OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 21: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after scoring while fouled against the Los Angeles Lakers during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 21, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook had 28 points and the Thunder eliminated the Lakers Monday night. And after years of doubts about his role in Oklahoma City, the kamikaze point guard is a better fit than ever.
The entire Los Angeles Lakers-Oklahoma City Thunder series can be boiled down to one sequence from the third quarter Monday night. You had an overmatched Lakers point guard throwing a terrible pass that was intercepted, then that same Lakers point guard trying to physically wrap up Russell Westbrook and almost succeeding, but ... everything was going right for Westbrook and the Thunder. He threw up a prayer and it banked in.
Then you had Westbrook screaming and the Thunder crowd going insane, while Kobe stood detached with a glazed look of resignation. And ... yep, that's the whole series, pretty much.
It's hard not to see this series as a torch-passing moment, a benchmark cleared. We'll all look back on years from now as the series when the Thunder went from up-and-coming to inescapable. That happened in Game 1, really. So now here we are, watching the future bleed into the present. In the past, the Thunder were the longshot contenders you put $10 on in Vegas, just for fun. Now the money's more serious.
There are a lot of different reasons for the change. Kevin Durant's better than ever on both ends of the floor, Serge Ibaka makes them dangerous defensively, James Harden gives them as deadly a crunch time catalyst as anybody in the league and despite their youth, the starting five's now played more than 200 playoff games. But winning's only part of their appeal.
If you're wondering why the Thunder are the most addictive team in basketball, the answer is Russell Westbrook. Even beyond his awesomely ridiculous outfits every night. As a player the past two rounds, he's been the most magnetic personality of anyone on the court.
This is strange for me, having loved the Thunder for a few years now in spite of Westbrook. I still wonder whether the Thunder would've been better off trading him for Chris Paul two years ago. For a while, I wondered whether Westbrook would've been better off.
My problem with Russ was never personal. It's just that I had such a hopeless crush on Durant that I couldn't stand the thought of someone screwing up his inevitable rise to the top. Westbrook would've been more fun on a team like New Orleans, all by himself, where he was free to run and gun to his heart's content. Next to Durant, though, his kamikaze tendencies were as much a liability as an asset.
But now it's all changed, even though he hasn't really changed. So this is my apology for doubting Russ and dreaming about CP3 the past few years. If Durant's the Thunder's brain and Harden's the soul, Westbrook's the heart. A transplant would be insanity. The Thunder just wouldn't be the Thunder without him, their spastic and spectacular floor general. He's the unreliable narrator that gives the story an added dimension of dementia.
It's not like we wouldn't love a tandem of Durant and Harden, but Westbrook's radioactive energy just puts the whole thing over the top. Figuratively, sure, but literally too. When Westbrook turns it on, the way he did in the second halves of Game 4 and 5, the Thunder become completely unstoppable. How do you stop him AND Durant, let alone Harden off the pick-and-roll? At his best, Westbrook is Derrick Rose, but deadlier in transition and with a better jumpshot.
Someone called him "Honey Badger" on Twitter during one of these playoff games, and it fits with Westbrook better than anyone else in the league. He had 37 points in OKC's Game 4 win and then another 28 Monday night. He also only had four turnovers for the entire series.
He hasn't changed the way he plays, but he's gotten better at picking his spots this year. He'll still have the occasional airballed jumper and/or sideline shouting match, but -- aside from his fantastic fashion sense -- the biggest theme of Westbrook's playoffs has been this strange savvy, where he explodes at the perfect time, then lets Durant and Harden take over when the moment's right.
That's the piece of Westbrook's game we were never sure about, but at least against the Lakers and Mavericks, he's erased all the doubts without losing what made him special in the first place.
After the miracle shot we mentioned at the beginning, he stomped triumphantly and let out a primal scream that you could feel through your TV. At another point in Game 5, he spent a solid 30 seconds gesticulating toward an indifferent ref, arguing a call. Normally this act is obnoxious from NBA players, but with Russ the emotion was so sincere you couldn't help but love it. After a big fourth quarter jumper, he walked up the sideline angrily pounding his chest. Even as he's quieted the doubters over the past month, he's still the guy who will always have a chip on his shoulder. That's why we love him.
He's the assassin without an off switch, sorta like a pint-sized Kobe. But as Durant and Harden have evolved as sidekicks, Westbrook doesn't have as much of a burden. He's free to pick his spots to go crazy, then fall in line when the others do their thing.
Or to put it a different way: Now that Harden's role has increased and Durant's become deadlier than ever, Russ doesn't have as many opportunities to be his own worst enemy. And that's the miracle; because of the way Westbrook and his teammates have changed, we can look forward to watching Westbrook wreak havoc with a title contender for the next 5-10 years instead of being exiled to some NBA also-ran like New Orleans.
As for the Thunder? Now they play the Spurs, the juggernaut who's basically the exact opposite of Westbrook. Viciously disciplined, perennially poised and detached from any and all emotion. As for who wins, I said this in my playoff preview three weeks ago:
...as dangerous as the Spurs have been, if both teams max out what they've got, OKC is just better. It's not San Antonio's age or athleticism or anything else that'll hold them back; no, if OKC can beat the Lakers and Mavs, two teams that've knocked them out the past two years (also the past two champions) they'll be coming into the Western Conference Finals with more momentum and more confidence than they've had all year. And when they're confident and hitting on all cylinders, they're just a better team than San Antonio.
But however this ends, I'm glad the Thunder will go to war with their kamikaze point guard. I wasn't sure OKC could work with him, but now I can't imagine how they'd work without him.
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