OKLAHOMA CITY -- The frustration was clear at the end of the game, with the Oklahoma City Thunder two points short and a half-second late against the Atlanta Hawks after Steven Adams' putback dunk was ruled to have come after the buzzer.
Russell Westbrook lingered by the scorekeeper's table as the officials wrapped up their review to confirm the call. Before they even came to their conclusion, he was barking about a series of no-calls in the final 15 seconds of a 110-108 Thunder loss on Monday.
"You were right there!" he yelled as he swiped the talcum powder off the table.
One no-call was on a straight-line drive in which Westbrook was bumped by Thabo Sefolosha with four seconds left as he threw up a wild shot. Another was on a 3-point try with 2.9 seconds left, a shot that fell a foot short. When asked about the calls he so clearly disagreed with, Westbrook took the high road, saying, "Uh, I'm not sure." Thunder coach Billy Donovan was more willing, saying from his vantage point that they were definitely fouls.
But they weren't called, and even if the league's two-minute report validates their gripes, the Thunder aren't getting anything back. It's a home loss of the painful variety, spoiling a 46-point night from Westbrook as he tried to carry the team in the absence of secondary scorer Victor Oladipo, who missed his fourth straight game with a sprained wrist.
"No moral victories around here, buddy," Westbrook said.
It was quite the contrast -- this past Saturday's career-high assist clinic and Monday's scoring eruption, a two-game showcase of how Westbrook can play in any given game. The most obvious and important distinction between the two games: the former a win, the latter a loss. A possible correlation, but it's important to note the Thunder's primary issue wasn't offense against the Hawks. It was containing the ball and slowing down Dennis Schroder and Paul Millsap, who combined for 61 points on 22-of-34 shooting, including Millsap's game winner with 12 seconds left.
The Thunder simply needed to outscore Atlanta, and Westbrook assumed the sole responsibility of doing that. He talks almost nightly about "reading the game," using that phrase to answer just about any question. On Monday, Westbrook apparently read that he needed to score, coming out of the gates looking for his jumper. After hitting just 1 of 6 in the first quarter, Westbrook exploded for 18 points in the second. Another 12 in the third, and then 11 in the fourth. His points were largely of the jumper variety, along with 10 3-point attempts.
Westbrook scored his 11 fourth-quarter points all in the final seven minutes, with only five points coming from teammates -- Kyle Singler scored on a driving layup, and Jerami Grant hit a corner 3 set up by Westbrook. Westbrook attempted 10 of the Thunder's final 15 shots, but that also included seven of their final eight, the only other being a wide-open miss deep in the lane by Andre Roberson. (A very good look that would've given OKC a four-point lead with 1 minute, 40 seconds left.)
It's easy to direct criticism at Westbrook -- who has been one of the best clutch-time performers this season in the NBA, by the way -- for calling his own number too much in the closing minutes. Westbrook took 33 of the Thunder's 87 total attempts, with Roberson taking the second most at 14. Alex Abrines took the third most with eight. Grant took seven. Enes Kanter took five. The offensive balance wasn't there, and as the game progressed into crunch time, neither was the trust. The kick to set up Grant in the corner was terrific playmaking. That was with 4:33 left.
Westbrook's reading of Monday's game was to score, and he almost did enough of it to beat the Hawks. It's hard to draw the complete, definitive conclusion that the Thunder are better when he scores less and distributes more. Sure, they're 11-5 when he finishes with double-digit assists and 5-7 when he shoots more than 25 times this season, but that's a two-way street. When you're getting assists, it means your teammates are actually scoring. And if Westbrook is shooting that much, it probably means his teammates aren't scoring.
That's the balance Westbrook searches for on a night-to-night basis. Opposing defenses load up on him, especially with Oladipo out, and tempt him into forcing something, whether it's a pass or shot. Sometimes Westbrook plows through it, regardless, because he's just that good. For the most part against the Hawks, it went really well. Right up until it didn't.