OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook's first 11 games back from injury have been nearly flawless. He's toed the line beautifully between relentless and reckless, between aggressive and out-of-control maybe as well as he has at any point in his entire career.
But in his 12th game, or at least the final five minutes of the Thunder's 101-99 loss to the Pelicans, Bad Russ made an appearance for the first time this season. It's like someone walked in the Thunder locker room and erased a whiteboard that said, "11 games without incident."
After the Pelicans had taken a two-point lead with 3:58 remaining, here's how the Thunder offense closed the game: Six Westbrook shots (all misses), one Westbrook turnover and, unofficially, zero passes by their All-Star point guard. In fact, after Steven Adams finished a layup set up by Reggie Jackson on a slick pick-and-roll dive with 5:33 left to put the Thunder up 97-91, Westbrook took eight of the Thunder's 11 shots and made one, with two turnovers. For more context, two of the non-Westbrook shots were offensive putback attempts.
"My job is to stay in attack mode and try to score and try to make plays happen," Westbrook said. "If I miss, then I miss. I'm going to live and die by that every night, regardless of what happens."
The final possession was the most predictable of all. Not that Westbrook attempted the final shot -- that was probably a good idea with Kevin Durant out with a sprained ankle -- but Westbrook backed out to the 3-point line to go for the win after his drive attempt was shut off by Jrue Holiday. It caught front iron, and it meant Westbrook had some questions to answer.
"It's one game, man. I'm not going to keep answering questions about me not passing when we lose," he said with his trademark hint of anger and animosity toward the asker. "When we won eight in a row, nobody said nothing about me not passing. So I don't want to hear it now."
Westbrook might not want to hear it -- and probably doesn't deserve to -- but such is life for one of the league's most polarizing players. Part of it is when Westbrook shows his full potential, as he has the past three weeks, you ask yourself things such as if he's actually the Thunder's best player. But when he falls off the wagon and reverts into extreme hero ball -- zero ball, if I may -- things get uncomfortable. The critics perk their ears up, and the questions start getting asked again.
What's always unfair when it comes to evaluating Westbrook is the bad games always talk more loudly than the good ones, even though the latter greatly outnumber the former. It's because they're unseemly, with an air of extreme narcissism as Westbrook takes on teams with a me-against-all-five-of-you mentality. It's often portrayed as ball-hogging selfishness, but in reality, it's just Westbrook's competitive nature overwhelming his common sense. He gets tunnel vision for winning and is always going to trust himself more than his teammates.
What's more, it's not as if this was a bad game for Westbrook. He still had 29 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 35 minutes. He's scored at least 20 in all 12 games he's been back and was a point from being the first player this season to score at least 30 in four consecutive games. It's just the crunch-time failures always pop because, well, that's when teams win or lose games.
"He's improved late-game execution over the years, and he's going to continue to improve," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He had some tough moments. But he had the ability to get into the lane tonight, and he was getting to the free throw line. He had a couple plays that could've gone either way, and he had a couple plays that he could've made those shots, that he's made all year long. He's been shooting the ball really well.
"And then he had a couple opportunities where he didn't pass. Those are things we're going to look at tomorrow for going into the next game."
It's not that Durant needs to be taking shots instead of him; it's that he needs a mediator. With Durant out another game with injury, Westbrook felt way too much of the burden to win the game. As the game tightened, so did Westbrook's grip on the ball. It was no secret what was going to happen each Thunder possession.
"We knew he wasn't going to give the ball up," New Orleans guard Tyreke Evans said. "We knew he was going to go. We knew he was going to get the ball, and they were going to go to him every time."
Westbrook's mentality is probably never going to change. It's what makes him the great all-around monster he is -- willing his team to wins on as much competitive spirit as talent. But it's also what makes him the combustible, polarizing star he is. Westbrook made critical plays to close the door Friday against the Lakers, but that doesn't draw the same attention as his shortcomings Sunday. Eleven great games don't make as much noise as one bad one.
It's the Russell Westbrook paradox, the complicated crunch-time world the Thunder have to try to succeed in. Westbrook's bravado can carry them to the places they want to get, but it can also crush them. They just have to hope he's toeing the right side of the line at the right time.