Russell Westbrook appears calm, focused and unfazed by the heaping amounts of criticism laid on him after his wild Game 2 performance.
At halftime of the game on Thursday, Magic Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard in league history, said on ABC that Westbrook’s first-half performance was one of the worst by any point guard in Finals history.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has his team focused on what they can control. That means playing harder and tougher.
Sure, it sounds overly simple. But, with a team of incredibly talented, inexperienced players that is about the most a coach can do for his team at this point.
No longer is this about the execution of X’s and O’s; in the NBA Finals the champion is most often crowned based on the team's will to win.
Westbrook laughed when asked about the idea that his first half may have been the worst by a point guard in Finals history. Said Westbrook at the press conference, via NBA.com:
I'm not making no adjustments, regardless of what anybody says or regardless of what you guys say about how I play.
Just gotta come out and play harder. Ain't really about X's and O's, just coming out and playing harder from the jump ball. You’ve got to want it.
No, we will not see a less aggressive Russell Westbrook on the offensive end. On either end of the floor. Anywhere. I'm not sure Westbrook will ever lose the intensity of his aggressiveness on the court. It's not in his nature.
Kevin Durant is in a battle for the title of BPP (Best Player on the Planet) if you listen to most of the media hype. That is what is on the line here. LeBron James, the three-time MVP, against Kevin Durant, the three-time scoring champ.
That is certainly the sexy way to portray this series, but not necessarily reality. The reality is both players are great, so great in fact that they essentially even each other out in the talent category. In Game 2, they both finished with an equal 32 points.
While Durant and Westbrook both appeared to struggle to score early in the game, it was the struggles of Westbrook that seemed to hamper the Thunder more so.
While the criticism from the media would suggest otherwise, many of Westbrook’s shots in the first quarter appeared to be make-able that did not fall. Regardless, he had a line of 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists with only two turnovers.
Durant says he believes the media criticism of Westbrook has not been deserved.
“It’s not deserving at all,” Durant said moments before Westbrook took the stage at the press conference. “Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Of course the 23-year-old Westbrook will make mistakes, Durant said, but as usual, he stepped up to defend his teammate, clarifying that what we don’t see as fans and media is how hard Westbrook works every day in the gym.
With all the attention on Durant as the best scorer in the league, there has been little discussion of Durant’s point. The Thunder would not be playing in the NBA Finals if they did not have Russell Westbrook playing point guard.
He is one of the league’s most dynamic players. He intensifies the Oklahoma City attack as maybe the fastest player in basketball.
"We need Russell to score." Brooks said at the press conference. “I know some of you don't like that, but Russell is a very, very gifted, talented player and we would not be in this position without Russell Westbrook."
Brooks has proven the perfect coach for Westbrook, who says he has had to develop the skill of dealing with all of the negative criticism from the media. No matter how harsh that criticism has been or how many people have brought it up, the support and confidence from Brooks has never wavered.
The same goes for the Thunder’s biggest star, Kevin Durant. That support has been essential in the maturation of Russell Westbrook and yes, he has matured over his career, despite what you may have been told.
Possibly the most surprising stat from Westbrook in only two games of the Finals is that he is currently leading the Thunder in rebounding. He grabbed 8 rebounds in each game.
How can a team in the NBA Finals be led by their point guard in the rebounding category? What happened to the days when you needed an elite rebounder at center to win a championship?
Well, as both Brooks and Durant have emphasized since the loss Thursday night. Westbrook will never be able to play like some of the great traditional point guards, but none of them could play like Russell Westbrook, either.
He brings length that few if any other point guards in the NBA can match. Not only does this make him an elite rebounder, but also a great (yet underrated) defender, on and off the ball.
Those are the two things Westbrook believes he must focus on. Scoring is not something he’s worried about. Points will come for the Thunder.
“Scoring is not the problem for us; it’s just team defense,” Westbrook said in a one-on-one interview with NBA TV on Saturday in Miami.
“I watched every game,” Westbrook said.
Few people put Westbrook in the same defensive category as Rondo, which may still be fair, but Westbrook appears to have the length and the ability to be the best defensive point guard in the NBA. That day could possibly be fast approaching.
Westbrook is averaging more steals per 48 minutes than the Heat’s Dwayne Wade in the playoffs. His 2.1 steals per 48 is comparable with the 2.37 of LeBron James.
With only 1 steal in each of the first two games of the Finals, Westbrook says he must play tougher, especially on defense. He must also play harder. Remember things he can control.
In a series of firsts for the Thunder, that is one lesson they know they can rely on in any situation. They can always find a way to play harder and tougher.
It is for everyone else to worry about who they have on the court or who is taking the most shots.
It is difficult to imagine a tougher, harder playing Russell Westbrook than we saw in Game 2. He forced his way into the lane, though he missed many opportunities.
With under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Westbrook grabbed a loose ball after Durant stripped Dwayne Wade of the ball at the defensive end.
Immediately, he sprinted down the court with the ball and dished to Durant, who missed a reverse lay-up that was perfectly defended by LeBron James.
Westbrook followed the play until the end, though, reaching the ball above the rim with both hands and guiding it through the hoop.
“All we can control is how we play,” Durant said.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting easier shots,” Westbrook said. Still he will not change a thing about his offensive aggressiveness.
At his best, Westbrook is breathtakingly magnificent. At his worst, he can exasperate the patience of any fan. There is a clear contrast between the good and the bad.
In Game 1, only Durant had a better plus/minus rating when on the court. In Game 2, only Ibaka and Perkins had worse plus/minus ratings.
He never played the point guard position until his rookie year in the NBA. He was a shooting guard throughout his time at UCLA.
He says he had never dealt with the criticism he has heard during his professional career, but it is something that appears to drive him to become a better player. Work ethic is certainly not an issue for Russell Westbrook.
“I feel like I’m doing something right.” Westbrook stated. “I feel like every year I come back a little better, the more negative I hear. So, I feel like I’m doing a good job of getting better and getting my team better. We’re in the NBA Finals now and the more negative you hear that means the better you’re doing. That’s how I look at it.”
After all, the Thunder would not be playing to lift the Larry O’Brien championship trophy without Westbrook at point guard.