Tramel: Is Russell Westbrook what the Rockets need vs. the Thunder?
Russell Westbrook stood in the Houston Rockets’ corral. Did he ever sit down? I haven’t seen him sit all series long.
Truth is, Westbrook is a nervous wreck. Hard enough to ask Westbrook to play second chair to James Harden. I mean, Westbrook is accustomed to dominating the ball whether his teammate is Kevin Durant or Semaj Christon. Westbrook acquiesced for Houston almost an entire season, but no way was it natural.
But now the basketball gods are asking Westbrook to take a chair. To sit and watch in these NBA playoffs as his old best friends try to upset his new best friends.
It’s a minor miracle that Westbrook — wearing capri pants, a Kobe jersey and wild eyes — didn’t dash onto the court in Game 4 Monday night and disrupt a Thunder fast break, ala Tommy Lewis and Dicky Moegle (look it up).
Nobody would have to ask, “Who was that masked man?” Everybody would know. Westbrook is unmistakable.
Even when he’s sidelined by a quad injury, Westbrook looms large. Not with his absence. With his presence. Westbrook has gotten more network air time than Houston's Danuel House Jr., who has scored 16 points a game in this 2-2 series.
Don’t blame the cameras. They’re just like us. We can’t take our eyes off Westbrook. Never could. It always was so in his 11 Thunder seasons, and it’s so now, when he’s wearing Rocket red and sees no other color in this series.
There was Westbrook on Monday night, jawing with former teammates Dennis Schröder and Steven Adams. We don’t know the subject matter — the Zoom press conferences calls prevent too much interrogation, and Billy Donovan didn’t touch the question when I asked Tuesday.
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Schröder, I get. Dennis can be a menace and isn’t above a fracas or four. But Adams? Stone Cold is a man of peace and love. Forceful in body but sweet in spirit. He’s as strong as Samson and could bring down the Orlando bubble just by yanking on the wrong pillar.
Westbrook and Adams were fast friends in OKC, at least on the court. Westbrook would jump on even talented teammates (Serge Ibaka probably still is in therapy), but Westbrook didn’t mess with Adams. Discretion never was a Westbrook strong suit, but we know he had some, because of Adams.
It’s probable that Westbrook is just going stir crazy, sitting out this series, especially now that the Thunder has won two straight tight games and threatens to send the Rockets home before September.
All of which makes you think Westbrook soon will return, even if he’s not ready.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t even try to sell us on the decision being entirely up to the Rocket medical staff.
“It’s close,” D’Antoni said Tuesday. “They’ll make a good call, and he’ll do the same. Not going to rule anything out or anything in.”
The Rockets didn’t seem to need Westbrook the first two games, both double-digit Houston wins. But these last two games, Harden has needed a cavalry.
The Rockets have scored 22 and 21 fourth-quarter points the last two games, and Harden seems worn down. That’s an old criticism of the Feared Beard. Probably valid. How could he not be worn down. He dribbles 49,000 times a game, drives into the trees dozens of times and takes his fair share of beatings.
Heck, Harden gets in a workout just with his no-call traveling violations on step-back 3-pointers.
That’s why Westbrook was so valuable for Houston. The Rockets have built everything around Harden since the Thunder’s original-sin trade of eight years ago. Chris Paul arrived in summer 2017 and gave Harden relief when he took his rest. When that marriage ended, Paul and Westbrook swapped addresses.
To great acclaim. Westbrook is exactly what Harden needed. An all-star sidekick when Harden was on the court and a load-bearing superstar when Harden was on the bench.
This season, before the pandemic, Houston was 5-4 with Harden but without Westbrook and 0-1 with Westbrook but without Harden. That’s 5-5 when either superstar sits.
Seems clear the Rockets need Westbrook. That’s not ground-breaking news. Who doesn’t need an extra superstar?
Without Westbrook, Houston’s offense is four guys standing around and Harden doing all the work until he dishes for an opener 3-pointer. Westbrook is not a stand-around guy. He would loosen up the Houstons.
“Obviously we all know what type of player Russell is,” said OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “If he does come back, things will change and our game plan will change a little bit, adding a player like that to the lineup.
“But as of right now we're just playing it by ear like the rest of you guys.”
Can Westbrook return? Some say the television clips of his workout Monday show a guy ready to get back on the court. Others say they see him favoring his right leg.
I don’t know. If Willis Reed could hobble into Madison Square Garden 50 years ago, I assume Westbrook could ride to the rescue.
“We went into Game 1 preparing like he was going to play,” Donovan said. “Certainly he makes their team a lot faster. He makes their team better.
“If he plays, we'll be prepared for just the speed and pace at which he's going to play at and the way he's generating and getting those other guys shots.”
Could Westbrook be the swing vote? Sure. He also could hurt the Rockets, if he’s not ready. Knowing his limitations also is not a Westbrook strong suit. Every minute counts when the series is 2-2.
It seems quite possible that the Thunder’s playoff fortunes, which for so long were held in Westbrook’s hands, still might hinge on the masked man with the wild eyes.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.