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Fran Blinebury

Russell Westbrook, who had his struggles in Game 1, piled up 24 points and six assists in a Game 2 win.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Win or lose, Westbrook always shoulders Thunder's burden

Posted May 4 2011 6:12AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was going to happen. It always does.

The way roll follows rock. The way tick follows tock.

You can practically set your Rolex by it, though even by the usual standards, it was a bit early for the alarm to be ringing loud enough to wake up the folks in Tulsa.

The Thunder got beat in the opening game of their semifinal series with the Grizzlies and that meant Russell Westbrook got beat like a rented mule. Actually, there are rented mules who would learn to work a cell phone and bray their abuse complaints to PETA if they were ever whipped as often as Westbrook.

He shoots too much. He doesn't shoot enough.

He's constantly attacking the basket. He needs to know when to take charge.

Westbrook took 23 shots on Sunday afternoon and was roasted, then took 20 shots on Tuesday night and was toasted.

The difference? A win.

"It's funny how perceptions change," said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks. "It's really a fine line for Russell."

It's more like a tightrope that Westbrook has to inch across every night while juggling a chainsaw and an NBA franchise.

If the youthful Thunder are going to fulfill their forecasted destiny and win a championship or six, it will be the splendid splinter of Kevin Durant who does the heavy lifting with his ethereal moves and sweet shooting touch.

But for the Thunder to tip-toe through the minefield that is the NBA playoffs, it is Westbrook who is supposed to lead them along the safe path.

Except there is nothing safe about Westbrook's game, not his speed, not his assortment of skills and, most especially, not his "ah-what-the-hell-I-can-do-this-myself" attitude.

Game 2 was barely five minutes old when Westbrook motored across the midcourt line with the ball and zoomed right past Durant, who was waving his warms like a castaway signaling a rescue ship, and sailed in for a layup.

The game was barely nine minutes old when Westbrook fired a bad pass for his third turnover of the night and you could hear the collective rumbling roll through OKC Arena.

"I don't hear them," Westbrook said. "I don't pay attention to anybody except my coaches and my teammates. I'm too busy trying to win."

That's just the thing. The precocious Thunder have done enough winning and enough eye-popping things already to make you forget that they're still soaking wet behind the ears and learning on the fly. Especially Westbrook, who is 22 and only played point guard for six games in college before the Thunder drafted him.

"You know what? Yes, I get frustrated at criticism that Russell gets constantly," Brooks said. "It's been like that from the moment we drafted him.

"Russell's a developing player that's improving. We understand we're at a stage in the second round where there's a lot more focus. We understand that everything is going to be picked apart more."

The question is why Westbrook is the one whose carcass is picked at. The box score showed Westbrook with 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the series-opener.

"If I didn't read it and just went by what I heard and read, I'd have thought he was terrible and didn't deserve to be on the court," Brooks said.

"I know it wasn't a perfect game. I know he had seven turnovers. But if you go back over the history of basketball, you'll find a lot of the guys who had the most turnovers also were the best players. That's because you're always putting the ball into their hands."

There is also the matter of how point guard has turned into more of an attacking position around the league. Derrick Rose took 27 shots in Game 1 against the Hawks and Chicago lost, but nobody talked about taking back his new 2011 MVP trophy.

Westbrook and Durant are not going to be Stockton-to-Malone of the 21st century. But that doesn't mean they can't or won't take the Thunder where they want to go.

"At this time of the year, it's a tough job," Westbrook said with a shrug. "You take the good with the bad. Sometimes people like when you score. Sometimes they don't like when you score. Sometimes they like when you pass. You gotta just go out and play."

The funny thing is the Thunder were hammered in Game 1 largely because of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Memphis rolled up 52 points in the paint and converted 17 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.

So everyone, naturally, pointed at Westbrook. He took it and came back the way he has all along in a season where the Thunder have a 23-6 record in games after a loss.

"This is his third year in the NBA," Brooks said. "That position is so hard. You got a coach. You got 14 other players. You got assistant coaches. You got the crowd. Every time down court, it's either in your hand or you're guarding the ball. You never get a break.

"What I see is a young player with a strong mind who knows that he still has to get better."

What anyone could see in Game 2 was Westbrook going down into the paint to strip the ball away from Darrell Arthur and get the ball out to Durant for a coast-to-coast layup and three-point play. Or poking the ball away from Gasol and getting it ahead to Serge Ibaka on the break. Or coming across to play backside help defense and getting a hand on a shot by the bulky Randolph. Or winding up with 24 points and six assists and only one more turnover in the final 39 minutes.

What anyone could hear were the cheers. Until the next time.

The way tick follows tock.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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