OKLAHOMA CITY - For a two-time member of the all-NBA second team — at 23 years old no less — Russell Westbrook sure has a lot of detractors.
He doesn’t pass enough, he over-dribbles, he can be erratic, he turns it over too much.
Well, sure, but the guy is so good that all of that doesn’t really matter.
The bottom line is his team wins basketball games — a lot of them — and Kevin Durant doesn’t deserve all of the credit for that fact.
People wouldn’t be lining up to sing Westbrook’s praises if he wasn’t one of the very best players in the NBA, despite his faults.
“Those two guys are all-stars for a reason,” LeBron James said after Oklahoma City stormed back to snatch victory in Game 1, largely thanks to a 12-point Westbrook third quarter. “You can’t stop them, you just try to limit them and Russ made some big plays late.”
In Scott Brooks, Westbrook might have the best possible head coach he could imagine.
Brooks, a former NBA journeyman understands his point guard and doggedly defends him.
“Russell is getting better every day, and I love what he does,” Brooks said.
“We would not be in this position if it wasn’t for Russell. He’s helped us, he’s taken us to this level, and he’s done a lot of great things. And a lot of times, you focus on the wrong things, at least some people do … We can dissect his game all we want. The bottom line, he’s a good player. He plays hard, doesn’t miss games. He practises just like he plays. Is he a perfect player? No, nobody on our team (is), nor am I a perfect coach. But what we do is come to work every day and do our job.”
Westbrook has a maddening tendency to pound the basketball into the ground instead of passing to three-time defending NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant or to charge right into the heart of opposing defences but, here’s the thing, Brooks doesn’t care.
“He has to score for us. We want him to score for us … I like aggressive plays, I like guys attacking.”
Opposing coaches don’t think about what Westbrook can’t do, they worry about what he CAN do.
“The thing about Westbrook is he’ll just keep on coming, so it doesn’t matter, time, score of the game or what just happened in the play before. He’s going to continue to be relentless,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Westbrook has cut down his turnovers per game from 3.6 in the regular season to 2.2 in the playoffs — including just 0.8 per game against the Lakers in Round 2.
It has to be a little disconcerting for the rest of the league, but Westbrook feels he’s getting better all of the time.
“It’s just a learning process for me, trying to find ways where I can change my speeds and pick when I can go fast, pick when I can make this pass. Just learning, that’s all it is.
“I just play my game. I only know one way, stay in attack mode, and that’s kind of how I’ve been playing since I’ve been playing the game of basketball. I can’t change now. It’s got me to this point, and it’s good for our team.”
Westbrook might still be greedy early on in games, but he knows what to do down the stretch.
“I know when the fourth quarter comes, it’s my job to find a way to get Kevin the ball and find a way to get him easy shots and open shots, even if he misses them or makes them. It’s kind of been a happy medium of me shooting or Kevin shooting or whoever shooting the ball.”
Durant is extremely protective of his teammates and chafes when detractors get on Westbrook.
“He has a chip on his shoulder, and he wants to be the best,” he said. “That’s the best part about our team, we have guys that want to be the best. I don’t know how many points he had, but he had eight rebounds and I think 11 assists. I don’t know if you can talk too much about a guy who does that, who can do that night in and night out. We’re not worried about what people are saying on the outside, we’re just worried about coming together as a group, and he did a great job of controlling everything (on Tuesday).”
Miami forward Chris Bosh backed down a bit on Wednesday afternoon after previously calling the raucous Oklahoma City fans merely average.
Magic Johnson said the Chesapeake Energy Arena was the loudest he had ever been in and Thunder guard James Harden said: “It’s as loud as I’ve experienced … Magic was right.”
Bosh countered, before clarifying his thoughts. “He’s on TV, he’s got to say stuff people like,” Bosh said of Johnson.
“It’s about the same, you play at a high level man, (crowd noise) is all the same,” Bosh said. “It is loud, but I guess I made it worse in my head.”
That said, Bosh marveled at the support the Thunder fans show their team. Miami is the most hated squad in the NBA and often has to deal with a completely different atmosphere.
Bosh also said he had not yet been told whether he’d return to the starting lineup for Game 2, but said he’s fine with whatever coach Erik Spoelstra decides.
“I play my game no matter what,” he said. “I’m a good player, I can have an effect on the game at any time.”