OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was a wide-open 3 in a one-point game with 44 seconds left, the kind of shot Russell Westbrook has made a habit of hitting this season. It came after he had just missed a 15-foot midrange jumper, but a scramble for the rebound popped the ball back out to Westbrook, who stood alone at the top of the key.
After he missed, the Portland Trail Blazers called timeout, and Westbrook smacked his hands together and clenched his fists.
"Yeah, just missed 'em," he said. "Made 'em all game, missed that one. But ... it's all right."
Westbrook had a career-high 58 points on 21 of 39 shooting. The Thunder lost 126-121. It was a fourth straight defeat for the Thunder after they had climbed into the conversation for the fourth seed in the Western Conference a week ago with a big win over the Jazz. That victory against Utah showcased Westbrook at his MVP best, drilling a series of crunch time jumpers to snare an improbable triumph.
This time, Westbrook, who has been one of the league's top clutch performers all season, didn't deliver. In the final 90 seconds, he had three consecutive misses -- two clean midrange jumpers and the open 3 -- and then misfired on a potential game-tying 3 with 15 seconds left from somewhere around 28 feet. Instead of the conversation being about another MVP performance to put on the reel, it's about what Westbrook didn't do.
"I thought he played an unbelievable game tonight," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought he was absolutely incredible."
All season, the Thunder have been at the mercy of whether Westbrook flies or dies. They have placed every burden on his back this season, and he has happily accepted them all. That's why there are nights when Westbrook lifts the team, such as against the Jazz (twice), the Boston Celtics (twice), the LA Clippers and so on. That's also why there are nights when the Thunder crash, such as Tuesday against the Blazers. The Thunder go as Westbrook does, whether that's riding triple-doubles (24-6 when he gets one; 11-23 when he doesn't) or watching him shoot a lot (4-8 this season when he attempts 30 or more shots). This is the deal they made -- and both sides are content to accept the consequences.
There are just so many apparently wrong things in the Thunder box score, such as the four other starters not having an assist or just two other players scoring in double digits. Westbrook had nine assists, but the team had only 16, with only one other player -- Semaj Christon -- registering more than one. The imbalance is staggering, but it's something Donovan was fine with.
The focus is always on Westbrook, with plenty of standard autopsy of every shot attempt and crunch time decision happening after a loss. But as both Donovan and Westbrook zeroed in on the postgame drill, the real issue was on the other end of the floor: Westbrook's 39 attempts, his 58 points and his four straight misses in the waning moments aren't the focus if the Thunder put up any resistance.
"We put ourselves in that position when we should be defending at a high level," Westbrook said. "Those are definitely shots I'll live with because I'll make them nine out of 10; just happen to miss that one."
It's hard to determine if Westbrook is trying to do too much or if this is what it takes for this flawed Thunder team. They are at their best when Westbrook is playmaking and utilizing the existing weapons on the roster. They're also hopeless when those weapons aren't producing. It is Westbrook's responsibility to make his teammates better; it's also their responsibility to pay back what he gives them.
Westbrook tried to set a tone at shootaround earlier in the day, taking a very terse and short approach to every question he was asked. "We're going to find out tonight," he said when asked about the team playing with more energy. He repeated the need to "compete." Those are things you can always expect to get from Westbrook. He's going to compete. He's going to play with energy, intensity and effort. He's going to play to win. Those are the hallmarks of who he is, but they're also the devil on his other shoulder, keeping him from letting go of the rope.
The Thunder are at their seasonal crossroads, with difficult games against the San Antonio Spurs and the Jazz ahead. The trade deadline supposedly procured more depth and weaponry for Westbrook to utilize, but the integration process has been rocky. The team has fallen off a defensive cliff, and that has pushed Westbrook's patience and trust to the limit.
He's the ultimate "If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself" player. He walks a fine nightly line of doing too much, because that's what's required of him.
And the Thunder live with it -- because what other choice do they have?