Today, redemption is spelled R-u-s-… screw it, you know the rest.
Anchorman references aside, Russell Westbrook proved a whole bunch of critics (myself included) wrong Sunday. His 14-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound showing in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals was one of the finest individual performances in playoff history, and he deserves to be recognized for it.
Along with Kevin Durant (39 points, 9 rebounds), he propelled OKC to a 105-90 victory over Memphis, securing not only a place in the conference finals against Dallas, but also the first Game 7 playoff win in Thunder history.
Westbrook’s performance wasn’t a surprise — when his head’s on straight, he’s a top 5 point guard in the NBA. It was more of a departure.
Two weeks ago, I noted Westbrook’s tendency to ball hog down the stretch of games and said his shoot-first ways in the clutch would lead to a quick exit for Oklahoma City. Shortly afterward, he sabotaged a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 against Memphis, seemingly sealing his playoff legacy (the short term one at least).
However, Westbrook changed that perception Sunday.
Granted, one game doesn’t reverse an entire playoffs worth of trend (remember his 30-point, 30-shot Game 4 performance against Denver?), but Westbrook was the consummate teammate against Memphis in Game 7 and it made a huge difference in OKC’s performance.
Knowing Durant was the make-or-break player in the game, Westbrook looked for him early and often, feeding Durant again and again, even when he started out cold in the first quarter. That’s what fans and critics had been looking for. An acknowledgment. Durant is the best player on the team; feed him. Westbrook delivered it.
It’s telling that Westbrook reached 10 assists before he got to 10 points.
He was placing knives and forks for Durant first, James Harden (17 points on 6-of-10 shooting) second, and himself third. He was feeding the hot hand, taking shots within the offense and making moves conducive to winning (a.k.a. not forcing shots or turning the ball over).
In Games 2, 4 and 6, Westbrook was very good.
In Game 7, he was great.
He dominated the game without dominating the ball — an important distinction — and for it he was rewarded with just the fifth Game 7 triple-double in NBA playoff history (the other four, according to Elias Sports Bureau: Scottie Pippen in the East Semis in 1994, James Worthy in the NBA Finals in 1988, Larry Bird in the East Semis in 1984, and Jerry West in the NBA Finals in 1969).
It’s a feat worthy of recognition. Hopefully Westbrook gets a lot of it today.
If he continues to play like this against Dallas, we’re going to have a helluva Western Conference Finals on our hands.