MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Miami Heat in the second half of Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
He's not Kevin Durant, but he's not Allen Iverson, either. And that's what makes Russell Westbrook the most fascinating player in the NBA Finals so far.
MIAMI, FL -- Russell Westbrook sat down at the press conference podium Sunday night, and the first question was already baiting him into controversy. "You sat the last five minutes of the third quarter. It seemed like your team lost a lot of momentum. Were you frustrated by that?"
"No, man," Westbrook said. "It's Coach's decision. Got to live with it."
Then, Monday afternoon, a reporter asked if any of the Oklahoma City coaches talked to him on the bench during those five minutes in the third.
Was he frustrated by their silence?
"No. I mean, they don't have to particularly cater to what is best for me. You have to do what is best for the team."
One of the things that's amazing about Russell Westbrook is how everyone wants him to be a selfish asshole, but he won't play along. You watch him play, you expect him to be like all the petulant combo guards he looks like on the court. Iverson, Marbury, Steve Francis, etc.
But he's not those guys--not self-destructive or cancerous or whatever other go-to slander you could have applied to Iverson or Marbury or Francis when they were driving people crazy in 2002. This isn't to say Westbrook doesn't drive people crazy, though.
His worst moments--three or four wasted possessions in a row, outbursts on the sidelines, maybe getting benched--seem stupid enough enough to make you feel uncomfortable even when he's playing well. Westbrook will be spectacular, then he'll have a handful of decisions that are totally inexplicable, and then even when he's spectacular again, you're still worried about what might come next. When a rollercoaster levels out in the middle of the ride, you don't suddenly relax.
This makes him extra frustrating for all the fans who naturally gravitate toward the Thunder as the "Good" to Miami's "Evil" but then find Westbrook there, the combo guard who could derail the whole story with his evil instincts. People watch the Thunder to watch Kevin Durant, and then they see Westbrook exploding all over the court and taking shots away from Durant. When he misses two or three jumpers in a row or careens into a missed layup, Westbrook becomes an easy target.
The thing is, he definitely hurts the Thunder sometimes, but he still helps way more than he ever hurts. Nothing proves that better than Game 3 of the Finals, where he had a textbook crazy spell for a few possessions, then got pulled and sat for five minutes to end the third quarter.
The OKC offense stalled without him, and it helped Miami turn a 10-point hole into a two-point lead. If you're trying to make sense of Russell Westbrook's place in the NBA Finals, OKC's impotence without him matters as much as the three or four possessions that got him benched.
And Westbrook should've cracked by now. With the whole world scrutinizing his every move for the past two years, he should have said "F**k it", started sabotaging the team, causing problems with Durant, etc. The criticism should be sparking a bigger resentment that comes out sideways. Especially if he's as impetuous as all his critics expect him to be.
But this is where it matters that he's not Iverson or Marbury or Francis. Russ cares about winning more than his critics ever admit, and his ability to tune out the criticism is a big reason the Thunder have gotten this far. They wouldn't be here without a functioning Westbrook.
So in Game 4 on Tuesday, he'll probably have a handful of ridiculous possessions where he throws it away, or shakes off an open Kevin Durant and takes a pull-up jumper instead. That's what he does. But he also hits a lot of those jumpers, and the Thunder have actually fared better when he takes more shots than Durant. (The biggest difference with OKC this year is that James Harden and Durant have gotten better at creating for themselves, lifting the burden on Westbrook to create for everyone else, freeing him to concentrate more on his kamikaze missions to the rim.)
He'll never be as efficient as KD, but he's not as passive, either. So he attacks constantly while Durant picks his spots, and together, they are two sides of an unstoppable coin.
If you want to understand why Westbrook is still so controversial, it comes down to this: People see his worst moments and come to conclusions that keep them from contextualizing what he does well.
He can't be a fearless, Iversonian scorer capable of sometimes sabotaging the offense AND a great teammate that respects his coaches. He can't be the occasionally blackout drunk point guard AND the catalyst for everything that makes the Thunder offense so unstoppable. That just doesn't make sense to people. And that's Russell Westbrook. He will never make sense, because everything that makes him frustrating also makes him great. His reckless drives, the transition jumpers, the raw emotion... People love it when it works and hate it when it doesn't, and he's not going to make every shot, so this roller coaster will probably go on forever. In the Finals it's all magnified. But Russ doesn't really change.
"Regardless of what anybody says," he said earlier this week, "or regardless of what you guys say about how I play, it doesn't matter. I'm going to play my game regardless of what happens. I'm going to go out and give 110 percent, and try to find a way to help us win the game."
And he shouldn't change now. I don't know whether the Thunder can win this year's NBA title with him playing his game, but they definitely can't win without it.