Playoffs 2019 West First Round: Blazers (3) vs.Thunder (6)

More than ever, Westbrook's legacy hinges on playoff success

Westbrook delivers in crucial Game 3 victory over Blazers, but have we already seen his best?

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook’s greatness is an old debate he decided a few years ago by doing things no other player of his generation can do.

His legacy, however, is a different matter.

For all of his triple-doubles, his breathtaking highlights and a frenzied and furious playing style that would resonate in any era, it’s fair to question what exactly the Oklahoma City Thunder have to show for all of his energy and effort.

Westbrook is in the physical prime of a surefire Hall of Fame career but without a signature accomplishment the franchise can trumpet beyond his Kia MVP honor from the 2016-17 season.

The cold truth is the Thunder haven’t been able to draft off Westbrook’s rage in any meaningful way at playoff time.

At least not yet.

They’ve won a grand total of four playoff games since Kevin Durant departed these premises for Golden State via free agency in July 2016.

And that includes Friday night’s 120-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, when Westbrook played brilliantly at times and needed every one of his 33 points, 11 assists and five rebounds to outduel Damian Lillard (32 points, 23 of which came in a 10-minute stretch of the third quarter after Westbrook hit Lillard with his infamous Rock-da-Baby celebration).

Westbrook vowed after Game 2 to be better. He had to be with the Thunder in an 0-2 hole. And he was.

But Westbrook and Paul George, his Kia MVP candidate teammate and the replacement for Durant on the other side of the marquee at Chesapeake Energy Arena, haven’t had the postseason breakthrough either man has been searching for since they joined forces.

After three games against the relentless Blazers backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, there is no indication that it’s in the offing now.

The fact is, the Thunder are a perplexing bunch that, despite having two of the NBA’s biggest stars as headliners, sit outside of true contender status in the Western Conference as presently constituted.

This is no dig at Westbrook. Far from it. He’s the most competitive human being wearing an NBA uniform today, a player willing to exhaust every fiber of his being to beat you. He plays with the sort of meddle that fans of all ages can appreciate.

He’s universally adored in Oklahoma City, where a rabid and raucous Thunder fan base cheers his every move on the court and celebrates the way he has embedded himself into the community off the court (when others chose to chase their destiny elsewhere).

He should be applauded for giving everything he has in pursuit of becoming one of the greatest players of this or any generation.

But at 30 and with seemingly all the security a superstar could ask for, have we already seen the best of what a Westbrook-led team will do?

Is he satisfied with chasing 50-win seasons and playoff berths and the love and respect of these fans and his teammates above all else?

Can he stomach having sniffed the air of The Finals just once, that 2012 run alongside Durant and James Harden when they were all too young and naive to know that return trips to the promised land are anything but promised?

Or will he push for more?

Will a player who revels in doing things his way even consider an alternative operating system?

Because as fun as it might be to cherish these small victories, moments like these will wind up being empty calories if this is all there is.

And like so many of his generation — the 30-and-over crowd — the clock ticks on everyone in this league, all-time greats and journeymen alike. Watching it all come to an end this season for Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, luminaries Westbrook competed against and lost out to for championships or opportunities to play for them, should serve as a salient reminder for Westbrook that he’s closer to the end than the beginning.

If he’s not willing to look in the mirror and ask himself the hard questions, to examine his NBA existence at this stage of his career, someone else here has to be willing to force the issue and do it for him.

Someone has to be willing to go there, to dig in at a time like this, and give an honest assessment of where this Thunder team is right now and whether or not they see a road to a permanent perch in the upper echelon of the Western Conference playoff chase for the foreseeable future.

Because if not, if there is no light on that horizon, then perhaps it’s time to dive in on the debate.

No, not of Westbrook’s mercurial greatness, he’s already provided more than enough data in his favor; his work in crunch time Friday night being the latest exhibit.

It’s time to debate whether that situational, spectacular, jaw-dropping greatness, as thrilling and crowd-pleasing as it might be, can produce anything more than what we’ve already seen from the Thunder and its superstar.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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