Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook takes no shortage of grief when he takes too many shots and costs his team a game. The criticism is fair—when you have the MVP of the league in Kevin Durant, and you’re the point guard, you have to be willing to give the ball up.
But it’s also fair to recognize there are a lot of nights like yesterday, when it’s Westbrook who bails his team out. Russell Westbrook is the reason the Thunder beat the Los Angeles Clippers 105-104 last night and took a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals of the NBA playoffs.
It was a tough shooting night for Durant. He got his points, 27 in all, but most superstars usually do. The deciding factor is often the efficiency with which those points come, and Durant’s 6-of-22 from the floor usually isn’t going to cut it. Enter Russell Westbrook.
The electric guard poured in 38 points on 11-of-23 shooting. He got himself to the line 16 times and made 14. That’s the Russell Westbrook factor and it represents the challenge ahead for the Thunder as the playoffs progress.
I believe Westbrook gets far too much heat from the national media for not being a true point guard. Yes, there are times he goes too far and takes the ball out of Durant’s hands. But Russell Westbrook is never going to be Chris Paul when it comes to distributing the basketball. Russell Westbrook is never going to be on a State Farm commercial for handing out assists.
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That’s not who he is, and the Thunder have even less a chance of winning championship if their second-best player decides to step out of character than they do if he hogs the ball a bit too much.
During the 2012 NBA Finals, when Oklahoma City was playing the Miami Heat and let it slip away with three consecutive close losses, ESPN commentator Bill Simmons recalled talking to ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy about the Westbrook factor. Simmons said that Oklahoma City had to win or lose the championship based on who they were, not some idealized version of what everyone would like them to be.
I agree wholeheartedly, and I would apply that logic to this situation as follows—yes, it’s great to have a true point guard, who racks up 10-12 assists per game. But if you make Russell Westbrook try and be that player, you’re going to lose his excellence. He’s really more of a tweener guard, playing the same position of Chris Paul, but packing the offensive punch of Dwayne Wade in his prime.
That’s not a package that fits neatly into the basketball positions that we generally use. Chris Paul is a true point guard, Dwayne Wade is a true two-guard. Russell Westbrook isn’t as easy to classify.
But basketball games are not won by classification and once you’re in the flow of play, your position designation is irrelevant. It’s the job of head coach Scott Brooks to figure out how to use Westbrook correctly. Every championship team needs not just one, but two stars. There’s a reason LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers never won it all, but LeBron’s Miami Heat did. It’s called a second star.
The notion that Oklahoma City can’t win if Russell Westbrook shoots a lot is insane. They can’t win if he doesn’t shoot enough. There is a line Westbrook can’t cross when it comes to him vis-à-vis Durant. But again, let’s bring this back to Brooks. The head coach’s job is to keep everyone from crossing those lines. If Brooks can’t do that, what purpose is he serving?
That’s the question that Oklahoma City fans should ask themselves if this team doesn’t at least reach the NBA Finals and make a credible bid to win it. Russell Westbrook isn’t the problem in OkC.