It’s a time-honored postseason tradition, a question asked by columnists and TV pundits alike:
Who’s under the most pressure?
This year there is no shortage of nominees. There is James Harden, the title-less probable MVP who enters the playoffs with his strongest supporting cast since his jersey was emblazoned O-K-C. There’s Kyle Lowry, teetering on the edge of his prime, equipped with the most playoff-ready team he’s had in years in a conference as weak as it’s been since he’s been in it. There’s LeBron James, seven straight Finals in the books and the possibility that only No. 8 will keep him in a Cleveland uniform next season.
But due respect … nah.
Russell Westbrook enters the postseason with his basketball future in front of him, an Oklahoma City-sized oil drill strapped to his back. Win — and, for argument’s sake, let’s define winning as a trip to the conference finals — and Paul George (probably) sticks around, and the Thunder are a Sam Presti tweak or two from winning a championship. Lose — and here we define losing as a first-round flameout to Utah — and George (probably) walks, leaving Westbrook to spend the rest of his prime fighting for a playoff spot.
How ’bout those for options?
The pressure is on Westbrook because the Thunder’s season was just meh. Oklahoma City struggled early, found its footing in January, lost it the next month, won a bunch of games in March and followed a three-game losing streak with three straight wins to end the season. The Thunder offense stunk early before surging to a top-10 finish; the defense was top-five the first half of the season but slipped to the back half of the top 10 at the end of it.
That unevenness isn’t all on Westbrook, of course. Carmelo Anthony struggled to find his role, Paul George adjusted to a new one and Andre Roberson’s midseason injury was crippling. But Westbrook averaged a triple-double last season and won MVP. After pulling down 20 rebounds in the season finale Wednesday, Westbrook tacked another triple-double season on his résumé — and likely won’t finish in the top-five in MVP voting. That’s because after winning 47 games last season, the Thunder won 48. That’s because despite adding an All-NBA forward in George and a perennial All-Star in Anthony, Oklahoma City projects to be in a first-round dogfight for the second year in a row. The Thunder weren’t expected to surge out of the gates; they weren’t projected to limp to the finish, either.
Westbrook was heaped with praise for his performance last season. He’ll take some heat for the Thunder’s inability to build on it.
No one knows what George is going to do this summer. Some executives — perhaps thinking wishfully — believe he walks. Others, and admittedly this is a smaller group, think he stays. It’s a widely — and understandably — held belief that the Thunder’s postseason will have a considerable impact on George’s decision. It’s one thing to declare your desire to play in Los Angeles when you’re playing for a Pacers team in rapid regression. It’s another to walk from a conference finalist with an MVP teammate in his prime. George seems to like Oklahoma City. He’s a laid-back fishing enthusiast who appears comfortable with Oklahoma’s slow lifestyle. By all accounts, he likes Westbrook, and a deep postseason run could cement a long-term relationship.
A short run? Thunder fans have to shudder at what could be if George bolts at the end of the season, if Oklahoma City loses a franchise player for the second time in three years. A year ago, Presti did the impossible, flipping a decent prospect (Domantas Sabonis) and a budding young star (Victor Oladipo) to Indiana, reviving a franchise that was drop-kicked in the gut when Kevin Durant left town. Presti had limited assets, and he maximized them. Today, the Thunder have been stripped bare. There are no more cards for Presti to play.
The Jazz come to town this weekend, and this is a matchup Oklahoma City has to feel comfortable in. The Thunder took three of four in the regular season, with Westbrook averaging 23.8 points — on an economical 47.9 percent shooting — in each win. But all of those games came before January, before Donovan Mitchell came into his own, with Rudy Gobert out for a pair of them and before Utah developed the identity that made the Jazz one of the hottest teams in the league the second half of the season.
It won’t be easy. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Westbrook will be 30 early next season, and for a player whose game relies so heavily on athleticism and power, Father Time is a formidable foe. As Westbrook walked off the floor on Wednesday, he was asked what the ceiling was for his team.
“A championship,” Westbrook said.
Perhaps. Or bust.
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