Oklahoma City Thunder

Stung by Departure of Durant, Russell Westbrook Is Learning How to Lead

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 19, 2017

OAKLAND, Calif. — Believe it or not, Russell Westbrook has mellowed.

Doubt it all you want—and after he vowed to take vengeance on Golden State's Zaza Pachulia late Wednesday night, skepticism would be understandable—but Westbrook has matured. He has become more understanding. He has evolved into much more than a venom-spitting, ruled-by-emotion caricature.

That's why he has been able to have one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. And yes, why he can be an even better player as he gains even better control of his incomparable fire.

Those flames of emotion were stoked after the Thunder lost to the Warriors 121-100, when Westbrook watched a postgame replay of Pachulia's fouling Westbrook hard and then standing over Westbrook's fallen body like some heartless hit man.

"He hit me kind of hard, but it's all right," Westbrook said. "I'm going to get his ass back, straight up. I didn't see [the play] until just now, but I don't play that game. I'm going to get his ass back. So whenever that is, I don't know when it's going to be, but I don't play that game."

Westbrook very much has issues with former teammate Kevin Durant. He still feels the betrayal, and those waves of emotion crest when facing the Warriors.

Yet he hasn't let it undermine him or his team this season.

Westbrook has made a lot of progress in keeping his feelings under control, while continuing to maximize the power of his will and competitiveness—enabling the inexperienced, limited Thunder to go 25-17 this season in games where he is not stressed about Durant.

When it's not the Warriors across the way tempting him, Westbrook has begun to find his true leadership stride.

A balance—certainly unexpected by all those people who foresaw steam coming out of Westbrook's ears to the point he would demand a trade out of OKC when Durant defected—has been struck between furious standards and his young teammates' need for support.

Throughout the Thunder organization, there is deep gratitude, almost to the point of indebtedness, for how willing Westbrook has been to invest in a group of players that isn't nearly ready to perform on his level. He hasn't bullied them to get his way or get his hands on the ball all the time. He has been teaching them more than tearing them down.

His teammates appreciate that he's a little less obvious about throwing his palms in the air when Enes Kanter again lines up in the wrong formation for a play, but more open about goofy grins and encouraging head rubs when Kanter gets his game going.

Westbrook has always had some behind-the-scenes sweetness to him as a teammate, but with Durant gone, there's so much more space into which he can grow. There's real heart in there, the stuff that led him to post on Instagram (on his wife's birthday) this week how she makes him "a better man."

(For those of you who want to believe the Durant issues manifest themselves everywhere, Westbrook also posted to his wife, "I just hope you love me back lol.")

As wild as Westbrook's numbers (30.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.4 assists) have been, OKC coach Billy Donovan revealed how much the Thunder have come to rely on him as the steady hand around which the team operates with his blunt assessment of Westbrook's season:

"He has been an efficient player in terms of how he runs our team."

The only reason the Thunder could play the Warriors to a tie through the first half Wednesday night was because Westbrook initially brought that balance, even though it was against Durant.

While Westbrook was deep into the game, he didn't go over the top.

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes for the dunk during the game against the Golden State Warriors on January 18, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Wearing his usual tight tank top, Westbrook smiled through much of his pregame workout, running off the court afterward with a boyish leap to touch the canopy upon reaching the tunnel off the floor.

He has athleticism that is meant to be bouncing off the walls in amazing ways, and he couldn't stop dancing on the bench during pre-tip warm-ups, shimmying and singing instead of stewing about the circumstances.

He enjoyed the early part of the game, laughing when Klay Thompson gave a what-can-I-do gesture after Westbrook banked in a shot over Thompson's perfect defense.

Ultimately, though, there was no way this was a fair fight with Durant now on the other side and Steven Adams out with a concussion. When Westbrook flicked his fingers to beckon for a players huddle early in the second quarter, every one of the guys on the court with himAlex Abrines, Cameron Payne, Kyle Singler and Kanterdidn't quite look the part.

But this was the Westbrook the Thunder have seen all season long: the points, rebounds and assists piling up in businesslike, rather than overextended, fashion—and the emotion kicking in at certain moments to help more than hurt.

Was Westbrook peeved at the start of the second half that his teammates hadn't fought for him against Pachulia just before halftime?

No.

Westbrook, instead, stood as if he was a quarterback facing his offensive linemen, encouraging them to the point that rookie Domantas Sabonis felt comfortable enough to initiate a hand slap with Westbrook.

Then it all slipped away anyway.

OKC was outscored by 15 in the third quarter—appropriately, Westbrook was a minus-15 and Durant was a plus-15 when each was on the floor.

Indeed, Durant's presence still left a mark. Westbrook's bizarre traveling violation—walking five steps with the inbounds pass before dribbling—came when he was thinking to direct Sabonis for a play call, but also after Stephen Curry had just fed Durant for a tiebreaking three-pointer.

When a Westbrook hammer dunk was followed by another Curry pass for Durant to hit another three, it was almost predictable that Westbrook would force his next shot. And his next.

That frustrated gambler who desperately pushes more and more of his chips in to combat a losing run was at the table. Soon enough, Westbrook was swiping in search of a steal against Durant, who easily crossed him over…and the Warriors were up 12.

Yes, the wound remains raw. And no, this more mature 28-year-old man is not ready to stop the blood in that wound from boiling.

He wore the "A" for alternate captain on his custom-made Anaheim Ducks No. 0 jersey in the last series he and Durant won together—the Western Conference semifinals when they eliminated the San Antonio Spurs—to show in yet another way he was OK with Durant's being the captain and main man as long as they were together.

Durant still wanted something else…and left him.

The pain of the divorce isn't hard to see. When Durant's Warriors beat Westbrook's Thunder the first time on Nov. 3, Westbrook was indignant. He muttered afterward about how "they talk a lot of trash. We'll see how that goes. ... We'll see 'em again."

Besides his postgame promise to get Pachulia back next time, Westbrook denied he had any real exchange with Durant when Durant appeared to commence a conversation in the third quarter. Asked if they were now on speaking terms, Westbrook said flatly, "Nah."

Such stubbornness is one reason his fans love him.

He doesn't give a crap about being different. He takes immense pride in it.

He'll always be that way, bless his pure soul, and how he burns is indeed a core part of his greatness as a player. While LeBron James says he doesn't have a rivalry with the Warriors, who knows if Westbrook will ever get over them?

Just know that Westbrook is not having this historic season because he's still one-dimensionally mad at Durant so as to prove something as the jilted ex-partner.

The closet where Westbrook stores his feelings of betrayal might overflow when he cracks that door open, but he has built a whole mansion of greatness this season. 

And it has been one impressive sight.

    

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinDing.

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