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Thunder need 'great' Westbrook to avoid Finals disaster

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MIAMI -- Russell Westbrook's imprint on the NBA Finals just jumps off the floor and off the television screen, to the point where this happened: Kevin Durant was on the bench in foul trouble at the end of the third quarter in Game 3, and that wasn't what mattered.

What mattered was that Westbrook was there, too. Westbrook wasn't in foul trouble; he was in Westbrook trouble. Sandwiched around Durant's exit with 5:41 left in the third Sunday night was Westbrook hoagie of mistakes: a turnover, a missed 3-pointer, a missed layup and an offensive foul. To the bench he went with 5:01 left and the Thunder clinging to a six-point lead in the first swing game of the Finals.

Westbrook, of course, didn't go quietly. He slammed a chair back on the way, and slumped on the bench, seething with anger. At himself? At coach Scott Brooks? At the referees? With Westbrook, who knows?

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"Just wanted to stay in the game," Westbrook said Monday. "You know, it was an important time, an opportunity for us to go up who knows how many points. Just upset with myself."

This series, and this postseason, have captured the essence of Westbrook, the fascinating, petulant performer of the Finals. When he's good, he's very, very good indeed. And when he's bad, he's horrid.

"The coach makes the decisions," Westbrook said. "He's been making them all season. I just roll with it."

As Westbrook rolls, so roll the Thunder. And though his three games against Miami haven't been dramatically different statistically, his impact has been minimized in the past two games, both won by the Heat as they take a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 Tuesday night.

Before we commence with the coronation of LeBron James and his epic pursuit of a championship, my money says Westbrook will have something to say about it. One way or another, he'll be right in the middle of the fray.

It has to start with Westbrook attacking the paint with the same relentlessness that James has shown. Though mistakes and inexperience were the Thunder's undoing in Game 3, so much of that could have been washed away if Westbrook had been as dynamic around the basket as he'd been in the first two games at Oklahoma City.

In Game 1, Westbrook was 7-for-11 in the restricted area. In Game 2, he was 6-for-13. Then, in Game 3 Sunday night, Westbrook had only five opportunities in that area, and he missed four of them. With his bread-and-butter, the mid-range 2-point jumper, Westbrook was 6-for-9 in Game 3.

The latter is good enough for Westbrook to keep the Heat's defense honest. But without Westbrook speeding from the 3-point line to the rim, the Thunder have no chance.

Westbrook usually knows how to depress the accelerator; it's the brake pedal that he has trouble finding. He's 23, so that kind of maturity and judgment and feel can't be manufactured midway through his first trip to the Finals. So for now, he's better off sticking with the accelerator. If James and Dwyane Wade are going to challenge him on the perimeter, he's going to have to find a way to make them pay.

Nothing will help James Harden, utterly ineffective in two of the three games, more than Westbrook putting Miami's defense on the move by driving to the rim or driving and kicking to the open man.

"He's a dynamic player in all regards," the Heat's Shane Battier said. "That's what piques our interest as sports fans, in any sport, whether it's Terrell Owens or any dynamic player in any sport. People enjoy watching him play, like Tiger Woods. He's dynamic."

As we know, Westbrook can be dynamically good and dynamically damaging. The way he plays on the edge, with his game and with his emotions, is what draws our eyeballs to him -- and the criticism when things go awry.

When Westbrook hit Chris Bosh with a Rajon Rondo wrap-around fake on his way to a nifty finger roll -- freezing Bosh and causing the usually disciplined Battier to lunge toward an imaginary threat -- it was Westbrook at his best. The layup, his only made one of the night, gave the Thunder a 56-51 lead with a little under eight minutes to go in the third. It was the last good thing Westbrook would do in the quarter, directly preceding the litany of miscues that sent him to the bench.

It got me thinking that the behind-the-back ball trick isn't the only aspect of Rondo that Westbrook has studied and emulated. For better or worse, he's got Rondo coursing through his veins. Their games are much different, but their demeanor, their expressions, their nervous energy and drive to win are frighteningly similar -- to the point where the confluence of all this can be counterproductive.

Either way, you can't take your eyes off him.

"I think that they both take control of their teams," Battier said. "And they show an aggressiveness that when they're really aggressive, they're really tough. I think there's a defiance in a good sense, and that's what makes them good."

And stubbornness?

"I wouldn't say stubborn," Battier said. "I think they're good guys and they're coachable. ... I would say they have confidence in who they are and what makes them go and what makes their teams successful."

Good and bad Rondo; good and bad Westbrook. The Thunder need good Westbrook -- no, great Westbrook -- to detour LeBron's determined march to a title. Game 3 was the time; that was the opportunity. But let's not forget that Game 4 is another one.

"Everyone is pretty much writing us off," Harden said. "Everyone thinks this is going to be a runaway. But we're very confident."

By midnight Tuesday, it'll either be a runaway for the Heat or a detour -- a new series. A runaway train named Westbrook will have something to say about it one way or another.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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