Russell Westbook created and ended the possibility of Oklahoma City victory. It’s difficult to process within the context of “blame.” Russell Westbrook is the reason Oklahoma City had a chance to win. Russell Westbrook is the reason they lost almost any chance of winning. Both these statements are true. He knocked over his wonderful sandcastle, and we’ll never quite grasp why.
There’s a logical case to be made against any sports scapegoating, as these games are comprised of many complex events. Also, it’s just plain wrong to act as though one man has loser cooties. With Westbrook, it would just be short-sighted because he looks poised for a decade of success. What good’s a future winning, successful scapegoat? Better to kick someone on the way out like poor Billy Buckner. Or better yet, spotlight a foul-ball-meddlin’ fan. Steve Bartman wasn’t exactly a threat to sign with the Yankees and play right field.
In our logical, benevolent haste to shield athletes from scapegoatery, we can sometimes minimize the hated mistakes. Kyle Williams fumbled twice in the NFC championship game. This prompted a) angry 49er fans anger-vomiting bile at Williams over Twitter b) a lot of screeds in opposition to the idea that he “cost his team the game.” Well, much as I don’t want Kyle Williams to wear a scarlet S.G. for the rest of his life, it’s hard to hurt your team’s chances more than “one muffed punt in regulation, one muffed punt in overtime.” If Kyle Williams didn’t cost his team that game, then no player can ever “lose” a game for their team. Maybe that’s your position, and it could be an admirable one. But in reducto terms, if LeBron kicks the ball out of bounds on every possession of a game, then what else could that be defined as? An athlete can lose one for his team, harsh as that sounds.
To be clear, Russ did not lose this one for the Thunder in the Kyle Williams sense. He played brilliantly, possibly better than anyone has in these playoffs, save for LeBron James and his 45 points, 73% shooting effort against the Celtics. Rondo’s 45 point game is elided intentionally from that sentence, not that his monster 53 minute run is anything to yawn at. Rajon just happened to be shooting with more room than I’d give Dick Cheney on a quail hunt. Westbrook was the best player on the floor last night, and the Thunder probably lose in a blowout without his help–”help” that could probably be better categorized as CPR.
Is it still accurate to say Westbrook cost his team incredibly with that bizarre intentional foul? Sure.
Every basketball possession is of equal value in the abstract. So Perkins’ first quarter missed hook shot matters every bit as much as Westbrook’s foul, in the broader view. But at 17.3 seconds left, down by three, we already know how that Perkins’ hook turned out. It’s immutable, etched into time’s tablet. Scott Brooks can’t go back and run a different play–not that he would, because he’s a creature of curious habits. At 17.3 seconds left, the immediate future will have an immense impact on who wins. Prior events have added up to a high leverage situation, a situation in which defeat can be sealed by a single act.
Of course, Thunder victory is still improbable even if Westbrook resists the urge to take that odd foul. They need a (likely) Miami miss, and a (likely) OKC rebound, followed by an (unlikely) three point make. And then there’s the overtime. But still, a foul that swings it from “decent chance at a one-possession game” to “certain two possession game” effectively turns “improbable” into “impossible.” And that matters, especially given just how irrational the foul was.
It came not in relative chaos, but in response to a very predictable outcome, after a timeout. The Heat won the jumpball, retaining possession with a dwindling shotclock. Westbrook attributed the mistake to “miscommunication on my part,” but that still leaves much to mystery. Did he not know about the shotclock? Did he know and short circuit is a frenetic moment? Did the coaching staff not tell him? Was he listening when they did? Did he think the clock had reset after Durant made contact with the ball?
This conversation may be less about blame and more about “why?” While I can empathize with having to suffer criticism after a well-intentioned mistake, I can’t relate to making Westbrook’s specific mistake because it’s a bizzarre decision in search of a reason. Since the rationale for this foul hasn’t been spelled out yet, I just have to fill in the “why” with “miscommunication” as though the latter were the Jurrassic Park frog DNA that animates an explanation into existence. It doesn’t work. I’d crumble under basketball pressure a million times over, but I still can’t effectively excuse or feel for Westbrook’s plight without knowing why the hell he did it, beyond the skeletal structure. It feels incomplete to defend actions you can’t understand, even if you’re incredibly certain you’d defend most any reason.
After the tip, Westbrook rushed in to emphatically foul Mario Chalmers, as though he wanted his diligence broadcast to the universe. He thought he was doing right. With a foul like that, he must have thought the game essentially over. Because of that misunderstanding, with a foul like that, he helped usher the game to its completion.