Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Satellite Imaging.

It's been a staple in every CIA/spy-thriller movie for the past two decades. A higher-up walks into a room filled with people hunched over computer terminals. The worker bees are perusing their various screens, which presumably are dripping with important data. At some point, one of the analyst drones flags down The Boss:

"Sir, you're gonna want to see this."

The Boss approaches and, squinting, leans over the analyst's shoulder. The screen invariably displays some type of grainy video footage or satellite image.

"Ok," says The Boss. "Tell me what I'm looking at here."

The analyst launches into a diatribe about whatever distant recon outpost relayed the info, and a synopsis of whatever malicious intrigue the bad guys are plotting.

"My God," says The Boss, and hustles out of the room.

Cut to a shot of the computer screen frozen on a sinister image.

And ... scene.

Russell Westbrook's late-game performance (fourth quarter and all the subesquent madness) in last night's eventual triple-OT Thunder victory over the Griz is that frozen, sinister image. A great deal has been written about Westbrook's poor decision making since these playoffs began. There have been questions raised about whether his ego is proving corrosive to OKC's locker room. After all, these are the darlings of the league, the carefully-assembled, up-and-coming Brady Bunch of talent and chemistry. He's been lambasted because you simply can't play that way when you also have Kevin Durant on the floor; it's not a smart or efficient path to victory. Most nights, anyway. And he's been defended with a vigor equal to that of his detractors because Memphis' defenders, especially Tony Allen and Shane Battier, have done an outstanding job of denying Durant position and touches. After all, if your primary scoring option is being taken out of play that stringently, what can you do, right? Plus, at 22, he's still figuring it all out, and he's having to do so in the midst of a dogfight playoff series, so perhaps a little slack ought to be cut his way. As is often the case, both arguments carry good amounts of weight, and both have their flaws as well. That end (and the end and the end and the end after that) of the game? That was a different breed of perturbing tendencies.

When the Thunder made a run to get back into what looked like a Memphis blowout in the second and third quarters, Westbrook was driving the steamroller. As well he should have. After only three FG attempts in the opening frame, Russ apparently sized up the situation and decided he needed to be more assertive. It was the correct decision. The Thunder need Russ to contribute big for them to be successful, and with the game slipping precariously close to out of reach, it was an opportune moment for him to step up. So he dialed himself in and went to work, getting to the rack and the line over and over again. To be sure, there were some ill-advised shots littered throughout his performance, but he was the major catalyst in OKC's rally. And then came the damning fourth period.

Better writers than I have detailed Westbrook's poor (read: non-existent) passing down the stretch in game three. He was clearly trying to do too much, to be "The Man" when that role clearly ought to be filled by Durant. It was a terrible display of selfish basketball, and not the first time we've seen it from Russ. One wonders whether all the hype he garnered starting with his Team USA performance this past summer and continuing over the season simply ballooned his head to a toxic degree. (Actually, the wondering is pretty much done.) OKC coach Scott Brooks had assured the media that a team film session and conversation had settled the problem. Obviously, that wasn't the case. But this wasn't just about a refusal to distribute the rock to his teammates, and Durant in particular. I'm willing to partially exonerate that behavior if Memphis has the clamps on KD; especially on a night like last night, when Westbrook had done so much to get his team back in the game. Maybe he knew he was rolling and decided to call his own hot-handed number. Maybe he felt he'd earned the right to close it out. It wasn't necessarily the smartest way to go, but I can understand his having those sentiments.

Russ' problem last night wasn't staying in "hero mode." If he wanted it, well, it doesn't always have to be Durant closing down the stretch. (Though Westbrook could better serve his team by ensuring that happens a good bit more in the future than it has recently.) The problem was the stagnation and ... hesitation isn't the right word, but the something Russ was doing or, more accurately, not doing. Too often late in the game, the shot clock determined the play. Memphis was playing good D, but they were pretty clearly gassed. If Westbrook was going to keep the ball in his own hands, he needed to do something with it. It seemed like he just sat at the top of the key, possession after possession, dribbling. And dribbling. And looking around the floor ... and dribbling some more, while the seconds ticked inexorably down. It had to be terrifying for Thunder fans to watch as their team did pretty much nothing at all for chunks of clock. Was he waiting for plays that never materialized, or taking too long to gauge the situation, or just plain despondent? He certainly wasn't too tired, because he continued to make drives, successful ones, but only after the shot clock was inching towards zero. Part of this has to fall at Scott Brooks' feet, because he should have taken one look at how exhausted the Griz were and ordered his team to dive bomb them at the rim, but it's Russ' job on the floor to make things happen. The Thunder won, and Westbrook's 40 points were certainly impressive, but those passive, clock-eating trips down the floor were not something to jump for joy over. I believe Westbrook will be come a better, less-selfish passer. I believe OKC needed him last night to do what he did. I believe that he had earned the right to have the game in his hands in the crucial moments. But those aimless, desolate stretches of inaction were strange and unpleasant to witness. A gold farthing to anyone who can tell me what was going on there.

"OK, tell me what I'm looking at."

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