Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rusell Westbrook: The New Iverson

Rage On
Last night in Game 2 in Houston, the visiting Thunder were playing a dramatically better game than the opener, and held a 12-point lead in the third quarter. Houston Rockets PG and MVP candidate James Harden couldn't put it in the ocean, the Thunder were closing out on three-point shooters like they were hungry dogs, and the Rockets couldn't get boards or transition looks against the bigger and burlier road team. It looked like playoff basketball, and Mike D'Antoni teams have a long and storied history of coming up small there, along with the usual prejudice against offense-first squads. The crowd was restless and nervous, and Russell Westbrook was the best basketball player in the world.

Then he took his rest, as he generally does because head coach Billy Donovan knows how to manage his resources, and the Rockets perked up immediately. A few threes went in, the crowd smelled blood in the water, and Westbrook lit angrily into his teammates and pleaded with his coach to let him back in. The lead was cut to manageable by the end of the third, and some part of me thought, "I've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for Iver... err, Westbrook."

There really isn't that much similarity between the two men, honestly. Iverson was an undersized shooting guard in an undersized point guard's body, and while he created an untold amount of offense in transition and from creating easy rebound opportunities for teammates from opponent double teams, he never put up similar assist or rebound numbers to Westbrook, and didn't have the same off the charts explosion and finishing ability. You could also, in his era of no zone defense, punish him in the post, the way that Mark Jackson did in multiple series losses to the Pacers. What AI had over Westbrook, in spades, was the ability to handle monster minutes and not have it effect his late play.

But there is one key similarity between the two men, and that's this: they are both trying to win basketball games, against the best players in the world, with wildly inadequate rosters... that actually get closer than you'd expect, because they have been built around their flawed but fantastic talents.

OKC without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka should be a 40-win 8th seed and easy first round out. Stephen Adams is a good 2-way player, but he's turnover-prone in the block and has limited range. Viktor Oladipo is an athletic 2-guard, but his handle and shot are too suspect for routine starring minutes. Enes Kanter is a good post bench scorer, but indifferent at defense. Taj Gibson tries hard and is tolerable, but is best seen as solid bench. And that's, well, about it. Trying to win a playoff series with these guys in the loaded West should be impossible, and probably is.


But that didn't stop Westbrook, like AI before him, from lashing himself to the mast and charging into the fray. It got them to a 6th seed and a lead in last night's game, but with Westbrook pressed into extra minutes and no one else in his laundry willing or able to step up and make shots, the Thunder were doomed. To the stat sheet eye, he's an unconscionable gunner; to the actual game eye, he's trying to will these guys beyond their means, especially in the half-court. More tellingly, by the end of the game last night, he was spent beyond measure, and got to endure any amount of idiot takes about how Durant's better. (He might be, because Durant's 7 feet tall and can stop people at the rim, but that's beyond the point.) At the end of the night, Westbrook had a 50+ point triple double. But Harden and the Rockets had the win and the 2-0 series lead.

I suspect OKC might win a game in this series, because the Rockets can look bad when the jumpers aren't falling, and Harden isn't going to go to the line a couple of dozen times on the road, the way he did tonight. The NBA's predilection toward long series, suspicious officiating and complacent Game 3 road work is powerful, and Houston isn't filled with lockdown playoff veterans. But the road steal that they needed was last night, and you really got the sense that Westbrook knew it by the close.

One against five might make for great television, and a staple of karate movies. But it doesn't work in the NBA, and it certainly doesn't work four times out of five.

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