The clutch factor is often used to describe where the greatest players of all time rank amongst each other. Last night, Damian Lillard hoisted a three-pointer so far beyond the line that nicknaming him “Logo Lillard” makes sense. When that 37-footer found the bottom of the net, however, it makes sense to call him the best point guard in the league at this very moment. Move over Russ, it’s Dame Time.
Yes, Steph Curry is an amazing all-around player but he also enlists the assistance of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, while Damian Lillard throws the Portland Trail Blazers on his back time and time again. C.J. McCollum is a nice backcourt threat alongside him, but he’s not a perennial all-star. There’s plenty a case for Lillard to top Curry and if that doesn’t satisfy you, call Lillard, Steph and maybe add in Boston’s Kyrie Irving a locked-in top echelon of point guards, in no particular order.
Lillard had a 50-point night and drained the buzzer-beating meteor from three that sent the Blazers through to the next round. He waved over to the OKC bench once the pandemonium ensued, and one could argue that gesture was aimed more at Westbrook than the rest of the team. Nonetheless, he sent them packing and the Thunder ended the season in heartbreaking fashion.
He single-handedly saved Portland from it’s postseason struggles that came to the forefront last season, where the sixth-seeded Pelicans swept out the three-seeded Blazers. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shouldered the blame, vowing to fix things next season. Oh boy, did they rectify those issues with this thrashing of a team led by two all-stars. He’s one of the best in the league at his position night-in and night-out, playoffs or not, final seconds or not. He’s a superstar, he’s humble and he gets it done when it matters. If he wasn’t elite before, he sure as hell is now.
Now, outside of that top trio is where you’ll find Russell Westbrook, who hasn’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant left for the West Coast. In fact, Russ and company are a combined 4-12 in the three subsequent first-round playoff series (against Houston, Utah and now Portland) without Durant. Paul George having an MVP-caliber season in his own right wasn’t enough to even muster two victories against Portland.
Oklahoma City has invested a lot in keeping Russ in town to continue chasing championships, though none have come. The closest OKC has gotten to a ring was back when James Harden and Durant suited up together with Westbrook against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. That didn’t end well for the Thunder. Harden was moved, Durant eventually skipped town and Russ is all that’s left from that promising era.
However, Paul George and Steven Adams have emerged as viable counterparts to Russ. George arguably overtook Westbrook as the star of the show and Adams is an animal in the paint on both ends of the floor. It still is not a sufficient solution in the Western Conference, where OKC is stuck in a rut once April winds down.
You can look at Billy Donovan on the bench, who guided the team to the Western Conference Finals and fell just a game short of ousting the Warriors back in 2016, but has been in the same rut as Westbrook since then. What Billy Donovan did not do, however, is shoot a paltry 36% from the floor in the playoffs. That’s Westbrook, and the buck stops there.
Averaging a triple-double throughout the course of a season, let alone several seasons on end, is an insane feat, and nobody can take that away from the Brodie. However, those triple-doubles don’t equate to wins. The man is missing 64% of the shots he hoists from the field, taking the ball away from Paul George, who shot 43.6%, which isn’t great but is still significantly better than Russ.
Westbrook is known as one of the best facilitators in the game and is a dynamic scorer when he gets a full head of steam. He just shouldn’t be shooting all that much from outside of the paint, and definitely is wasting his time from beyond the arc. Westbrook needs to continue what he’s doing on the boards and distributing to his teammates (though he must cut down on the turnovers). When it comes to shooting, he can create in the paint and spot up for 15-footers with ease. So, why shoot harder shots when it’s simply not your game? That’s the question fans, coaches and teammates need to start asking, and changing if they want to get out of the first round.
If Russ won’t stop heaving up what are, for him, lower percentage shots, this team will keep tossing away a few ever-valuable possessions a game. Two of their losses versus the Blazers were by five points or less. The script could’ve very easily be different in that series, with OKC carrying a 3-2 lead back to their house for game six. A total of 8 points decided two games and Russ went a combined 19/48 from the field, totaling less than 40%.
That number looks a lot better than the 11/31 (35%) he registered just last night. When you miss 20 shots from the field in one game, someone’s got to tell him to stop shooting the damn rock. Players on the floor don’t track their misses all that often, as evidenced by James Harden’s postgame reaction to being informed of his 0-15 start this week.
Looking at last night’s line from Paul George, he had 36 points on an efficient 14/20 shooting, and though Russ racked up 29 of his own, he shot 11 more shots than George, making three less. The script was flipped in game one, where Russ was more efficient than George but on a nightly basis, that’s simply not the case.
The recipe to postseason success story Oklahoma City wants to write starts with Russ taking less shots than George per game. If Russ’s average line looked like 17, 11, 9 rather than the 22.6, 10.6, 8.8 line he just posted against Portland across the five games, but with a 42% success rate from the field opposed to his 36%, they’d still be in and ready to close out Damian Lillard to move on. But, this story went differently, and the Thunder must now look in the mirror to find the answers they seek.