The Great Russell Westbrook Debate can shift topics. “Is he clutch enough” is the new “Is he too selfish?”
Westbrook went 3-of-6 on free throws down the stretch, and the Thunder blew a 10-point lead in the final minutes. But James Harden missed a 3-pointer just before the buzzer, allowing Oklahoma City to escape with a 115-113 Game 3 win over the Rockets on Friday.
“I’ve got to make a free throw,” Westbrook grumbled to begin his on-court interview before seemingly realizing stewing was a bad look and expressed pleasure his team trimmed the series deficit to 2-1.
And, yes, Westbrook clearly cares how he looks, no matter what pretenses he puts up.
His cartoonish fourth quarter of Game 2 – shooting 4-for-18 while his teammates shot 3-for-11 – invited deep criticism of his ball-hogging. Westbrook showed a different approach from the jump tonight, making a concerted effort to find his teammates. He had eight assists in the first half and 11 through three quarters.
Even though Westbrook added no assists in the fourth quarter, he kept looking for his teammates – sometimes to a fault. They just didn’t connect.
Houston cut the margin during an excruciating few minutes Westbrook began the final period during the bench. Even as the Rockets went on a late 15-5 to tie it, Westbrook sought floor balance.
His teammates reveled in his faith in them. They made 9-of-18 3-pointers, and Westbrook — who was 5-for-22 from beyond the arc in the first two games — attempted only one. Steven Adams tipped in a Westbrook miss with 35 seconds left to put Oklahoma City up good, though Westbrook’s dicey free-throw shooting kept it tense.
Like every game in this series, it will be seen as a referendum in the already-decided, not-yet-revealed MVP race. The final lines:
- Westbrook: 32 points on 24 shots and 10-of-14 free throw shooting, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, five turnovers, W
- Harden: 44 points 21 shots and 18-of-18 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, seven turnovers, L
Both players will insist the final letter is most important, but Harden can bank on a couple of those Ws from Games 1 and 2. The Thunder still have their back against the wall.
This felt like a team energized by its first home playoff game of the year, though Billy Donovan made some smart adjustments – mainly tightening his rotation, including deactivating second-string point guard Semaj Christon.
The Thunder will go as far as Westbrook takes them, and tonight, that was to their first playoff win without Kevin Durant since moving to Oklahoma City.
Now, it’s Harden’s turn to answer.