Friday, November 19, 2010
Russell Westbrook takes the matchup
By Jackie MacMullan ESPNBoston.com
BOSTON -- So here's how Russell Westbrook's night went on Friday.
He dropped 31 points on the Boston Celtics, scorching league darling Rajon Rondo for many of them, calmly sank the game's most critical free throws to clinch an Oklahoma City Thunder victory for his young club on the hallowed Garden parquet, and still managed to miss all seven shots he took in the fourth quarter.
Oh, and did I mention he turned the ball over a game-high seven times?
Russell Westbrook had a game-high 31 points as the Thunder beat the Celtics on Friday.
Or that he completely befuddled Boston by slowing Oklahoma City's normally frenetic tempo to a virtual waltz, hoping that would offset the glaring absence of Kevin Durant, who didn't dress because of a bum ankle?
It's an adventure to ride the Westbrook train, alternately exhilarating and exasperating, and then exhilarating again. He's a gifted scorer, an explosive player, a young guy who wants to get there now, not later -- which can lead to brilliant plays, crazy shots, bunches of turnovers and a stat sheet that's never malnourished.
Consider this: Westbrook is one of only three players in the league who is averaging 20 points, five rebounds and five assists a night. The other two? Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
"He's not the finished product, by any means,'' conceded Oklahoma City coach Scotty Brooks shortly after his boys stunned the Celtics at TD Garden, 89-84. "But he's a talented guy who never, never stops working.''
Sounds familiar. Boston boasts its own cat-quick, supremely talented point guard who is also impatient to assume his rightful place among the league's elite.
It has been Rondo's modus operandi since he bounded into the NBA to get particularly juiced over matchups with opponents who feature talented point guards.
You think he wanted a piece of Westbrook? Oklahoma City's "other half'' was often the first player off the bench for Coach K last summer during USA Basketball's run for the gold. That's right: The team that didn't save any room (or time) for Rondo, whose subpar perimeter shooting and free throw woes made him undesirable as an international mainstay. In short, Westbrook took Rondo's spot.
So it shouldn't have been particularly surprising that, for snippets of this basketball game, Westbrook and Rondo lapsed into their own mini one-on-ones.
It happened late in the second quarter, when a Rondo lay-in off a give-and-go with Shaquille O'Neal resulted in a Boston basket, countered by a Westbrook jumper within seconds, which was followed by a head-down Rondo drive to the hole that rolled off, which was followed by an off-balance heave-ho brick from Westbrook over Rondo's outstretched arms.
At that point, Brooks yanked his point guard from the game and reminded him of a few things.
"Russell is just so competitive,'' Brooks explained. "His spirit is such that he doesn't want to ever back down. I told him, 'Russell, you've got four guys out there with you that are working as hard as you do. Don't forget about them.'''
He didn't, but on a night when neither Durant nor Jeff Green was available, it was Westbrook who was asked to produce clutch baskets.
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Consider the third quarter, when Boston cut the visitors' lead to four. The Garden was rocking, but would the young Thunder team be reeling coming out of the timeout?
Hardly. Westbrook took the inbounds pass and made a beeline to the basket with Rondo in ferocious pursuit. Westbrook pulled up suddenly, then banked it home. Crisis adverted.
"He got the best of the matchup tonight,'' agreed Rondo, who sat out most of the fourth quarter after injuring his hamstring on an aggressive drive of his own to the basket. That left hybrid guard Delonte West to shift into point guard mode and hound Westbrook in crunch time.
West did an admirable job of containing Westbrook ("I think my size bothered him,'' West said). The Thunder's floor leader fell into a pattern of letting the shot clock run down, then attempting long, contested jumpers that rolled off.
And yet, as the pressure built for the young Thunder team, and the veteran Celtics did the inevitable -- turned it on in the final throes of the game -- it was Westbrook who was asked to win it from the line.
On a night when neither team scored a single field goal in the final 9 1/2 minutes of this game (that's right, 9 1/2 minutes), Westbrook's perfect 6-for-6 fourth-quarter free-throw performance was the difference in the game.
The final point guard tally: 31 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 7 turnovers for Westbrook. Rondo checked out prematurely with 14 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal and 4 turnovers.
Asked if he thought Rondo got caught up occasionally in the point guard matchup, Ray Allen answered, "I just wanted him to get stops.''
Westbrook may not be the finished product, but he has already mastered the art of understatement. He takes plenty of chances on the floor, but he's far more conservative in the locker room.
"All I did was try to survey the floor and make my teammates happy,'' Westbrook said.
"I don't think we did a bad job [on him],'' mused Allen. "He just made plays.''
That's what he does. For better and for worse, and for better again, Russell Westbrook makes things happen.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.