How do you solve a problem like Russell Westbrook? If you’re the Toronto Raptors, you game plan, you watch footage, you do everything you can to slow, stop, or otherwise contain the most destructive force in the NBA today. All that, and two days of practice work, and you still fail — badly. The Raptors got crushed tonight by the Oklahoma City Thunder, 123-102. It was not even as close as that.
“That exhibition of basketball was unacceptable,” said coach Dwane Casey. “I want to apologize to our fans, to everybody, for the way we played tonight. That’s just the effort, the competitive spirit wasn’t there. That team came out and played like it was the championship game, and we played like it was a middle-of-the-season game. Again, it’s not acceptable.”
This admission and apology came from Casey over a half an hour after the final buzzer sounded. It’s not often the assembled media are made to wait that long; when it happens we can only assume there’s a tense meeting going on somewhere. When pressed as to why this game happened, Casey could only say that he and the coaching staff had to find six, seven or eight guys who wanted to compete. He said there were no excuses. And when Casey was asked who was saying what to whom afterwards, he gritted his teeth. “I’m not going to talk about what’s going on in the locker room.”
After a quiet first quarter by his standards, it felt like the Raptors had answers in store for Westbrook. The game was still under control. The all-bench unit of Delon Wright, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson and Jakob Poeltl helped bring the team’s energy up. The Thunder’s lead shrunk to two points. But then Westbrook started making plays.
This is a pretty spicy sequence from Russell Westbrook: pic.twitter.com/HrIiRtZmhB— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 17, 2017
And then Russ started putting up numbers. His final line: 24 points (on 8-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-8 from three), plus 16 assists, 10 rebounds, and a steal. It was his 34th triple-double on the season. This game will ultimately be a footnote in the story historians tell of Westbrook’s season, but there’s a lot of frustration and anger in that tiny print.
For the Raptors, only DeMar DeRozan’s offensive production merits a mention. He put up 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and got to the line seven times (hitting six free throws). With stopper Andre Roberson in his face, those were tough buckets for DeMar. It showed at times in DeRozan’s defensive effort, and gradually bled into the rest of the game for the whole team.
Serge Ibaka had 10 points against his former team before sliding into oblivion. Jonas Valanciunas picked up a couple quick fouls against clever agitator Steven Adams and was never heard from again. DeMarre Carroll and Patterson combined for five points on 1-of-7 shooting. Besides making the highlight reel as part of the Russell Westbrook Show, Cory Joseph had 11 points and six assists, a minor miracle given the circumstances. The bench gradually put up more numbers, all the way down to a late (petty) three from Fred VanVleet. But this game had a final quarter that lived up to its name — garbage time.
A post-game locker room pow-wow after a team performance like this was to be expected. According to P.J. Tucker, a vocal presence, it featured first the players, and then the coaches. If I was to make a guess: it was an uncomfortable 30 minutes. “Just us telling each other we've got to pick it up. In short,” said Tucker. “It was terrible. It was a terrible game. There's no two ways to put it, it was a terrible game.”
If the inconsistency of the Raptors is starting to rankle, you’re not alone. This team is still playing without its best player in Kyle Lowry, but that doesn’t mean the effort from the rest of the roster can’t be there. “That’s definitely the biggest frustration,” said DeRozan. “Obviously we proved we can do it. We’ve done it, and we do it at times. With however many games left, and going into the postseason, it has to be something that’s consistency.”
Say what you will about Westbrook — love his bombastic and furious play, or hate his occasional stat-chasing and questionable shot taking — he is at least consistent. The Raptors, along with most of the rest of the league, have no answer for him. Westbrook does what he wants. Or, as DeRozan, leader of a team still trying to get a grip on its identity, put it: “Westbrook... he was Westbrook tonight.”