Russell Westbrook’s beautiful, terrifying performances will be X-factor for Oklahoma City Thunder

At his best, Russell Westbrook can be the Scottie Pippen or John Stockton to Kevin Durant's Michael Jordan or Karl Malone - and the Thunder will need him that way to beat the San Antonio Spurs, writes Jonathan Raymond.
Russell Westbrook shot 49.1 per cent in six games against the LA Clippers for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the NBA play-offs. Stephen Dunn / Getty Images / AFP
Russell Westbrook shot 49.1 per cent in six games against the LA Clippers for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the NBA play-offs. Stephen Dunn / Getty Images / AFP

Things must have felt grim for the Oklahoma City Thunder following their Game 5 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA play-offs.

They were now staring at a 3-2 deficit, having fallen by a single point at home in overtime in that crucial fifth game. It was their fourth straight overtime game against Memphis, in fact, and they had lost three of them. They only even won Game 4 in OT because reserve guard Reggie Jackson had lifted the team with the performance of his life.

Kevin Durant was struggling to take over contests with the the hounding Tony Allen defending him. And, worst of all, Russell Westbrook had shot 44-of-128, just 34.4 per cent.

That Game 5 against the Grizzlies actually summed up Westbrook to that point perfectly – 30 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, good for a triple-double (basically basketball’s gold standard for a single-game performance). But he shot 10-for-31.

Despite his other qualities, Russell Westbrook was wielding the double-edged sword of high-volume, low-percentage shooting for a good many self-inflicted wounds. They were, very nearly, fatal.

And then the Thunder, very much to their relief, got the good Westbrook back. He shot 42.9 per cent (9-of-21) in Game 6, and added nine rebounds and five assists. He was at his best in Game 7, shooting 10-of-16 (62.5 per cent), scoring 27 points, dishing 16 assists and grabbing 10 rebounds – a real triple-double, this time.

Oklahoma City won those two games by a combined 31 points.

In their shockingly comfortable victory over the Clippers in six games in the second round, Westbrook averaged 26.3 points per game, 6.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists. He shot 49.1 per cent (54-for-110).

This is the Russell Westbrook, especially with Serge Ibaka out for the rest of the play-offs, that the Oklahoma City Thunder need to not only get past the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, but to unseat the Miami Heat as NBA champions.

Kevin Durant will do his part. No one need worry about that. As Westbrook himself said after Game 3 against the Clippers, “We get the ball to Kevin and he does what he does.”

Thus it falls on Westbrook to be the X-factor. Since that Game 5 against the Grizzlies, he’s been exactly that.

When Westbrook is in form, he can embody the best of his sport – the unmatched athleticism, the theatrics, the fearlessness.

Stronger than any point guard in the game, quicker than all but a few, Westbrook is a physical specimen capable of creating not only for himself, which he does in plenty, but also for his teammates, as some of his recent assist totals show. His range and leaping ability make him a better rebounder than almost anyone in his peer group. His vision and smarts get questioned – but they shouldn’t. He’s actually probably among the most cerebral players in the NBA. Those occasional avert-your-eyes shooting totals simply come from his absolute, unyielding faith in himself. “Taking the foot off the gas” doesn’t really appear to be built into him.

That is what he needs to learn. Pippen and Jordan. Stockton and Malone. Westbrook needs to find his own comfort in that role, because there are no doubts that Durant is the Jordan and Malone to Westbrook’s Pippen and Stockton.

It’s not about being disciplined so much as it is about figuring out how to best channel your talents to amplify your own production and that of the more talented player you’re teamed with. It seems like he’s done that over his last eight games.

The San Antonio Spurs will be a very, very stiff challenge. Missing Serge Ibaka will hurt. But if Westbrook can find his inner Stockton and Pippen (and, come to think of it, he kind of plays like a more aggressive cross between Stockton and Pippen), he and Durant will be near-impossible to stop with or without Serge.

Russell Westbrook’s game can be beautifu and terrifying – sometimes for opponents, sometimes for his coach. If the Thunder want to be champs, he’s going to need it to be more of the former.

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Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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