The Oklahoma City Thunder are officially a lightning rod for controversial, bizarre, and unquestionably exciting finishes in these NBA playoffs.
After thrilling viewers with a couple of insane comebacks against the Grizzlies in the first round, the Thunder fell victim to an improbable comeback in Darren Collison’s podium game on Sunday, and it appeared that with their momentum derailed, and their coach generally clueless on the subject offensive strategy, they would drop Game 5 at home and depart these playoffs quietly.
Russell Westbrook doesn’t do quiet. The mercurial combo guard’s fingerprints were all over this game as he carried the slumping MVP (Durant shot a career playoff-low 27% on 6 of 22 shooting from the field) throughout the second half, and picked Chris Paul’s pocket when it mattered most to set up the ultra-controversial call/non-call/botched review that Clippers fans, and Doc Rivers believe decided this contest.
Before we even mention the classic Westbrookian decision that followed that out of bounds play, it’s necessary to discuss what happened, which should change the replay process in one fashion or another beginning next year. Lead official Tony Brothers was not in position to see where Matt Barnes made contact, and whether he hit Reggie Jackson’s hand or the ball. So he did what basketball officials do at every level, gave possession to the team that was probably fouled. Of course the super slow-motion replay did show that the ball rolled off Jackson’s wrist for a millisecond, yet awarding the ball to the defense for a clear-cut foul would have essentially decided the game the other way, in which case the refs would still receive plenty of blame.
There’s a simple solution here: Give officials the ability to retroactively call a foul while looking at replays in the final two minutes, because this issue will consistently arise during crunchtime.
Forget that call for a second. Forget the fact that sports algorithms gave the Thunder had a 0.6% chance to win this game when they were down 7 with 47 seconds to play, and consider how Westbrook ended up deciding this contest (and possibly the series) by launching possibly the worst shot in the history of playoff basketball.
With 6.4 seconds remaining and his team down 104-102, he couldn’t resist going for the win at home, where conventional wisdom says you should be comfortable playing for overtime. He inexplicably decided not to drive, despite the fact that nobody on earth can stop him from getting to the rim, and drew another controversial whistle that we now know decided the game.
Just consider how badly Westbrook would get crushed by the media if Chris Paul used that extra time to hit a game-winning floater on the other end of the floor. Consider how bad Scott Brooks would’ve look if his boneheaded decisions to put Caron Butler (who got torched by Jamal Crawford) and Kendrick Perkins (who promptly had his standing layup annihilated by Blake Griffin) into the game ended up costing his team this series. And of course, how Kevin Durant would be labeled regular season MVP, with an emphasis on his diminished performance in the postseason, if a myriad of factors went the other way.
Game 5 concluded with a comedy of errors by both squads, and the officials made their share of mistakes as well, but after watching those last four minutes unfold in unbelievably chaotic fashion, how could anyone insinuate that the NBA tried to rig this game? That would be impossible, because like most natural phenomena, Russell Westbrook strikes unpredictably, and whenever he’s involved in a close finish, bizarre things are going to happen.