IT WAS ARGUABLY the worst game of Russell Westbrook's career.
It was March 16, and the Oklahoma City Thunder had just lost by 22 to a Golden State Warriors team playing without Kevin Durant. Westbrook drudged through a 7-point performance -- 2-of-16 shooting and 0-of-7 from 3 -- which also featured his 16th technical foul that led to an automatic one-game suspension.
The Thunder were in the early stages of their post-All-Star slide, and the game against the Warriors felt important. The storyline from the game was less, though, about the Thunder's ugly loss and more about Westbrook's pending suspension. An expected win was next up -- home against the Miami Heat -- but without Westbrook, it was suddenly in doubt (they lost by nine).
During postgame availability, Westbrook had already said "next question" three times, all following inquiries about the technical foul. After another about trusting the pass when the defense collapses, it was last call -- one final question came, aimed at his rough shooting night.
Russell, when you have a night like this, where you shoot the way that you did, do you change anything, or do you continue to do what you've been doing, considering the defense they were running at you?
In any Westbrook media session, there are certain trip words. One was hit with that question. Westbrook took a sip of his ice water, shuffled it around and waited for the question to finish, his answer already locked and loaded.
"Change what?" Westbrook said.
Do you change the way you approach your shooting...?
"Have I changed in 11 years?" Westbrook interrupted, staring back.
There was a brief pause, with everyone in the room thinking the same thing -- Well, I would hope so -- but Westbrook waited for a resigned "no" in response, then gave a nod and broke free of the scrum.
Has Westbrook changed? Will he? Will the Thunder have to change around him? Those are questions OKC is left with after another disappointing first-round defeat, this time in five games at the hands of Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.
THE THUNDER'S CLIMB began on Dec. 5. Paul George had scored 25 points -- in just the fourth quarter -- to spark a miraculous road rally for the Thunder against the Brooklyn Nets. George finished with 47, the last three coming with 3.1 seconds left on a winning 3, the first official winner of George's career.
Westbrook, who had 21 points, 15 rebounds and 17 assists -- the last setting up George for his big shot -- stepped aside entirely in the fourth quarter as George cooked. After the Nets' final shot missed, Westbrook rushed George during his postgame walk-off interview, dumping water over his head.
The Thunder had started the season in a teamwide shooting slump but were still mostly winning because of a ferocious defense. George had started scratching the MVP conversation, but the game against the Nets officially launched his campaign. And it was kind of the moment everything started to come together for OKC.
From opening night to Dec. 4, the Thunder were hitting 31.4 percent from 3 as a team. George was hitting 33 percent from 3. After the game against the Nets up to the All-Star break, George was hitting almost 45 percent from 3 on more than 10 attempts per game. The Thunder were hitting 38 percent from 3.
When the Thunder were rolling midseason, George might've been the best player in the NBA. Or most complete, at least. He was Stephen Curry with Kawhi Leonard's defense. He was routinely hitting seven or eight 3s a game, scoring 30 at will, and the Thunder got on a historic offensive run of scoring at least 115 points in 20 straight games.
The Thunder took on George's identity, and Westbrook happily took a step back. George was the best player; Westbrook was the complementary piece. It had that old Durant-Westbrook vibe. Westbrook was in a shooting slump, but while many focused on his struggles, they missed the areas where he was lifting the team. In some ways, Westbrook was playing his best basketball, too.
Westbrook was playing a different style, staying on the ball less, hockey assisting more, taking smarter shots. He had recruited George to stay, and the obvious friendship and chemistry the two built in their first season together was the primary reason George did. But it was also because he knew Westbrook could, and was willing to, evolve to elevate George. Westbrook has long been characterized a number of ways, but one thing he's not is selfish. He just wants to win, and that single-minded obsession can sometimes blur the lines.
The third game after the All-Star break, George hurt his right shoulder against the Denver Nuggets. He missed the next three games because of "soreness." The Thunder went 1-2, the lone victory being a gross 99-95 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in which Westbrook hit a couple of late shots. A few games later, George hurt his left shoulder. He didn't miss any time because of it but had to apply heat to it while he sat on the bench during games and received treatment.
George's shoulder injury -- which, by all accounts, is more than just soreness -- reset a lot of the Thunder's makeup. With George trying to rediscover his, Westbrook finally caught some rhythm, the triple-doubles started pouring in again and the Thunder transitioned back to being Westbrook's team. The locker room was more serious and tense, with each game feeling significant, each loss frustrating. Inconsistency and losing obviously plays into it, but there was a little less joy around the Thunder when there was so much of it earlier in the season.
IN PORTLAND ON the morning of Game 5, Westbrook was asked if he really thought he hadn't changed in 11 years.
He remembered the question from almost more than a month ago and remembered his answer. He said he interpreted the question to be about his approach to the game, not to how he plays it. Semantics, sure, but for Westbrook, details matter. Word choice matters.
Questions are hard to ask him because one misplaced word can derail the whole thing. Asking about how he attacks a specific defensive coverage can get an eye flutter and glare if it's suggested the opposing team is "taking away" his rim attacks. It can lead some reporters to take on his syntax, saying things like "read and react" or "compete at a high level" to set up questions.
We all know he plays the same way every night. He has even made reporters repeat that back to him if it's suggested otherwise. It's an immense source of pride for Westbrook that he plays harder than anyone and does it on a night-in, night-out basis over the 82-game season. So, fine, not the approach. Has he changed -- evolved -- in the way he plays?
"There's different ways, different aspects of my game has changed, the way I play, that changes," Westbrook said.
"But," he said, because he wasn't going to let this get twisted, "my approach to the game has never changed."
Westbrook's confidence is unwavering, his mental fortitude unshakeable, his competitive spirit relentless. When he calibrates just right, with those qualities aligning with efficiency, trust and, probably most important, a superstar teammate, the Westbrook Way is validated. When one supersedes the other, when his will to win muddies smart decisions and quality possessions, like one off-pitch singer in a choir, the entire thing falters. It's why Westbrook is forever polarizing and consistently debated and discussed. His mistakes are loud, because he's always willing to make them.
The Blazers openly dared Westbrook in the series, screaming "Back up! Back up! Back up!" to defenders who were guarding him on the perimeter. Assistants told players checking in, "Let Russ shoot."
It's a test of will for Westbrook, a diabolical game plan that puts him against maybe his toughest enemy -- himself. It's approach versus evolution. Westbrook will never go quietly into the night. It's why he shot 43 times in Game 6 against the Jazz last season while George struggled with five points on 2-of-16 shooting. It's one of the many Westbrook paradoxes: They had a chance to win only because he gave them one, but did they lose because he tried to do too much?
The Blazers were willing to chance it, and in a season where his jumper failed him throughout, Westbrook couldn't respond. It led to performances like Game 4, where Westbrook shot 5-of-21 but played a baffling second half with one point on 0-of-7 shooting, the worst playoff half of his career. What he did was read the Blazers' help throughout the half, kicking to shooters and cutters, fighting against the urge to pull up for every open 18-footer or barrel toward the rim at a host of waiting defenders. It didn't look like Westbrook, which is so often the heart of the matter: He's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. For him, it's always just a matter of if the shot goes in the basket or not.
The Thunder played maybe their best overall game in Game 5, with George looking like the Blazer killer he has been all season. The ball moved well, Westbrook hovered all around chaos and control, and the Thunder showed the kind of resiliency they're known for.
But there was just no stopping Lillard. He had 34 in the first half and finished with an even 50, the last three on what will be remembered as one of the greatest postseason shots of all time.
Damian Lillard eliminates Thunder with 37-footer at buzzer
With the game tied at 115-115, Damian Lillard pulls up from way downtown to sink the game winner and eliminate the Thunder.
The Thunder led by 15 with 7:45 left, then by 10 with 5:31 left, then by 8 with 3:55 left. They were holding on but doing enough. The Blazers funneled to Westbrook, trying to put the game in his hands. Over the final four minutes, the Thunder scored two points -- a George elbow jumper to retake the lead with 39.4 seconds left. Westbrook missed two shots, was called for a charge on what would've been a miraculous and-1, and committed a foul going for an offensive rebound that gave Portland two critical free throws. George missed a pair of free throws and had a turnover in traffic.
Much like the promise of a great season, it just unraveled.
Another triple-double for Westbrook -- 29 points on 31 shots, 14 assists and 11 rebounds -- and another first-round exit for the Thunder.
Westbrook hit a historic mark that will never be forgotten, with three consecutive seasons of averaging a triple-double. But attached with it is three straight playoff disappointments -- each one more embarrassing than the last. He is 4-12 in the postseason since Durant left, with zero road playoff wins.
Playoff failures can shape perspective, and for some, Westbrook's serve as sort of an open rebuke to the style and bravado that turned him into an MVP.
THE NEXT QUESTION for the Thunder, and for Westbrook, isn't an easy one to answer: Now what? OKC has the second-highest payroll in the league, a $60 million luxury tax bill and one playoff win to show for it.
They have a 30-year-old Westbrook with $171 million left on his contract. They have George, signed through the 2021-22 season (a player option on the last season). Despite immense disappointment, they have roster stability for the first time in nearly five seasons. They could look across the aisle at the team that just beat them and see a group that endured consecutive first-round postseason sweeps and a 10-game playoff losing streak only to bounce back. A year ago, the Blazers were the team that needed something done, a coach fired, a star traded, some kind of shakeup to fix them. They didn't react, and they were rewarded.
Portland also had the kind of infrastructure and top-tier player leadership to enable that approach. Lillard led them through darkness and embarrassment last postseason. Westbrook's leadership style is different, and within the walls of the Thunder, might be running thin outside the locker room. The Thunder are known for their rock-solid culture and sustainable method. All signs point to a steady, measured reaction from the front office.
Billy Donovan's future as head coach is in question, but the team picked up his option last December for the 2019-20 season. That doesn't mean he still couldn't be fired, but it was at least a show of confidence in the direction Donovan had them going.
Failure often gets directed at the coach, and Donovan would be among the first to raise his hand. But many of the Thunder's issues were outside his control. His offense generated quality shots; the players didn't consistently make them. George was having the best season of his career; he got injured and played through it. Westbrook was evolving under Donovan's watch, then he lost his way at the worst possible time.
The Thunder will have to make adjustments just out of financial necessity at some point, but when George re-signed, there was a commitment to honor the extension of an era. The Thunder's window has quietly been one of the more remarkable, undersold story in sports, a small-market upstart franchise that has been competing in the postseason for a decade, with stars and MVPs rolling through their locker rooms. The Thunder have consistently won at a level that makes all but four or five NBA teams incredibly jealous.
But the issue is the next step and how to get there. And really, if it's even possible with the current iteration. George wears a yellow wristband that says "Live with no regrets." He re-signed with the Thunder for a variety of reasons, but primary to it was a belief that he could win with Westbrook. Does the front office believe it still?
The runway seemed to clear for them this season, which is what punctuates their elimination. They drew the Blazers, who didn't want to play them after going 0-4 against OKC in the regular season, and on top of it didn't have their starting center in Jusuf Nurkic. And after that, either the San Antonio Spurs or Denver Nuggets stood in the way of returning to the Western Conference finals.
The loss to the Blazers is a harsh examination of the Thunder's construct, and because so it goes, Westbrook. His style encourages evaluation, and there has been plenty of it. Westbrook has both changed and stayed the same. Suffice to say, this is Russell Westbrook. He is the player who has won 54 playoff games and 10 playoff series. He is also the player who hasn't won a series or a road playoff game since Durant left.
The Thunder have an actual expiration date on the horizon for the first time, with Westbrook and George's window providing a firm timetable. Multiple times, it looked as if the Thunder were on the fringes of the end of an incredible era. Some see it that way again. But they have always found a way to extend it just a little bit more, to keep the hope alive.
Now, is there another answer to the next question, or have the Thunder finally run out of them?