Thunder's Russell Westbrook and the microscope of the playoffs

By Royce Young | NBA writer
Russell Westbrook plays, and dresses, his own way.. (Getty Images)

MIAMI -- In the first two games of his first NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook has put up point guard numbers only Magic Johnson has topped. He's averaging 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds a game.

The biggest gripe about him during his young four-year career has been turnovers. And he's only given it away four times in the series, and is averaging only 2.2 a game this postseason.

He's 23 years old, a two-time All-Star, has made two All-NBA teams and in the NBA Finals.

And yet, he's still hasn't silenced his critics. No bother though, he doesn't care.

"I feel like I'm doing something right," Westbrook said. "I feel like every year I come back a little better, the more negative I'm going to hear. So I feel like I'm doing a good job of getting better, getting my team better. We're in The NBA Finals now, and the more negative you hear, the better you're doing. That's how I look at it."

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Now, some of the criticism is valid. Westbrook does take some bad shots. He does force things. He is somewhat reckless. He does play out of control. But as I like to say, you have to take the Good Russell with the Bad Russell. If you want the breathtaking flashes of athletcism, the ballsy dagger midrange jumpers, the spectacular attacks on the paint, you have to live with a bad shot or two, or five. That approach is as Westbrook puts it, "playing his game."

He tunes it out mostly, blocking the chatter away and just focusing on the things that matter most to him -- team, family and winning. Maybe, or maybe not in that order. Constant criticism can be a distraction. It can't make you change even when you think you're defiant in the face of it. But sometimes, it's best to unplug.

Which is what Westbrook did.

The last time we heard from him was Dec. 29, 2011. It was after probably the worst night of his four-year NBA career, a miserable 0-of-13 shooting performance against the Grizzlies that included a reported “altercation” between him and Kevin Durant.

It came just three games into a season that was following that harshest weeks of criticism Westbrook has endured. Talking heads, media and some fans were pinning the blame of the Thunder's five-game exit in the Western Conference finals against the Mavericks largely on him. He was labeled a ballhog, a player wanting the spotlight, a player jealous of his superstar alpha teammate.

And it all seemed to be coming to a boil after that awful night in Memphis. His relationship with Durant was being questioned and his future with the franchise that believed in him enough to take him fourth overall when most didn't seem him as a lottery pick was seeming to be in doubt. Forget that Westbrook, a 22-year-old two-time All-Star, had made bigger strides than probably any other player the last few years. Forget that as a third-year point guard he commandeering a high-powered offense to within three wins of the NBA Finals. Forget that he was really just getting started in his NBA career.

All that stuff didn't matter. Russell Westbrook was under attack. He was hearing those old voices nitpicking him apart, saying he wasn't a point guard, saying him and Durant couldn't co-exist, saying he couldn't win a title playing the way he does.

So on Dec. 29, a day after the nightmare in Memphis, Westbrook simply tweeted, “Mindset.” And hasn't tweeted anything since.

This is unusual because if you look through Westbrook's account, he basically tweeted the same thing before every game. Something along the lines of “Just talked to the fam bam…time to go to the arena ayeeee @bigray4.” On Wednesdays, Westbrook would tweet out the mantra he lives by, calling it “Why Not Wednesday.”

But for whatever reason, it ended Dec. 29. Why? No idea. And trust me, I tried to find out.

On two different occasions I asked Westbrook about his Twitter account and why he abandoned it. He most definitely didn't want to discuss it, once actually getting up and walking away while saying, “No more Twitter questions, man.” The common thought might be he was sick of the noise, sick of the constant criticism and blame. With Twitter being an open mic to everyone with a computer or smart phone, you can imagine what he was probably shelled with.

It seemed to disappear mostly through the season though as Durant and Westbrook clearly found a next level of chemistry on the floor together, while still upholding what is obviously a very tight relationship off it. Westbrook made a second consecutive All-Star team, got a max level contract extension to keep him in OKC for five more seasons, performed brilliantly in concert with Durant late in games, became one of the league's best clutch time players, was named second-team All-NBA and actually had a lot of those same talking heads wondering if he was the best point guard in the league.

But those old demons are back. Like vultures circling a dead carcass, Westbrook's getting grilled again after Game 2′s loss to the Heat. It was a typical Westbrookian night in which he attempted 26 shots (four more than Durant) to get 27 points while looking out of control half the time. He finished with eight rebounds and seven assists to go with the 27. But Magic Johnson, the god of point guarding, called his first half the “worst” he's ever seen by a point man in the NBA Finals. That put the ball on the tee. After that, the game was on.

“It's not deserving at all because without him we wouldn't be here at this point, and people don't recognize that,” said Durant Saturday when asked about the firestorm around Westbrook. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a Stockton or a Mo Cheeks. There's a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either.”

It's a vicious circle that follows around Westbrook. In a Thunder loss, it's his fault. In a Thunder win, Durant gets the glory. Take Game 1 for example. Westbrook's brilliant third quarter spark is what fueled a Thunder comeback with him capping it late in the period with a spectacular and-1. But as Durant exploded for 17 fourth quarter points and Westbrook did what so many think he should do — got mostly out of the way — it wasn't about the game Westbrook played, the spark he provided, the 27-8-11 he put up or the fact the Thunder won the game. It was about how Durant carried OKC to victory, with some even being so bold to say in spite of Westbrook.

Truth is, he's been fantastic this postseason. Better than he was in his splendid regular season. Really, the only thing to be critical about with Westbrook this postseason is his wardrobe and I must admit, it's kind of growing on me. But that doesn't stop people. He's the lightning rod, the scapegoat, the guy that's easiest to point a finger at. He's known for his relentless attacking style. Which is exactly what you could call the constant attacks against his game — relentless.

“I feel like I'm doing something right,” Westbrook said. “I feel like every year I come back a little better, the more negative I'm going to hear. So I feel like I'm doing a good job of getting better, getting my team better. We're in The NBA Finals now, and the more negative you hear, the better you're doing. That's how I look at it.”

Maybe a lot of the negativity stems from the undying love for Durant. Because every shot Westbrook attempts, that's one less for him. People say things like “the best defender in the league on KD is Russell Westbrook because he doesn't let him shoot.” They look at Westbrook taking more shots and wonder how on Earth he could do such a thing. How could he do that to Durant! It's as if people forget that Durant has won three straight scoring titles, becoming the youngest ever to do such a thing. Pretty sure if he had a ballhogging point guard that wanted to be The Man, Durant wouldn't be doing that.

(Or maybe it's because Westbrook doesn't always play nice with the media. After a shootaround last week, Westbrook was asked about the increased media attention and he laughed it off basically saying that's his least favorite part about being in the Finals. Another reporter asked him as he was walking away, “Why don't you like the media, Russ?” And he quickly responded, “If you had to deal with what I do, would you?”)

Really, it's kind of amazing really to see a player as polarizing as Westbrook that still can continue to play in spite of it all. It has to be challenging to keep being you when so many say you need to change. LeBron James has been doing it for a few years now and I'm sure it has to be tougher than it seems to shut out the noise. Which is possibly why Westbrook tried to eliminate one source of it in leaving Twitter.

Durant has tried to quell any controversy, sounding off in defense of Westbrook on multiple occasions. He's said that Westbrook “is the only point guard” for him. He's pointed out that the Thunder are actually better in games Westbrook shoots more. He's never tossed a bad or negative word Westbrook's way. And yet so many just assume there's some kind of rift there, that Durant absolutely can't stand the fact that Westbrook shoots more than him.

“We need him to play the way he plays,” Durant said. “Of course he's going to make mistakes, and we're all going to make mistakes. But the best thing about Russ is he comes to work every single day. That's what you guys don't see is how hard he works and how much he wants it. That's what I love about him. He doesn't care what people say, he's going to play his game and we need him to play his game, and we'll go from there.”

I think the constant evaluation of Westbrook is one reason (most) Thunder fans are so endeared to the brash star. Following that disastrous Memphis game, Westbrook was off to yet another difficult start against the Mavericks. But after a fourth quarter steal and open court and-1 dunk, Westbrook walked to the free throw line, took the ball, went into his routine and then began hearing it.

“Russ-ell! Russ-ell! Russ-ell!”

Thunder fans were chanting his name, banding together in support of their battered point guard. They knew what he was going through, they knew he was struggling. And they tried to pick him up. After the chant, Westbrook hit a couple big jumpers, brought the Thunder back against the Mavs, and OKC won on a Durant buzzer-beater.

Another example: In the final game of the regular season, Westbrook took the mic at midcourt to thank fans for their support throughout the 33 home games. But as he started to speak, the arena rose in unison, wildly cheering Westbrook. He had to stand and wait for about two minutes for the ovation to finally quiet. Thunder fans love Westbrook. There support is passionate for their point guard. Why? Probably because they've all watched him play for four years, seen him grow, mature, evolve, work, work, and work some more, and become the player he is. They've seen the bullheaded point guard go from a turnover machine to a two-time All-Star. They've seen his growth not just as a player, but as a person.

And when you see that, when you see what passion and emotion he plays with, how hard he fights to win each and every game, it's almost impossible to rip him for who he is. He might not be the point guard you want him to be, or think he should be, but that's the best part about Russell Westbrook. He's just who he is and plays the way he plays.

“There's always room for improvement, always room to get better,” Westbrook said. “But the style of play that I play with, that's not changing.”

It's who he is. He dresses his own way, he plays his own way. That's just... Russell Westbrook.

 
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