Team USA was up 13 late in the third quarter Sunday when Turkey dared Russell Westbrook to shoot. The nearest defender was closer to the free throw stripe than to Westbrook, who was dribbling beyond the 3-point line. He lofted a three and it splashed through for a 16-point lead.
The camera zoomed in on Westbrook as he backpedaled to the defensive end, and he scowled as he said something to someone. I only saw it once, watching on a TV with no DVR thousands of miles away from the game in Istanbul, but I was pretty sure I could see what he said.
“You want me to f—— shoot it?”
Maybe he said something else, calling a defensive signal even. But that’s what it looked to me like he said as I watched it live. And the scowl on his face said it all in any case. It was a mixture of offense, disgust, pity and aggression — “You better try something else next time.”
The moment for me, along with Kevin Durant’s well-publicized dagger 3-pointer followed by him pounding the USA on his chest and screaming at courtside Turks, defined the edge the Thunder’s two best players undoubtedly sharpened in their gold medal run.
Westbrook’s summer with Team USA started with high-pressure practice sessions scrapping for a roster spot. If he killed time reading online chatter about roster cuts, he found himself on the bubble. If he looked at the advertisements associated with the team’s warmup in New York, he saw Rajon Rondo as KD’s running mate. He saw that on the court, too.
It ended with Westbrook on guesstimated rosters for the 2012 Olympic Games in London even with Redeem Team members back in the Team USA mix. One of the most respected minds in American team basketball in Mike Krzyzewski had Derrick Rose, Westbrook and Rondo for at his disposal for a summer, and though it was Rose who got the starting nod, it was Westbrook who was used by Coach K like a weapon. When Krzyzewski needed to use his back court to wrest control of the pace, get to the line or get a stop, he called the number of Oklahoma City’s point guard.
Durant dominated the Worlds to no one’s surprise, but it showed on the court he became a better player this summer and will likely continue to get better for as long as we can see into his basketball future. Especially from the Thunder’s standpoint, he may have become an even more dangerous scorer, to the horror of the rest of the NBA.
Now, we don’t necessarily need to get carried away by leaping to the conclusion of more NBA success based on the gold medals Durant and Westbrook earned in Istanbul. First of all, there were other young players that got intangible and invaluable experience in Turkey, though few shone as brightly as Westbrook (and none as Durant).
It must also be noted that the aforementioned 3-pointer Westbrook drained took place in the middle of a sequence that many Thunder fans would prefer not to see too often this season. Westbrook missed a driving layup and a jumper in the possessions on either side of his statement three. Especially when Durant is on the floor, as he was then, there aren’t too many scenarios that don’t involve fast breaks where the Thunder would be playing good basketball if Westbrook takes three straight shots. He can (and I think will) develop a consistent jump shot, but he’s never going to be a dead-eye shooter.
But Westbrook did, after all, make his next 3-point shot, which extended a fourth quarter Team USA lead to 20. He followed up on what his glare promised. In a hostile environment, far away from home with a lot on the line, Westbrook delivered. He hit from deep, he got to the line, he was a demon on defense and he was a threat to rip the rim off the backboard at any moment.
I don’t pretend to say that in a fourth quarter timeout during a tight Game 5 of an NBA playoff series next year that Durant and Westbrook will share some movie scene-like moment where they talk about the World Championship and give each other a pep talk. But the way both played will surely give them deep-rooted confidence and subconsciously relieve a little bit of pressure the next time they need to deliver in a Thunder uniform.
Nothing will be promised to the Thunder. Without the same hard work and camaraderie displayed by Oklahoma City thus far, missing the playoffs entirely is more likely than advancing in them, and a good showing in an international tournament would seem a hollow accomplishment. But the Thunder’s two most important players had a chance to wash away part of the sting of their defeat to the Lakers back home before they ever stepped on an NBA court again. Without having to wait another two months, Durant and Westbrook got to apply lessons learned in another pressure-packed atmosphere and came away on top.
The next time they’re poised for a referee’s whistle, standing ready for an inbound play late in a road playoff game, the crowd noise will sink further into the background. The butterflies will be calmer. The palms will be drier. And the subconscious will remember what happened this summer.