There’s been a Volkswagen commercial playing during these NBA Finals that, for whatever reason, has really caught my attention. Some of you may know which one I’m thinking of. There are two young, teenaged looking boys standing next to a pulled-over Volkswagen Passat which they very recently crashed into something (I suppose we don’t know what). As the two boys stand there, the one just sort of observes the other, stoically, as he worries about what his father will do, now that he’s crashed his car. “My dad’s gonna kill me, dude,” the worrying kid says with that all-too-familiar tremble in his voice that we’ve all experienced at one point or another. But then some assuring words appear on screen, “He can only kill you if you’re OK.”
The point of the commercial, of course, is to show just how safe the Volkswagen Passat is. They’re basically saying, that in order for your dad to kill you, he needs the opportunity to kill you, and he’ll never get that opportunity unless you drive their “IIHS Safety Rated” Passat. There’s an odd polarity to it – they can’t guarantee that your dad won’t kill you, but they’re willing to bet that, at the very least, you won’t kill you. It’s a curious way to sell a car, really. It puts the thought of crashes and death in the viewer’s mind, which isn’t something we generally associate purchasing a car with – yes, we look for safety in our vehicles, but it’s never so bluntly stated in the ads. Most companies just tell you that their car can get you from Point A to Point B, and they can do it with this many cup holders, and that many TV’s in the backseat for the kids. But what they don’t tell you is that sometimes between Point A and Point B, you crash. You do. Everyone does at some point. But Volkswagen’s bet is that if you drive their car, you have the best chance of surviving the crash.
There are a lot of great (or really good) point guards in the NBA right now: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Ricky Rubio, the corpse of Jason Kidd, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, even Jeremy Lin if you want to go there, but none of them ever seem to draw the same amount of criticism that Russell Westbrook does. And maybe it’s for a reason. Sometimes he’s out there playing like a “coked-out Klitschko brother.” He plays so arrogantly and so out of control that it gets really, really frustrating to watch. It’s even more frustrating to watch because basketball nerds have an obsession with Kevin Durant, and we really, really want to see him succeed.
But then there are the other times; the majority of the times, really. All of these other times, Russ Westbrook plays like, not just one of the best point guards in the NBA, but one of the best players in the NBA, period. Game Four was one of those games. In a contest that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook was the best player on the floor, and it wasn’t even close.* Forty-three points, seven rebounds and five assists is what we expect out of LeBron James, not out of Russell Westbrook, and certainly not on the road, in Game Four of the NBA Finals. At one point in the fourth Westbrook ran off 13-straight points for the Thunder. With the way the Heat were playing, he was the only reason they were in that game. And that’s what Russell Westbrook can do, most of the time.
*Actually, statistically, it was close, because LeBron’s 26-12-9 game is so amazing, but seems so mundane because he’s LeBron James and we almost expect these types of performances out of him.
But like any driver, Russ sometimes crashes, and crashes hard. In Game 3 he was benched for most of the third quarter in favor of Derek Fisher. In Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook played so out of control that Scotty Brooks sat him for the entire fourth quarter in favor of Eric Maynor – and won. It’s because of this that the media tends to drive a narrative that Russell Westbrook is the problem with OKC – well, if one of the fifteen or twenty most talented players in the NBA is your biggest problem, that’s one amazing problem to have.
So when James Harden and Udonis Haslem squared off for a jump ball, with seventeen seconds left (and a full five seconds left on Miami’s shot clock) with Oklahoma City down three points, and Russell Westbrook fouled Mario Chalmers with only a couple of seconds left on Miami’s shot clock…Twitter, and Facebook and everything exploded – even I tweeted and texted “WHY WOULD YOU FOUL THERE?!?!?!?!” It’s a logical reaction, really, because, well, it was a dumb play, and it makes sense to question it. And it’s because of moments like this that Westbrook almost seems bi-polar: one minute he’s playing like Derrick Rose; the next minute he’s playing like JaVale McGee. There’s a Good Russ and a Bad Russ, and we mostly see Good Russ. But for one really inopportune moment tonight, we saw Bad Russ.
The problem with this, though, is that, yes, he fucked up, but he shouldn’t be taking the blame for this loss (as was done to him by the Facebook and Twitter elite). There are handful of moments you can pinpoint (just from the fourth quarter) which led to the Thunder losing – James Harden missing a wide-open layup, Derek Fisher driving the lane with numbers when Derek Fisher has no business driving the lane whatsoever, any number of errant passes, Thabo Sefolosha taking a shot late in the game, and so on. Oklahoma City lost that game. NOT Russell Westbrook.
He fucked up, and it sucks, but the team was still down three at that moment, and they were down three for a reason – they didn’t execute for the other 47 minutes and 52 seconds of the game. Russ Westbrook was the best player on that floor tonight – he balled. He also made a boneheaded mistake that likely cost Oklahoma City the last possession, and a chance to tie the game. But that comes with the territory of Russell Westbrook. If your franchise is going to live by Russell Westbrook, it also has to prepare to die by Russell Westbrook. And you know what? All players are bound to make mistakes. But with Russell Westbrook, you probably have a better chance at surviving that mistake. He’s going to win you some games, and he’s going to lose you some games, but, mostly, he’s going to win you games – he’s just that talented. Still, Bad Russ is bound to make some dumb plays every now and again, and sometimes those plays might kill you; but Bad Russ can’t kill you unless Good Russ keeps you in that game.