Posted Jun 14 2012 11:11AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's a pretty steep task for Russell Westbrook right now, asking him not only to rise to the level of his more famous teammate, or put Oklahoma City in position to control the NBA Finals.
He also must play well enough to steer the conversation away from his collection of goofy postgame shirts and Starburst colored glasses, attire that tends to be fiesty and aggressive, much like the man who wears them.
You get the impression Westbrook is trying to be noticed, desperate to stand out in the crowd. And if he keeps this up, how could he not? How would we ever forget a player who's putting himself in exclusive company, both on the court and at the interview room podium?
His game is expanding and developing at warp speed, the only way he knows how to play. And if there's more to come like what he did in Game 1 -- heck, the entire postseason -- won't that make Westbrook a top-10 player? Will he become appreciated more for his freakishly quick moves off the dribble and attacks at the rim, and less for his high-strung lapses and often-reckless decisions? Might we see him as a better shotgun-rider right now than Dwyane Wade, the anti-Westbrook who looked old and slow Tuesday?
Westbrook missed a handful of shots early, the only hiccup on an otherwise terrific night, where he scored 27 points with 11 assists and eight rebounds. In 42 minutes he only turned the ball over twice, tough to do when you have his reputation for sloppiness and you make so many daring and high-risk plays.
The Thunder have already decided to accept Westbrook for what he is, the good and the not-so-bad bad, and let him be him. Which is all he ever asked.
"I just play my game," he said. "I only know one way, and that's stay in attack mode. I can't change now. It's gotten me to this point and it's good for our team."
It has gotten him to the All-Star Game, the Olympic team and an $80 million contract, the perks that come from putting up solid numbers and playing on a contender. Those perks also gave the impression Westbrook was selfish and tired of living in the imposing shadow of Kevin Durant, but if you ran with that, Derek Fisher believes you're going the wrong way.
Fisher only knew Westbrook from playing against him as a Laker, until the last few months, after he joined the Thunder and got an up close and personal view.
"He cares about the team and the success of the team," Fisher said. "He really is a winner and wants to be a winner. He gets a lot of discussion about whether he's trying to out-do Kevin or why he shoots more than Kevin. I don't think he's doing anything intentional. I think he's just playing the game."
Westbrook's physical skills are decathlete-like. Speed plus power plus leaping ability will take him anywhere he wants to go on the floor, usually to the rim, always his first option. Not only does he elevate, but his extension allows him to beat bigger players for layups. Derrick Rose is the only point guard with the same fiber. No one else.
What's changed about Westbrook is his control -- at least in the postseason, so far. He's averaging 2.3 turnovers. That's less than Durant's 2.9, but more important, fewer than the 3.6 of the regular season and the 4.6 in the playoffs last season. The 2010-11 playoffs were a mixed bag for Westbrook. He was benched by Scott Brooks for being reckless and he often hurt the Thunder as much as he helped. He took 20.3 shots compared to Durant's 20.2, and that became a sore point with Westbrook. Here he was, a point guard assigned with setting up teammates, and he was launching more shots than the NBA scoring leader.
In these playoffs, Westbrook is shooting 19.4 times a game, while Durant is at 18.7. OKC is in the Finals, so it's not an issue.
"He's setting up plays for teammates and that's always been something that's questioned, whether he was willing or able to do it," Fisher said.
It's a balancing act for Westbrook, whether to be a facilitator or shooter, and he has decided to allow the game circumstances to dictate that. He's also lucky to have a low-maintenance superstar in Durant, who's not exactly Kobe Bryant when it comes to being a control freak with the ball.
"It took some time," said Durant. "I think we're both willing passers but we do know when we have to be aggressive. Russ is great at knowing that when we're down, he has to be aggressive. But when we have a good flow, that's when everybody is touching the ball. It's kind of weird, but it clicks for you when you know you have to shoot and when you have to pass."
Besides the ball, Westbrook often loses control of his emotions, as when he and Shane Battier got tangled briefly Tuesday and Westbrook became enraged and slapped the ball in the air. That's happened more than once. Fisher only asks that people remember Westbrook is only 23.
"He's just continuing his maturation process as a man," Fisher said, "trying to embrace the responsibility that comes with being a leader."
His teammates are patient and willing to accept whatever Westbrook has to give, except fashion tips. In that sense, he's on his own. But as we see, Westbrook is pulling it off, as only he can. The clothes fit the player: noisy and noticeable.
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