NBA Finals: Give Russell Westbrook room to grow

Jason Reid
Columnist June 20, 2012

One late gaffe was all it took for Russell Westbrook to unfairly remain the NBA’s top social-media punching bag.

For most of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, the gifted, young and supremely confident Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was as unstoppable as rain. Westbrook’s relentless 43-point assault on the Miami Heat’s defense put the visiting Thunder in position to win the game.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

With Westbrook exhausted (he led his team while playing all but three minutes) and the Thunder trailing by three, he committed a mental-error foul with only 14 seconds remaining and about four seconds remaining on the shot clock. The textbook play for the Thunder: Permit the Heat to take a rushed shot and, hopefully, get the ball back in time to attempt to tie the score.

Granted, Westbrook erred in forgetting the shot clock had not been reset. The Thunder, however, didn’t lose because of his mistake.

Still, many of Westbrook’s critics took to Twitter to blast him again as if that were their full-time jobs. The jabs ranged from downright ridiculous (some suggested Westbrook was actually trying to help the Heat win the series) to simply mean-spirited (that “0” was both his jersey number and IQ).

Lost in the nonsensical cyberspace chatter was the fact that Westbrook scored 11 consecutive points in one Jordan-like stretch of the fourth quarter to tie the score. He had 17 of the Thunder’s 23 total points (Kevin Durant scored the other six) in the fourth.

But the critics seem to forget something: Without Westbrook’s curtain-call-worthy performance, his team may have been blown out.

As LeBron James could attest, though, facts rarely matter in today’s digital court of public opinion.

The 24-hour news cycle has spawned an instant-analysis environment in which superstar athletes are categorized as either villains or heroes, as much for their personas as their performances. Those assigned to the wrong list are dissected with microscopic focus by sports reporters and fans, who then express anger about all they’ve uncovered.

Shedding a negative label is often harder than winning a championship, because reporters and fans seem to forget superstars are human beings, too. We all make mistakes — and many of us actually learn from them and grow.

It has taken James nearly two years — and a postseason performance that Bill Russell would be proud of — to slowly improve his black-hat-wearing image.

Anyone who understands the game knows that James has not simply played well during the playoffs. He has dominated the Heat’s opponents like a lion battling a gazelle.

If James actually wins his first title (the Heat has a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven championship series), the haters would lose their biggest talking point. Almost as if on cue, Westbrook is filling the void.

Throughout the playoffs, Westbrook has been blasted for his shot selection and decision-making while directing the Thunder’s offense. Every postgame television critique of the Thunder opens with what Westbrook has done wrong.

To hear some of the talking heads tell it, it’s almost as if the team would be better off if Westbrook immediately went on vacation.

His I’ll-do-things-my-way stance also has not endeared him to many hoops fans, who prefer more amiable-type superstars such as Durant.

Westbrook is now forever part of the good-vs.-evil narrative in sports. And a story line featuring a protagonist and an antagonist is always more compelling (such as the New York Yankees against the rest of Major League Baseball).

The Finals was widely perceived as a battle between the super-nice Durant and bad-guy James. In the past week, Westbrook has become No. 1 on the most-wanted list.

But Westbrook is only 23. He’s among the fastest-rising players in a league full of them. He’s the engine that powers a team built to win (big) for a decade or so.

That’s why UCLA Coach Ben Howland chuckles when he hears all the anti-Westbrook stuff.

Westbrook played under Howland at UCLA. In only two years, Westbrook skyrocketed from a lightly recruited high school player, to a college star and top NBA draft pick. The past two seasons, Westbrook has been second-team all-NBA, “and that means he’s one of the top 10 NBA players the last two years,” Howland said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That’s an incredible accomplishment.

“What it says is that he’s one of the best players in the world. He’s only 23 and he keeps getting better and better. He really does a nice job of keeping positive, because if he worried about all the negativity that’s constantly being thrown at him, it would be very hard for him” to do his job.

Westbrook competes as if he must win to eat. He practices harder than many players play. He attacks the rim as if it said something rude about his mother.

“We just wouldn’t be where we are without Russell,” Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti said recently. “So much of our team’s personality, and what we want to become, comes from Russell’s drive and competitiveness.”

During an era in which everyone capable of operating a computer is an expert, Westbrook’s brilliance is often misunderstood.

“It’s not just the constant media attention when you’re talking about Twitter and all the social media sites,” Howland said. “Anybody can get on the Internet, then all of a sudden, they have a voice. Then they know it all.”

Although Howland is one of Westbrook’s biggest supporters, even he acknowledges Westbrook has room for improvement. No less an authority than Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, who set the standard for the point guard position the way Johnny Unitas defined playing quarterback in the NFL, was hypercritical of Westbrook after the Thunder dropped Game 2 at Oklahoma City.

“No one is perfect,” Howland said. “Russell understands that. That’s why he works so hard.

“Just like LeBron has, Russell is getting so much criticism. But when you see how they’ve played . . . it’s really doesn’t add up.”

At this stage of his nascent career, Westbrook is not a finished product — were you at 23? But he’ll probably need to win a championship to end (reduce?) the barrage of arrows directed at him. James is one victory away from doing just that.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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