Western Conference Playoffs — “Numbers Guys” Not Adding Up For Thunder

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are really up against it right now. They are down three games to one, deserve to be, and have to stay alive by winning on the road against a Portland Trail Blazers team that has done just fine adapting to life without Jusuf Nurkic. Game 5 of this Western Conference playoff series is set to begin at 10:35 PM ET at the Moda Center.

And if the Thunder can’t win three consecutive games, they will be experiencing their third straight first-round exit in the post-season. You would not think such a fate would befell someone so decorated as Russell Westbrook. But that is exactly what is about to happen.

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In the NBA Western Conference playoff odds on Game 5, as they are posted at BetAnySports, Portland is favored in this “close-out” game:

Portland Trail Blazers -3.5 (-102)
Oklahoma City Thunder +3.5 (-108)

Over 219 points (-102)
Under 219 points (-108)

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Maybe I’m being unduly rough on him, but I am just not all that star-struck by Russell Westbrook. Don’t get me wrong; anyone would be silly not to recognize his other-worldly individual skills. But there’s always been a “me-first” thing about him that puts a cap on how far he can really go.

There was something Rick Barry said about him that had some resonance. He was on a radio show, talking about some of the players of his time, including Oscar Robertson, who like Westbrook years later, averaged a triple-double for a season. Barry knows a little about the “me-first” attitude, having been accused of having it himself from time to time, and he pointed out that the difference between Robertson and Westbrook is that while the Big O’s numbers came more or less organically, Westbrook went out every night specifically looking for a triple-double.

Guys who need to get their “numbers” have a tendency to force situations to attain those numbers. They’ll take bad shots, because that’s what they do – they shoot. An artful coaching staff, especially within the context of a series, can design a scheme to make players like this take shots from unfavorable spots on the floor, but you see, they are going to take those shots anyway. And everyone knows it.

I suspect there’s some of that going on with Westbrook and the ways the Blazers are defending him here. He’s had games where he’s gone 5-for-20 and 5-for-21, and when you have an offense where the only other scorer is Paul George, bad shots by a guy who is going to shoot, no matter what, will take down that offense.

You can substitute Kevin Durant’s name for George’s, and you’ll have your explanation for OKC’s playoff failures in the recent past. A lot of that blame was laid at the feet of Scott Brooks, but look – when you have Durant, Westbrook and James Harden on the floor at the same time, there simply aren’t enough basketballs to go around. A lot of fans, who are in a fantasy world, so to speak, where the statistics are all that matters, don’t really catch on to this.

With George not necessarily 100%, the situation is exacerbated. Portland is supposed to be the team that is affected by the injury (to Nurkic). But they have adapted, and made OKC’s best people less effective. That makes them the better team in this series, and so the number in Game 5 seems pretty reasonable.

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