The case for Russell Westbrook
If Oklahoma City wins a title, it will be because of oft-criticized guard
There was a moment in Game 1 in which Russell Westbrook had to make a decision.
With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, he could sit back to wait for James Harden or Kevin Durant to do something or he could literally take over the game himself. Westbrook grabbed a rebound, saw the Miami Heat were sleeping, took the ball the length of the court, cut into the lane and scored two points. The Heat called a 20-second timeout.
But it was too late. Westbrook already had made his decision.
Next possession, he was fouled while trying to score again. He went to the line and made the first of two free throws. A minute later, with 16 seconds left in the quarter, he drove the lane (again), catching the Heat on their heels (again), and scored on a layup and was fouled.
When his "and-1" went through the net, it gave the Oklahoma City Thunder their first lead of the night. One that they would not relinquish. Essentially the game was over at that moment. Takeover accomplished.
Yet while getting his "Urkel" on at the podium following the game, Westbrook acted as if those two minutes never happened, providing no acknowledgment that he singlehandedly seized a situation that gave his team the momentum to secure the -- thus far -- biggest win in the franchise's post-Sonics history.
He just sat there next to Durant, talking about how "defense" is the alpha and omega of how this team is built. And he reiterated D is why they win.
He very rarely said the word "I" or mentioned himself in the first or third person. He showed us that he is exactly who we thought he was not.
Understand this moving forward: Russell Westbrook -- not Kevin Durant -- will be the reason OKC wins a championship.
The same reason Joe Dumars, and not Isiah Thomas, was the reason the Bad Boys doubled up in 1989 and 1990; the same reason Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, not Dirk Nowitzki, were the reason Dallas won the chip last year; the same reason Scottie Pippen was the reason Jordan got six.
Westbrook can/will be the reason they don't.
It is the difference in the most important player and the best player. Durant is without question the best player (arguably in the league), and like the stars mentioned above, he will "get his" in the Finals. But the tipping point as to which side of the W or L the Thunder fall game to game rests in the hands of Westbrook, a guy who has been one of the most misunderstood/hard to figure out/impossible to love players in the NBA.
If Harden has five points and is basically impact-less in a game, the Thunder still can (did) win. They cannot get away with or afford to think the same with Westbrook. If the Thunder lose any game in this series, look at the correlation between the loss and Westbrook's play.
The term that most often comes up when discussing Westbrook is "under control." Can he play that way? Will he play that way? The consensus: If Russell Westbrook is under control, the Thunder are unbeatable.
"Enigma" is another word that still follows him. At times he has played like he doesn't care that Durant is on his team, taking ill-advised shots, making unforced turnovers, hurting the Thunder and sometimes straight disappearing. His energy on the court sometimes appears to be uncontrollable, often to the detriment of the success of his team. He goes through stretches in games in which he seems to be two different players every 24 seconds.When people speak of that Westbrook, it is as if they feel he needs to be on Ritalin.
Even after his 27 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and two turnovers Tuesday night, doubt persists. Critics wonder whether he can continue to play like this, whether he can continue to "make the right decisions," whether he'll implode.
Because the minute he does implode (especially if it's for more than one game in the Finals), it is over for OKC. Just hand the Heat the trophy.
Look more closely at Westbrook now, look at how he has played this entire postseason and realize that the chance of that Westbrook returning during these Finals is akin to impossible, if that player even exists anymore.
It's easy to make the case for Westbrook. In the four short years since he has come into the league, playing a position he never played before (he was a hybrid 2-guard in high school and college), he has become one of the top three to five point guards in an era that has to be considered the best of the position in the history of the game. He also has done something Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams (the other point guards often spoken of as being superior to Westbrook) have failed to do: lead a team to within three wins of a championship.
There is no one -- arguably in the history of the game -- at his position with his athletic ability. Plus, he has two of the best to ever play the position -- OKC assistant coach Maurice Cheeks and backup PG Derek Fisher -- in his ear and in his head every day, every game.
Which is big in understanding why the "other" Westbrook may never be seen again.
When asked for a response to critics and criticisms of the way he plays, Westbrook, at this point, seems almost nonreactive. "I just play my game," he said after practice Wednesday. "I only know one way, stay in attack mode, and that's kind of how I've been playing since I've been playing the game of basketball. I can't change now. It's got me to this point, and it's good for our team. That's all that matters."
Deeper still, when I speak to people in L.A. who got to see Westbrook grow up in front of their eyes before he began growing up in front of the rest of the world, I get the feeling that none of this was supposed to happen for him. People who went to school with him at UCLA say he was loyal (almost to a fault) and down to earth and didn't have that cocky "athlete thing" going on, because no one thought or expected he would blow up. Back then in Westwood, it was all about Kevin Love.
As one former student told me, "Russell would attend UCLA girls' basketball games. Something not many of the other athletes on campus did."
The fact he came up in Hawthorne, a middle-class city in Los Angeles County where the population is 53 percent Hispanic and 32 percent white, didn't align with the perception Westbrook came into the league with as being "hard" or repping the "hood" part of L.A. with his "I ain't backing down from anyone, I ain't trying to hear anyone" attitude and had some questioning if he was trying to be someone he wasn't.
He wasn't. He was just being himself. Allowing himself to grow into who he will eventually become. Someone -- when it came to basketball in the NBA -- who was difficult for everyone to embrace and accept. In other words, Westbrook was (and still is) an acquired taste.
Haggis. Kimchi. Chitlins.
There used to be a time when teams wouldn't worry so much about stopping Westbrook, because he would do that for them, do it himself. If Miami is serious about evening up and possibly winning this series, it's best if they don't wait for the aforementioned to happen. It seems like those difficult days in the Life and Enigmas Times of Russell Westbrook are finally gone.
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