On Saturday, Russell Westbrook made a guarantee. After Utah Jazz guard Ricky Rubio outplayed Westbrook to score 28 points and lead Utah to a Game 3 victory, Westbrook declared that he would shut Rubio down and prevent him from getting easy shots. He did just that in Game 4, hounding Rubio and limiting him to 13 points on 4-12 shooting. But the Jazz won anyways, taking a comfortable lead in the second half and grabbing a dominating 3-1 series lead.
Of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder could still win this series and I doubt anyone would be stunned to see them pull off three straight victories. But Westbrook’s obsession with shutting down Rubio shows the limitations of this Thunder team compared to the Jazz. The Thunder may have more star talent, though even that may not be true given Donovan Mitchell’s incredible play while Carmelo Anthony shrinks. But the Jazz play as a team as opposed to a star who is more focused on shutting down a single player as opposed to the team as a whole.
Rubio himself pointed that out, as he responded to Westbrook’s guarantee by noting that if any of the Jazz players step up, that is fine as long as they get the win. Rubio may have scored just 13 points, but six Jazz players finished with double-digit scoring and the Jazz had 21 assists compared to a paltry 10 for the Thunder.
To be fair, Westbrook is not the sole reason why the Thunder are down. Carmelo Anthony is a shell of himself and the idea that he was saving his body for the postseason looks utterly absurd. The Thunder have practically no two-way players. They have less lockdown shooters than the Rockets, Warriors, and Jazz.
But while the Jazz are committed to team basketball, the Thunder are thinking at the individual level. Think about Westbrook’s guarantee for a moment. Rubio is a better scorer with his hip hop shoes than most give him credit for, but he remains primarily a passer and you want him taking a shot instead of Mitchell or Joe Ingles at the three-point line.
And the way Westbrook played defense on Rubio indicated that he was more interested in showing up Rubio than in actually limiting Utah’s attack. Westbrook relentlessly went over screens to chase Rubio and thus gave him open passing lanes. He also picked up four fouls in the first half by being too aggressive. He finished with five, but frankly should have fouled out as the referees appeared determined not to send Westbrook out and overall got embroiled into arguments with the Thunder, one of which could see him suspended for Game 5 for leaving the bench according to Yahoo Sports. Utah responded by turning to their other options and Westbrook appeared to have no answer.
If the Thunder prevail in the end, it almost certainly will not be because they learn to play team basketball in the next few days, but because of individual brilliance by either Westbrook or Paul George. But the difference between Westbrook’s focus on Rubio and Rubio’s focus on the game shows the different levels at which these two teams operate, and why Utah is sitting with the commanding lead.