The Oklahoma City Thunder are down 3-1 in their first-round series after Sunday’s narrow home loss to the favored Houston Rockets, but it’s hard to blame Russell Westbrook for that situation.
The MVP favorite has posted triple-doubles in three of four games, set several new records related to triple-doubles in the postseason and served as OKC’s sole creative force throughout the series. The stats don’t lie — aside from the Game 1 blowout loss in which Westbrook posted a minus-25 in 34 minutes, the Thunder are a plus-28 when he’s been on the court and a minus-34 in the 25 minutes he’s been on the bench. There just hasn’t been much help.
Regardless, Westbrook doesn’t want the blame for this loss to fall elsewhere. After Game 4, columnist Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman asked center Steven Adams a question regarding the differences in quality between the Rockets and Thunder reserves. Westbrook called off Adams and fielded the question with a rejection of its premise.
A lot of the drama from this news-conference moment comes in the back and forth between Westbrook and Tramel, who pushes him to answer when it’s clear he doesn’t want to. The Oklahoman has been at the center of OKC playoff controversies before, and Tramel’s relationship with Westbrook is especially complicated. In January 2015, the Thunder star told him “I just don’t like you” in the midst of a particularly awkward stonewalling of the assembled media.
No matter the history, Tramel’s question on Sunday was a legitimate one. The Thunder have been appreciably worse with Westbrook and other key starters out, and it’s fair to ask any player if that’s an area where things have to change in order to prolong and win the series. Westbrook’s reaction to the question might be based more on the person asking it than its quality, but that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate.
However, Westbrook very likely had another reason to respond to Tramel in this way. In addition to swatting away an uncomfortable conversation about the play of his supporting cast, Westbrook showed those same players that they can be just as important to the Thunder’s success as he can. As in the case of Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale’s “take that for data” rant after his team’s Game 2 loss, Westbrook sent a message to his locker room that he’s going to stand up for them.
It hardly matters if his statements are true. No matter what he says, Westbrook is always going to be judged apart from his less valuable teammates, which goes for his great successes as well as his failures. But part of his responsibilities require him to lead, and that’s exactly what he did in Sunday’s news conference. His duties to the press are secondary.
Source: Eric Freeman/ Ball Don’t Lie