Haters will say Thunder fans are just clinging on to the false glory of Westbrook’s stats. But what they don’t see is that it’s not just about that. Beyond the numbers, Westbrook’s spirit has been the one reason why this team could move on from the events of last summer, and there was one play against the Warriors that illustrated this perfectly.
For context, I thought we’d first look at one other play within the game. It sets up the stage for Russ and that play.
In case you didn’t watch, Russ runs a pick-and-roll with Enes Kanter. The thing about pick-and-rolls is that fans don’t realize is that once the ball handler gets past his man, it’s no longer 2-on-2 offense. It is essentially 1-on-5, because every defender is now turning toward you, waiting for your next move. But much like what Westbrook has done all season, he single-handedly burned the entire defense for a violent slam.
The second part of the clip is the tough part. The Warriors in-bound the ball and quickly get it up the court. The offense is frighteningly simple. Durant is there waiting on the left wing, pulls up, splash.
I say this summarizes the Thunder season because it does in so many ways. For Russ, getting the team over the hump each game is all heart and hustle. Sure he’s getting help from his teammates, but just like in the play above, it just somehow feels like him against the world.
Any fan in the world would be hyped about that dunk. But as a Thunder fan, there’s more satisfaction for us, because it’s not just any regular Westbrook tomahawk. The man Westbrook is mashing on is none other than Kevin Durant. After the events of July 4, you almost feel poetic justice being served, even in a small way.
But the Thunder season has not been this straight forward, has it?
Russ has been a one-man wrecking crew of arresting, suffocating dominance, backed up by just about every advanced stat metric except the simple statistic that matters most — the win column. But for all of his individual brilliance, it just seems like it’s not enough.
Just look at that play. He carved that basket out of nothing while Durant can afford to wait and be fed the ball. But that’s just how the two former teammates’ seasons have panned out. Three points vs Two points. Swanky cosmopolitan city vs. humble blue-collar city. All-Star starter vs non All-Star starter.
Russ really deserves all the praise in the world this season. But if life is determined to run him over again and again, what can he do?
Speaking of running over, we’ve come to that play I say encapsulates the reason we love Westbrook. In the play, the Warriors were doing a bit too much running over, and the Thunder a bit too little.
The whole sequence starts off innocently enough. It’s late in the second quarter and Enes Kanter comes up to set up a high pick-and-roll. But out of nowhere, Zaza Pachulia decides he has had enough and just mows Westbrook down.
The commentator describes it as “knocking down” Westbrook. Really, take a look at that play again. Most times, when big men are called to hedge on the pick-and-roll, they are just supposed to get into their defensive stance, keep their hands up and move their feet well enough to let their teammate get back into the play. Unless the team is prepared to switch, which the Warriors were not, their hands are supposed to be kept to themselves in case they get called for a reaching foul.
On the other hand, as soon as Pachulia sees Westbrook’s defender get caught behind the screen, both of his elbows come straight up against Westbrook’s face. Westbrook probably sees this and tries to fling the ball up to get the foul. The refs don’t call it, but it’s a good thing he brought the ball up, because it actually protects his face from Pachulia’s elbow. Look at how hard Westbrook is thumped down against the ground. If that’s not running over another player, I don’t know what is.
That’s not the end of it. Pachulia ends up with the ball, but he just tosses it aside as he stands over Westbrook and stares at him. To me, the refs should have added on a tech on top of the flagrant for taunting. But that’s not even what concerns me the most.
Look at how the rest of the team reacts. No one runs over to help Westbrook out. Kanter, Abrines and Oladipo jog over like they are headed for a timeout. Now watch that scene again and look closely at what is happening in the background. Zaza Pachulia, the least deserving player on that starting lineup, is standing over the one man who has literally carried us through this first half of the season. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston both have their arms up like Westbrook was the one who committed a foul. And Draymond Green is just there in the background, clapping and egging Pachulia on. The whole crowd is on their feet, as if Westbrook was some sort of traitor that deserved what he got.
But none of the Thunder players really do anything else other than help Westbrook up. It is moments like this that I miss players like Kendrick Perkins. Every team needs its vets, and we have our own in Nick Collison and Anthony Morrow, but what this young Thunder team needs is not just a locker room presence. Sometimes, you need someone like Perk, whom you know will run over and give the other guy a push, even if it means a tech, just because he knows that if one is for all, then all must be for one.
I know this all sounds depressing, but we are getting there. There is a reason why I say this clip shows us why the fans love Westbrook and it is not because he gets fouled hard.
Look at Westbrook’s response. Did Westbrook exaggerate the hit? Maybe. My suspicion is that for those 10 seconds Westbrook laid on the floor, he was just trying to take in the shock of what happened and figure out if he could get Pachulia tossed.
But then he gets up. You don’t really register what is happening until you think about it. Westbrook gets up, turns away from the drama to run off the pain, grabs the ball and starts thinking about making his free throws. No confrontation with Pachulia, no arguing with the refs. Nothing.
Westbrook had every right to be angry with the situation. He had been doing everything he could to keep the Thunder alive, in the game and in the whole season. He gets knocked down, and no one seems to back him up the way he might have hoped to be. In previous seasons, you can imagine Westbrook arguing about this situation and playing into the hands of the Warriors. But no, he just gets up, leaves the outcome to the refs, and tries to get on with the game.
In comparison, take a look at 6' 8", 250 lbs LeBron James in a similar situation:
Just a few days earlier, Draymond Green (what’s new?) ran into LeBron in a sort-of-similar but less violent way. LeBron does not argue with the refs either, but he definitely made more out of it. He stays on the floor for a while and once he gets up, he saunters around the court, grimacing, shrugging his shoulders and holding his face.
Fair enough to LeBron. He has every right to do that. But my point is — what Westbrook did in that play is what he has been doing for us all season. When Durant left, he could have sulked, demanded a trade, or just waited until free agency to leave and say that the team was not good enough for him. If he did that, no one could have said anything.
But what Westbrook chose to do was to stay. To shut up, pick himself up, put the whole team on his back and go again. No looking for sympathy, no bugging of front office for more trade moves. Just buckling down and doing his best to give the team some wins.
This season has definitely not been easy for the Thunder. Westbrook has been a beast for OKC, but he is still not getting the love he deserves. For Thunder fans, he is the alpha and omega of this team, not just because of his individual stats.
Maybe this is the one thing we as fans should learn from Westbrook. Yes, Durant left and it stings. But we need to move on. It is difficult, of course. But we must do what Westbrook did — stop brooding over the things that will not change. Just leave self-pity behind, catch our breath, and go again.