OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook, 23 years old and counting, is proving in this first-round series that he's a full-on man in this league. The way he's commanding his young teammates as Kevin Durant struggles to find his shot against the wise, old defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook is showing he's a man on a mission.
Durant's buzzer-beater in Game 1 stole the glory, but there's no mistaking that beat of the Thunder right now pounds through the 6-foot-3 point guard-turned-assassin.
Westbrook bettered his overshadowed 28-point performance on Saturday with 29 more in a 102-99 Game 2 victory that saw the Thunder again out-execute the team that made them look so green and immature in last season's Western Conference finals, which lasted five games.
"He's been the guy that's been killing us," Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said.
That's an understatement.
With Mavs defensive stopper Shawn Marion pouring every last ounce of sweat into forcing Durant to shoot 15-of-44 from the floor, Westbrook is destroying whomever (Delonte West, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry) and whatever (the Mavs' shifting zone defense) Dallas throws in front of him.
Dallas double-teams him, and Westbrook darts between the coverage. He gets one-on-one defense at the top of the circle, and he pulls up and gets so much lift under his jumper that it seems he must be wearing spring-loaded sneakers.
He's shooting 23-of-44 in the series; what's a defense to do when he also cans two of the four 3-pointers he decides to toss up for a change of pace and is a perfect 9-of-9 from the free-throw line in the series (8-of-8 in Game 2 alone)?
"I'm not sure," said Westbrook, keeping his comments humble and brief. "My job is to stay aggressive, try to find a way to help my team win, get other guys involved and just try to win."
Who even remembers now the so-called bench altercation between Westbrook and Durant just days into this lockout-shortened season started in late December? It came on the heels of the tandem's relationship being under the microscope after the West finals loss to the Mavs when the two All-Stars' compatibility was questioned.
Can they co-exist? Can Westbrook share the ball? Why can't Westbrook understand who the superstar is and who butters this team's bread? Those questions seem to be on the backburner at the moment.
Without Westbrook's steely shot-making and just two turnovers, his defensive stand against Terry in the second half of Game 1 and the drawn charge on Nowitzki when he got switched on the 7-footer with 3:34 to go in Game 2, the Thunder could very well be headed to Dallas down 0-2 and shouldering the burden of unfulfilled expectation.
"Russ is a tremendous scorer, but like he says, he does a lot of things for us to keep us composed, runs the team well," Durant said. "They've thrown different defenses at us, zone, for most of the game, so it's tough to kind of get a rhythm when you're missing shots, but we always find each other, we always play defense and that ignites us on the offensive end."
Westbrook had 10 points in the second quarter when OKC attacked Dallas in waves, taking Mavs turnovers the other way with lightning-speed in building a 46-30 lead that would be cut to 57-50 at the half and then fully evaporate during a whistle-happy third quarter that turned a blowout into yet another barnburner between these burgeoning rivals located 200 miles apart.
The Thunder got a needed scoring boost off the bench from Derek Fisher with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Durant and James Harden combined to go 7-of-24 from the floor but made up for it with 24-of-26 shooting from the free-throw line.
Yet, when a big bucket was needed, it was Westbrook coming through time and again. Even in the fourth quarter when his jumper started to go astray, Westbrook hit a long jumper over Vince Carter for an 85-84 lead with 7:54 to go. With 6:05 left, he took what Dallas' zone gave him and splashed a 3-pointer with West flying in late for an 89-88 lead.
As the Thunder's rowdy sellout crowd roared as the shot went through, Westbrook put his thumbs up and index fingers out and blew on his smoking guns.
"When he sees certain guys in front of him he's taking the challenge of trying to just line them up and go directly at people's heads and he's knocking down that 15-, 16-footer consistently," Marion said. "It's hard to stop because he's so athletic and his second boost is hard to guard."
That is now Rick Carlisle's challenge. The Mavs coach said that "there are options, and that it's time to go back to the drawing board and cook something else up."
There don't seem to be many realistic ones with a backcourt full of mid-to-late 30-somethings trying to hang with a 23-year-old human pogo stick.
Could Carlisle turn to the 6-foot-7 Marion, who switched onto Westbrook a few times in the fourth quarter, and hope for the best with a bad matchup on the cold-shooting Durant?
"I feel like I can use my lift a little bit when he's shooting it, I can get in the way of his shot," Marion said. "Everybody else, he's jumping so high on his shot it's like he's by himself up there."