Playoffs 2017: West First Round -- Rockets (3) vs. Thunder (6)
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder strike winning balance in Game 3 victory
Westbrook posts his second straight triple-double and his teammates chip in to help the Thunder pull within 2-1
OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook said he didn’t give a (bleep) about his stat line in a Game 2 loss and it cost him a $15,000 fine from the NBA office for his language.
Here are a few more words on the verbal offender: Controlled, composed and redemptive. Bigly, even.
This was the Westbrook that the outside world craves after every time he scores 51 points or another absurd number in a loss.
Truth be told, it’s the Westbrook he craves on most nights of the long season. The one that doesn’t feel the need to launch every long jumper or try to constantly force his way through the crowd in the lane.
When Westbrook threatens to wear out his right shoulder from hoisting 47 field goal attempts, the Thunder are a wild carnival side show that everyone likes to ogle. But when they are more than Russell’s Believe It Or Not, OKC can take a 115-113 victory over the Rockets in Game 3 at Chesapeake Energy Arena and give the first round series at least an element of intrigue.
There was Taj Gibson powering his way around the low post, twisting turning and putting in an array of nifty close-in buckets for 20 points. There was Andre Roberson, in the brief moments when he wasn’t glued to James Harden’s hip, dropping in a pair of 3-pointers out of the corner and relentlessly working to keep the ball alive on the offensive glass.
Victor Oladipo finally did more than run onto the court for the introduction of the starting lineups. Enes Kanter scored. Doug McDermott and Alex Abrines both dropped in a couple of bombs.
As a result, Westbrook didn’t need to drop more blue language than the new Smurf movie.
With a handful of teams tanking after the All-Star break and an epidemic of superstar players resting, one night think the league office could have more to worry about, or even appreciate, a player who quite bluntly says that he cares more about winning than his stat line.
After heaving 18 shots in the fourth quarter of Game 2 when the Thunder were run down from behind, Westbrook took just seven down the stretch on Friday night when they were always able to stay ahead.
“Like I said the last game, I had to do a better job of trusting my teammates for 48 minutes,” Westbrook said. “Tonight those guys made plays throughout the whole game. That is what I tried to do.”
That trying became doing because his teammates were able to run not just in his vapor trail, but right alongside him. It is one thing to bask in the glory of a guy averaging a triple-double for an entire season for the first time in 55 years, but another not to get blinded by the spotlight and caught watching.
It is a high-wire act since the Thunder rely so heavily on their star guard and don’t have a half-court offense that can grind out points from sets. They need Westbrook to be all that and more and he manages to wear the criticism as comfortably as his flamboyant off-the-court ensembles.
“All that is just a credit to Russell,” said Thunder coach Billy Donovan. “I enjoy being around him. I like working with him. I like coaching him because I think that he’s very, very honest. He’s genuine and he’s very straightforward and honest. I think every single time he plays at some point in time after the game is over, he’s going to look at and evaluate and find ways to get better.
“I’ve got an enormous amount of trust in him, confidence in him because of his preparation and the work that he does. I thought he was unbelievable tonight the way he played from start to finish. He was great. He got guys shots. He took advantage of switches when they switched. He did a lot of different things. He found McDermott. He found Abrines. He found Gibson. He did a lot of different things. He played an exceptional game.
“I never ever fault a guy for in the heat of the moment always going for it and trying to go win. I think his greatest attribute and strength is he’s a great competitor who goes after it. He’s never walking out of a game saying, ‘I played a little timid. I should have been a little more aggressive.’ He’s never doing that. He continually evolves, grows and learns because of his preparation.”
Even though this time Harden had the gaudier scoring number — 44 to 32 — Westbrook chose more judiciously, spread the ball around and made enough of fourth quarter choices plays to seal it. He was 3-for-7 shooting in the fourth, scoring nine points and getting to three rebounds. Another triple-double, of course, with 13 rebounds and 11 assists.
Westbrook even managed to make things perilously interesting by missing 3 of 6 free throws in the final 66 seconds to keep the door cracked open for the Rockets. When he missed the last with 8.4 seconds to play, Houston’s Trevor Ariza grabbed the rebound and pushed it ahead to Harden, whose desperate 3-pointer hit the front of the rim.
“We are all one team,” he said. “I don’t have a cast. I don’t have a guy. We are all in this together and my teammates been doing a great job all season long. We’ll continue to trust in each other and our abilities to stay a team and stay as one.”
Different language, same thoughts.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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