One of my favorite things about the NBA Finals: After each game finishes and the majority of fans trickle away, there’s a 45-minute window before the arena closes to accommodate postgame shows, media members, NBA employees, arena employees and the various entourages for each team. Friends and family of the visitors usually congregate behind their bench, rehashing the night and waiting for players to emerge from the stands. You can always tell what happened by their collective mood … and last night, the mood of Oklahoma City’s contingent ranged somewhere between “sullen” and “crestfallen.” Their boys didn’t just blow the championship; they wasted the best game Russell Westbrook ever played.
Westbrook knew it, too. He surfaced wearing one of his goofy “Look at me!” podium outfits, despondent over what happened in the final 15 seconds. Trailing by three, a confused Westbrook intentionally fouled Mario Chalmers after Miami recovered a jumpball, not realizing the 24-second clock hadn’t reset and Chalmers had less than three seconds to launch an off-balance shot from the corner. As it was unfolding, every Oklahoma City fan probably screamed “Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!” in slow motion like Cuba Gooding right before Ricky Baker got shot. Could you argue that Oklahoma City had already blown the game? Probably. They needed a rebound and a miracle 3 just for overtime. But Westbrook’s brain fart erased that slim chance.
Now, his inner circle attempted to console him. Repeat: attempted. He hugged a couple of people, went through the charade of hearing them, then slowly limped under the stadium again while wiping his eyes. Not how you want to look after playing the game of your life. If you’re scoring at home, there are four types of transcendent Finals performances …
Level 4: A great player comes through with absolutely everything on the line. (Think MJ in Game 6 of the ’98 Finals.)
Level 3: A great player asserts his dominance and either clinches the series or leaves no doubt where it’s headed. (Think MJ in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, or Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 Finals.)
Level 2: A great player throws his fastball for a big game and hushes a few critics along the way. (Think LeBron in Game 2, or Magic in Game 4 of the ’87 Finals.)
Level 1: A very good player plays like a great one … and if he hushes a few critics along the way, even better.
Westbrook played a Level 1 game last night. After being picked apart like a presidential candidate during Oklahoma City’s first two Finals losses, Westbrook responded with one of the most electric efforts in recent Finals history, sinking 20 of 32 shots, attacking the rim over and over again, and doing everything short of waving both middle fingers at his critics after every made basket. At some point during the next 50 years, I hope somebody explains why Westbrook only attempted three (?!?!?!?!?) free throws last night, or why so many 50/50 calls swung against Oklahoma City these last three games. Just don’t blame Westbrook for last night’s crushing defeat. As Charles Barkley gushed after the game, “that boy competed tonight.”
He’s been the most polarizing player of the 2012 Finals, no small feat considering the second-most polarizing basketball player of all time happens to play for the other team.1 Westbrook’s detractors don’t ever expect him to find the right balance between “competitive” and “reckless.” They believe he’s a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard (like a better version of Stevie Francis or Tyreke Evans); that he takes too many shots away from the more efficient Kevin Durant; that Oklahoma City can’t win the title until they swap him out for a true point guard (say, Rajon Rondo). Westbrook’s defenders accept his faults because they’re a small part of the greater good: He brings so many unique things to the table, fills the stat sheet in so many different ways, competes so freaking hard every game and remains such a good-natured teammate, they’re fine with any collateral damage. The 2012 Zombie Sonics made the Finals because they’re relentlessly young and relentlessly athletic. That’s Westbrook in a nutshell.
In Game 3, a semi-neutered Westbrook carefully tiptoed through the first two and a half quarters, ratcheted things up after Durant’s fourth foul,2 played poorly and earned a conspicuous “rest” from Scott Brooks. That was a dangerous moment for Oklahoma City — not just for this series, but long-term — something that ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy caught while announcing the game. When Van Gundy coached in Houston, he came to regret how he handled Francis, a similarly explosive guard who struggled with his competitive/reckless calibration. Instead of embracing the electric qualities that made Francis special, he steered Francis toward being more of a pure point guard, inadvertently compromising his game.3 You didn’t need a translator to figure out why Van Gundy brought this up during Game 3 of the 2012 Finals.
I actually ran into Van Gundy outside a Miami hotel on Monday night, one day before the biggest game of Westbrook’s young life. I brought up his Francis comparison and threw one of my hairbrained theories at him: the “10 Percent Theory.” Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they’re tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others. For instance, Larry Bird’s biggest hole was his inability to defend quicker forwards without help. (Same for Dirk Nowitzki.) You could hide that specific hole on the right team, with the right coaches, the right teammates and even the right matchups. But something like Rajon Rondo’s shaky jumpshot, or the Botox Face that afflicted Karl Malone in crunch time? There’s a case of the 10 percent flashing like a neon sign. Again, some holes are more glaring than others. But EVERYONE has holes.
On Oklahoma City, it’s tougher to see Kevin Durant’s 10 percent (he’s not strong enough yet to prevent defenders like Shane Battier from hounding him 25 feet from the basket and denying him the ball, and he’s not a consistently good enough defender yet) than Westbrook’s 10 percent (his recklessness, which permeates everything he does, good and bad). You notice when Westbrook shoots 27 times, you notice when he bricks an ill-fated 3 in a huge spot, and you notice when he’s bowling someone over for a charge because he thought he could dunk over three guys.
Still, as I mentioned to Van Gundy, Westbrook does so many positive things that those 10 percent plays are something of a tax for the overall Westbrook package, right? Van Gundy agreed wholeheartedly. He believed Oklahoma City needed to win or lose this series on their own terms, not some idealistic, media-driven belief about how they SHOULD be playing. Westbrook will never be John Stockton. It ain’t happening. We both wanted to see Westbrook be Westbrook again, one of the league’s most fearless competitors, someone who brings a ton of things to the table and takes a few things off, too.
And that’s exactly what happened in Game 4. You could see something special brewing right before tip-off, as the starters milled around in front of the scorer’s table during a commercial break. Westbrook grabbed the game ball and defiantly dribbled it between his legs toward Miami’s basket, staring down the sea of white with a surly, combative frown. The implication was clear: I’m coming tonight. I’m coming for all of you. His first basket came on a violent drive to the basket. His next touch: A pull-up jumper, one of those “don’t think for a second that I’m not shooting this” moments. He kept coming and coming, playing with real defiance, helping Oklahoma City build its early double-digit lead. The Heat fought back and eventually assumed control for two reasons over everything else.
1. Oklahoma City was determined to let Miami’s point guards beat them … and Norrio Colemers somehow finished with a combined 33 points. Whoops.
2. For three quarters, LeBron James played at the single highest level I have ever seen from him. (Yes, I went to Game 6 of last round’s Boston series.) This was the greatest Bird impression ever attempted (and executed), something that could only be called “power point guard.” He did whatever he wanted on the low post, crashed the boards, got his teammates involved, made the right play time and time again … it was like watching Bird 2.0, only if Bird was also one of the three best defenders in the league. To repeat: LeBron was playing like a rich man’s version of the fifth-best basketball player of all time. I don’t care how much you hated “The Decision” — if you can’t appreciate what LeBron James is doing right now, you need to start following another sport. It’s one of the greatest night-to-night athletic feats we have ever witnessed.
And just when it seemed like LeBron had broken Oklahoma City (and especially James Harden, who was getting tortured in the low post again and again as people wondered things like, I wonder why Oklahoma City won’t switch to zone and Hey, do you think Scott Brooks knows that zone defenses are legal in the NBA?), Westbrook unleashed another defiant run, scoring 13 straight even as his team crumbled around him. Looking back, the Zombies blew three straight winnable games because of the proverbial “little things.” Oh, and because they couldn’t buy a call if their life depended on it. But especially because of the little things.
Remember Harden blowing that fast-break layup that he should have dunked? Remember Fisher taking that stupefyingly dumb jumper even though Westbrook had NBA Jam flames shooting out of his ass? Remember those times (multiple) when Durant fought for the ball 35 feet from the basket, got manhandled by Battier, waited for a foul that never came, then simply gave up and allowed someone else to shoot? Remember Thabo Sefolosha getting a wide-open 3 and barely hitting the backboard? Remember Harden missing multiple open 3s, then passing up a wide-open 17-footer before begrudgingly bricking it? Remember Serge Ibaka sealing off Chalmers’s drive on Miami’s biggest possession of the game (up three, 44 seconds remaining), then somehow allowing Chalmers to snake by him for an off-balance layup? All of those plays happened in the fourth quarter. Again, Oklahoma City blew Game 4 before Westbrook fouled Chalmers.
Once upon a time, the Heat were seasoned by the 2011 Mavericks and the 2012 Celtics, both savvy contenders with a ton of pride, experienced teams that forced you to beat them. The Heat beat themselves in the 2011 Finals, learned from it, then finally exorcised those choking demons two weeks ago. Now they’re pulling a similar trick on the young kids from Oklahoma City. This is the law of the NBA. You learn from the team that keeps beating you, and eventually, you do it to someone else. Welcome to the 2012 Finals.
Just don’t blame Westbrook for what happened. When you’re judging the best players (not just now, but all-time), Barkley’s four-word assessment matters more than anything else. Nobody had more “that boy competed tonight” games than Jordan. That’s why we revered him. It’s the same reason Bird picked Kobe as the current NBA player who would have been his favorite teammate. It’s the same reason so many of us were disappointed in LeBron’s curious lack of urgency during 2010′s Boston series or last year’s Finals, or why we kept wondering if he would ever “get there.” LeBron didn’t fully figure out the magic formula until Game 4 of the Indiana series, when he started playing every game like his life depended on it. He’s been playing 45 minutes a night and cresting at a nearly inconceivable level ever since.
Last night, he even pushed himself a little too far, with his legs cramping in the final minutes of another “that boy competed tonight” game. Turns out LeBron isn’t an indestructible cyborg sent from the future. No matter. He somehow managed to eliminate that 10 percent; for about five weeks now, he’s played basketball without any visible holes. It’s been relatively astounding to watch — just like it was astounding when Wilt put it together for one unforgettable season in 1967, or when Jordan finally figured everything out in 1991. There comes a moment when you say, “Oh, shit, we’re all in trouble now,” and then you hold on for the ride. LeBron officially hit that point in Boston during Game 6. Only his body can stop him now.
As for Russell Westbrook, he’s never shedding that 10 percent. It’s always going to pulsate. We’re always going to notice it. That’s what makes him Russell Westbrook. Just know that boy competed last night. You are who you are.