- Justin Verrier, NBA
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A black hat is probably too plain for Russell Westbrook's tastes, but it seems to fit.
The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is a true force, a bona fide top-10 player whose combination of athleticism and relentlessness is virtually unmatched. But there's a dangerous edge to his game that's unlike anything displayed by his elite-level peers.
Kobe Bryant's measured intensity is notorious, as is his habit of gnawing on the collar of his jersey. LeBron James' stoic glare defined his monster game against the Celtics in Game 6 of last year's playoffs, which ultimately redefined his career. But Westbrook's on-court M.O., particularly when the action turns tense, is more sharp, more unrestrained, more visceral. He sometimes plays as if all 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds of him is furious and the only way to purge himself is to get to his endpoint, which he often does by exploding on the rim, then exploding vocally with a scream or a snarl.
It's only amplified further by having a smooth 7-footer with a feathery jumper in Kevin Durant to juxtapose on a nightly basis.
It's sharpshooting and hard-charging. It's jazz and punk rock. It's nice and not-so-nice.
Westbrook may not twist his wispy mustache while tying damsels to a railroad track, but he will deny your fans free queso-based delicacies by goaltending a smiling plush mountain lion's half-court shot attempt. Twice. And then chuck the ball into the stands.
"He's night and day how he is off the court," said Kendrick Perkins. "On the court, just joking here, but you want to strangle him a little bit. But he's night and day. He gets in a zone, man, and he just feels like he's the best player on the court. Seriously."
Said Durant: "He always starts us, ignites us with his energy."
Westbrook's physicality, owed to a long and muscular frame, is unlike most other point guards, Perkins said. His approach is also unique, but it does bear some resemblance to that of enigmatic Celtic Rajon Rondo, the center's former floor leader and a player known as much for his surly in-game demeanor as his deft dishes.
"They definitely different [from other point guards]," Perkins said. "They both some divas. In a good way though."
For Westbrook, a Hulk-like transformation isn't a necessity. A champion of the #WHYNOT? movement (really the only one), the 24-year-old seems unconcerned about any predetermined mode or mental state. But things do tend to happen.
"No, just go out and try to win," he said when asked if he needs to be mad or in a zone. "If that makes me mad, then that's fine. I don't mind playing angry. I play angry a lot."
And he's certainly familiar with anger being directed at him for his play.
It's tough to criticize a franchise that in five years has risen from the basement of the Western Conference standings to the top, but there have been bumps. And the blame -- some fair, most not -- tends to fall squarely on Westbrook and his nontraditional skill set for his position. Westbrook is indeed a unique talent, a player who in many ways exemplifies the progress of the game. But Durant is of a rarefied air; thus it has and likely always will fall on the point guard when concern arises over their ability to mesh on offense. It's the other end of that nice and not-so-nice dynamic.
After James Harden -- another skilled OKC-bred combo guard whom some consider a better distributor than Westbrook -- was shipped farther south just before 2012-13 tipped off, the Thunder's season seemed headed for even more hand-wringing over their two stars' ability to coexist.
He's night and day how he is off the court. On the court, just joking here, but you want to strangle him a little bit. But he's night and day. He gets in a zone, man, and he just feels like he's the best player on the court. Seriously.
”-- Thunder center Kendrick Perkins
But a funny thing has happened through 43 games: Durant is thriving. And Westbrook is thriving. And Oklahoma City is thriving.
Durant is on another level this season, with career highs pretty much across the board; to see him and James do their things live, in the prime of their careers, is truly remarkable, almost to the point of astonishment. His only foil at this point is history.
But Westbrook has also upped his game. He struggled from the field out of the gate, particularly in December when he shot 39 percent. A recent string of four straight games over 30 points, however, is a clear indicator of the offensive weapon he has become through five seasons, in which he has somehow never missed a game.
Overall his scoring average is down a point from last season and his field goal percentage has dipped a bit too, but he's rebounding and hitting from 3 better than ever. More encouraging is that after a stark dip in dimes last season, from a career-high 8.2 in 2010-11 to 5.5, his passing numbers are back in line. With Harden no longer around to trade off ballhandling duties and the Thunder lacking a solid backup option, Westbrook -- a Magic Johnson idolizer who hails from Los Angeles -- is back at a steady 8.1. And his assists are leading to more points at the rim for others than ever, according to Hoopdata.com.
A shoo-in for his third straight All-Star appearance, the point guard says he's seeing the court better than ever this season. That's evident in the increased degree of difficulty on some of the passes you now see him swinging.
His PER is also a top-10-worthy 23.06. Combine it with Durant's gaudy 29.25 and they rank less than two points behind James and Dwyane Wade for the league's top combo.
"In training camp [Westbrook] was great," said Nick Collison. "He came in this year another year older, another year wiser and more comfortable I think with himself.
"He's showing a lot of leadership. A lot of things people don't see; he's grown up a lot. The way he's grown, the way Kevin's grown, it's helped us adjust from the trade and be able to kind of keep going. They deserve a lot of credit for the way they've stepped up as leaders."
There's always a certain level of risk in riding Westbrook, as evidenced by his recent 3-for-16 outing in a loss at Golden State, a game in which he had six turnovers, marking the third straight time he has logged five or more.
But with an NBA-best 33-10 record and the top-ranked offense to show for it so far, he has certainly proved to be worth it.
"He's changed his game," Durant said. "He can score when he needs to, he can pass, he can rebound ... get steals. Block mascots' shots. He can do it all."
5dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann