Kevin Durant may be Oklahoma City’s best player, but make no mistake about it Russell Westbrook is the fire that ignites the Thunder.
Whenever the Thunder needs to shift into high gear, head coach Scott Brooks points to his 23-year-old point guard to give the team a major boost. Whether its a steal, a 3-pointer, a spectacular dunk, an alley-oop pass, or a circus shot, Westbrook has been in the middle of almost every major run the Thunder have put together in the 2012 playoffs. He did in Game 4 in Los Angeles when he kept driving to the basket and refused to let the Lakers get too far. His relentless attacks kept the Thunder in the game long enough to set the stage for Kevin Durant’s cold-blooded 3-pointer to give OKC a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
In the close-out game Monday night in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was again the explosive catalyst in the pushing the Thunder past the Lakers.
With the game tied at 70 with four minutes left in the third quarter and the Lakers seemingly controlling the tempo of the game, Westbrook picked off a pass by Lakers guard Ramon Sessions and raced to the other end for what Brooks called the biggest play of the game. Watch Westbrook’s circus shot while being grabbed by Sessions.
Westbrook’s 3-point play ignited a 23-7 Thunder burst at the end of the third and the start of the fourth that eventually pushed OKC into the Western Conference finals and knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs. “Sessions grabbed me kinda early and just kinda threw it to the rim. Luckily it went in,” said Westbrook, who finished with 28 points in Game 5. “That sparked us, and everybody else. Kept it going from there.”
Brooks calls Westbrook a “special” player, and goes out of his way defending his point guard no matter how many times he shoots the ball or fires a pass into the third row. Durant is also on his good friend’s corner, saying the Thunder won’t win a championship unless Westbrook does what he does which is score the basketball.
Together, Durant and Westbrook are a lethal combination. Durant is the cold-blooded sniper, while Westbrook is the fearless soldier you want fighting in the front lines.
“Kevin [Durant] showed a lot of maturity. He never ever chimed in publicly. He always supported Westbrook,” said former Toronto coach Sam Mitchell. “These guys have a certain trust. Regardless of what we may think at times about a young point guard and his decision-making, and [Westbrook] has gotten a lot better at it, his biggest supporters are two guys: Scott Brooks, the head coach, and Kevin Durant.”
Westbrook is not a traditional point man. He led all guards in the NBA in points in the paint, and has developed a very good mid-range jump shot. He is fueled by raw emotion and he’s not as effective when you try to bottle him up in a system and make him into Steve Nash. He’s not Nash. He’s not Chris Paul. And he’s not Rajon Rondo. Much like the character Michael in the movie “Underworld,” he’s a hybrid. He has a unique skill set that needs to be unleashed and not harnessed.
When you have a championship thoroughbred in your stable, you don’t keep him locked up in the barn. You let him run. Westbrook is a thoroughbred who can score, and loves to score. So why turn him into something that he’s not? Let him shoot the ball.
The Thunder have been successful the past three seasons because the team’s general manager (Sam Presti), the head coach (Brooks), and the best player (Durant) are all in when it comes to Westbrook.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastbreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.