There has been a whole lot of talk about the Thunder recently and it hasn’t been about how strangely good Cole Aldrich looks in a suit. It’s largely been about the man that runs the show, Russell Westbrook. He bounced back in a good way Tuesday night, putting up 24 points and six assists.
The big criticism stemming from most has been how Westbrook dominates the ball. His usage numbers are up in the postseason and the thing people point at is how he’s taking more shots than Kevin Durant. In Oklahoma City’s seven playoff games, Westbrook has taken 144 shots to KD’s 143. Westbrook has taken more shots in five of OKC’s seven games.
(However, do consider this: Westbrook has had 50 free throw attempts to Durant’s 78. Of course when you’re fouled on a shot, it doesn’t count as an attempt. So while those attempt numbers do say something they don’t say everything.)
The scars from Westbrook’s Game 4 in Denver where he chucked it 30 times are still fresh on everyone’s mind so any game he plays is put under the microscope. His Game 1 against the Grizzlies he was decent, but because of seven turnovers, some fans along with media, continued the freakout. I never thought the criticism was entirely fair, but I at least understood it. Most hadn’t watched Westbrook these past three years. Most weren’t aware that this is sort of the player he is. Controlled recklessness. He’s like a stunt driver on an open course. He’s out of control at all times when you really think about it, but there’s a subtle brilliance to it. At any point disaster could strike but at the same time, something amazing is only two dribbles away.
One other thing: I have never once questioned Westbrook’s motives. Not one time. Some are talking about ego and selfishness and an alpha dog battle with KD. I don’t see any of that whatsoever. Westbrook and KD are really good friends. They argue, they disagree. But so do I with some of my closest friends during a Saturday morning pickup game. Try spend eight straight months with those pickup buddies, seeing them every single day. You might have an issue at some point.
What Westbrook cares about is winning. He doesn’t have any other motive. The reason he took that wild airball 3 against Denver in Game 4? Because he thought he could make it. We all want to believe there’s something more to it, but really, Westbrook is hiding in plain sight. There’s no secret about him. There’s no hidden agenda. He’s just a player that has as much confidence in himself as any player in the league and not just that, he’s had people tell him for 22 years that he couldn’t do something. It’s definitely a chip on the shoulder, but when harnessed, it makes him the best dynamic point guard in the league.
But back to last night. Westbrook once again took more shots than Durant and didn’t finish with stellar percentages. He once again finished with four turnovers. He once again only had six assists. And yet, I’ve only heard praise for Westbrook today. I understand why — he looked different. Less griping at officials, less drama on the court and just an overall appearance of better control. He didn’t stop the ball, he moved it. He didn’t play hero; he played teammate.
That’s the thing about Westbrook — his box score often doesn’t tell everything about him. A lot of times you’ve got to actually watch him to get a true sense as to how he played. I think that’s why so many are now critiquing his game now — because they’re actually watching him. Like really watching him.
And no one understands the look of a player better than Bethlehem Shoals. He gets style, feel and on-court appearance better than any NBA writer I know. (Plus, he’s sort of brilliant.) When he was in OKC writing a feature on the Thunder for GQ, we hung out a good amount and it was clear: Shoals is fascinated with Russell Westbrook. I understand why: Westbrook is fascinating.
So with the way Westbrook has become such a hot topic, I’m sure Shoals was almost giddy to write about it. And he totally nailed it for GQ, writing really what I think is the definitive Russell Westbrook analysis:
Russell Westbrook ain’t right. Actually, he never really is—the Thunder’s third-year point guard isn’t exactly known for his equilibrium. Unpredictable, even erratic, Westbrook is a zero-sum hellion who this year somehow always came out on top. Entrusted with the offense, he blurred chaos and creativity, passion and outright hostility, and yes, genius and madness. If Derrick Rose was all jet propulsion and aerodynamic glide, Westbrook was his unhinged, angular counterpoint. I’ll say it again: If Rose is money in the bank, Westbrook is like shooting craps in an abandoned missile silo.
In these playoffs, though, this style has caught up with him, or at least the public has bothered to notice its dark side. He’s been lambasted for shooting too much and discouraging ball movement; when an unusually acrid Durant closed out the Nuggets, it was like Westbrook had been put in his place. Last night against a bigger, stronger Memphis team, he was muted, even deflated. Maybe the ultra-physical Grizzles changed the scale of his daring; maybe his career-long buzz finally wore off. Whatever the cause, the Thunder were a more balanced—and less colorful—team. Westbrook may have still taken more shots from the floor than KD, but he didn’t monopolize the ball. As if on cue, key reserves James Harden and Eric Maynor responded with their best performances of the playoffs.
Westbrook may have gone too far, but that doesn’t mean he has to come back to Earth. It’s not clear he ever lived here. Even if I want to think there was once a perfect hybrid of Westbrook’s good and bad, or wacky and sentient, there probably never was. That’s what makes him who he is, for better or worse, and it’s what keeps us from having to brand him Stephon Marbury Redux. As with all things Thunder, though, it also demands that someone with a brain get in there and tinker in ways we haven’t yet imagined or expected. In the end, Westbrook can’t save himself, or us from him, or him from us. That’s what teammates, and coaching staffs, are for. What remains to be seen is whether, for these playoffs, the call is too little, too late.