Hopefully, everyone stayed up during the twilight hours to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs 104-100. Some didn’t, but if you did, you saw the final 1:23 of the game where Russell Westbrook fed into the league’s stereotype of him being careless with the ball in his hands late in games.
Whether that’s him mishandling the ball, dribbling into traffic, hoisting up an ill-advised shot, or in Monday night’s case, throwing the ball out of bounds, it’s no secret that Westbrook isn’t the most conservative point guard down the stretch of important games. Sometimes it works in his favor, and sometimes it causes gloom and frustration. But for once, his irresponsible turnovers left Thunder fans elated.
In each of OKC’s three wins in this playoff series, the fourth quarter has gone down to the wire. Their margin of victory during those wins are only 6.8 points, and it feels closer than that. During the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 98 with 1:23 to go, Houston’s historically lethal offense with the highest-scoring duo in NBA history was on the floor. While James Harden was the hottest man on the floor, as usual, shooting 11-of-22 for 32 points, Russell Westbrook had the ball in his hands. Before he got the chance to get the ball to Harden’s hot hand, Chris Paul stole the ball from him. Luckily, for Houston, Steven Adams came up empty on two layups, and Westbrook steamrolled down the court for a layup, which put Houston up 100-98 with 1:09 remaining.
Fast forward to there being 13 seconds on the clock. After Paul sunk two free throws, putting OKC up 102-100, Houston had one possession to either tie it up or win the game (they were trying to win the game). Instead of Harden bringing the ball up the court and controlling the Rocket’s destiny completely, Mike D’Antoni trusted the ball in Westbrook’s hands, with the option to dish to Harden for a game-winner. It didn’t get that far. An out of control pass intended for Robert Covington sailed out of bounds which resulted in Thunder ball, ahead by two, and pretty much sealing the win for OKC.
While Westbrook may have lost Game 6 down the stretch for the Rockets, of all teams, the Thunder knows what that could mean for the next game. The same thing that lost the game for the Rockets may be what wins the game for them in Game 7. Over the last two games, Westbrook has combined for 24 points on 11-28 (39.2%) shooting and a tragic mistake in his last game that’s getting his name dragged through the mud on social media.
Westbrook may struggle once, and on occasion, n consecutive games. Very rarely, if ever, does he three times in a row, which could mean trouble for the Thunder. If Harden has an efficient Game 7 like in Game 5 and 6, and Westbrook lets the game come to him, serving as the ideal counterpart to Harden as we’ve seen this season, OKC’s chances to win Game 7 will be minuscule. So Thunder fans should be elated after Monday’s big win, but nervous because we’ve seen this before.