Each time Russell Westbrook settles on the cusp of unquestionable superstar respect, he seems to go over the edge.
His erratic performances balance between brilliant and mindless.
So does Westbrook’s play help or hurt the Oklahoma City Thunder’s NBA Championship hopes?
The answer rests on whether or not Westbrook will stay out of his own way.
When the game comes to him, the 24-year-old’s physical abilities and scoring talents cannot help but take over. Westbrook’s speed from rim-to-rim is quicker than any player in the league and his knack for creative finishes adds to his exciting play.
In his fifth season in the league, the 6'3", 187-pound point guard is having his best season. While his scoring numbers are similar to last season, despite a dip in shooting percentage, he's taking less shots and his assists have spiked from 5.5 per game last season to 7.6 this season.
When the Thunder win, Westbrook is shooting 46 percent on 18.2 shots per game.
Then there's the other side.
When Oklahoma City loses, Westbrook is shooting just 37.9 percent on 20.6 attempts.
Westbrook had one of those head-scratching performances on Monday night in San Antonio; he hoisted 27 shots, close to the number taken by Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka combined—despite the fact all three of those teammates shoot at a higher percentage.
Durant visibly shakes his heads at times on the court when Westbrook goes into personal video game mode.
Westbrook shoots just 43.6 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three-point range while Durant boasts a 50.5 shooting percentage and connects at 41.4 percent from behind the arc.
But that doesn’t stop Westbrook.
Despite his weaker efficiency, Westbrook’s 18.8 shot attempts per game is higher than Durant’s 17.9 attempts per game. It would be just the second time in NBA history (since 1955) that a scoring champion didn't lead his team in shot attempts, according to Ellias Sports Bureau in a report from The Oklahoman.
Durant doesn't seem to mind.
In that same article by Darnell Mayberry, Durant defends that he only took 13 shots against the Spurs:
I can do whatever I want on the offensive end. I can come down and take 30 shots. That's not the right brand of basketball for me, to just come down and shoot. It's not because of the defense limiting me to 13 shots. I could have shot more than that, but I was trying to make the right basketball play.
Durant still doesn’t carry an ego—yet—as he consistently defends Westbrook’s high shot totals.
As talented as the pair of under-25 superstars is, and what the two have meant to the suddenly perennial Western Conference favorites, it seems as if there would be a pending clash as bickering mounts.
But an anecdote from Mayberry’s always-exeptional notebook after Monday’s loss to the Spurs tells otherwise:
There was a moment of extraordinary growth seen between Durant and Westbrook, one that anyone who questions the relationship of the two All-Stars should have seen. And it centered on the controversial topic of shot selection and ball distribution between the two. With 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Westbrook led a fast break with Sefolosha on his right and Durant to his left. Westbrook over-dribbled a bit and finally dished to Sefolosha. Durant threw up his hands and threw one of those 5-year-old fits he likes to give. Sefolosha missed a corner 3, but Westbrook corralled the rebound and nailed a 17-footer. The Spurs immediately called a timeout.
Just before reaching the bench, Westbrook and Durant stopped in front of the scorer’s table and talked about that possession, specifically why Westbrook didn’t give it up. The brief exchange was filled with what appeared to be both positive dialogue and body language, Westbrook motioning with two fingers from his eyes to Durant and back, and Durant slapping Westbrook on the chest as if to say “it’s all good.” It was a classic moment that those that like to trumpet the Avon-Stringer Bell narrative never seem to see.
Durant seems to be Westbrook's greatest advocate, even when the plays seem boneheaded.
The following moment is emblematic of the erratic highs and lows of Westbrook’s play:
The head-scratching immaturity can also be exhibited here in a odd decision to try and draw the foul near half court:
There’s a simplified stance that Westbrook shoots too much. But he’s an explosive scorer, so what is he supposed to do?
Westbrook has the ability to be efficient, even as a high-volume shooter, as exhibited on March 3 versus the Los Angeles Lakers when he scored 37 points on 15-for-29 shooting, adding five assists and was 7-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
@russwest44 was cookin tonight. He's got mamba blood runnin thru his veins . You gave it to me tonight lil bro. C u down the road!3/6/2013, 6:25:47 AM
The bigger-picture issue may come down to maturity, a piece that Westbrook is missing. The Thunder guard doesn't shoulder leadership with the same grace as Durant.
Another gem of Mayberry's notebook includes this tidbit from Westbrook after a loss at Utah on Feb. 12:
Westbrook simply walked off. The temperamental team captain got fed up with a reporter’s question and suddenly turned his back and ended the interview before walking away. The exchange was as follows. “Russell, did you guys lose this game, or did the Jazz win this one?” Westbrook: “Whaaaaat? Bro, what are you talking about, man? I’m out man. Y’all n***** trippin’.
Westbrook's personality can be as erratic as his play.
That creates a volatile situation, for both Oklahoma City and its opponents. When Westbrook is playing within himself and showing patience before shot attempts and temper tantrums, the Thunder are incredibly dangerous.
He’s the second-best player in the league under age 25, next to his teammate Durant, and the tandem will remain championship contenders as long as the pair remains intact.
The Thunder can’t win the title without Westbrook’s talents of scoring and distributing.
If he finds a balance of continuing to attack offensively, while adding a layer of patience and decision-making in shot selection, the Thunder could be the only team worthy of taking down the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
It might be up to Westbrook.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.
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