Westbrook was arguably the most scrutinized player not named LeBron James last postseason. His spastic temperament was considered a liability to the Thunder’s championship hopes, and his every shot was second-guessed and viewed as a rebellious refusal to defer to media darling Kevin Durant.
The criticism made Westbrook a little more guarded and withdrawn, but losing to eventual champion Dallas in the Western Conference Finals is what made him determined to make amends.
“It’s definitely helped me,” Westbrook said of his detractors. “Last year, we got put out in the conference finals. I was definitely disappointed in that. Coming into this year, I wanted to come in and help my team and become a better leader.”
This postseason, Westbrook has struck a decent balance between erupting for much-needed scoring bursts and getting out of the way when either Durant or sixth man of the year James Harden have it going offensively. He has also reined in his tendency to be wild with the basketball by committing just four turnovers against the Lakers.
The most biting criticism Westbrook has heard this time around has been for his unique sense of style, with him donning several colorful outfits in postgame interviews — including a fishing-bait shirt and accompanying oversized red glasses that didn’t have lenses because, “I see better without ‘em.”
Westbrook appears to be in on joke. As he got ready to take his seat at the podium after a win last Saturday — in a shirt that appeared to be inspired by a bag of Skittles — Westbrook asked reporters, “Why is everybody laughing?”
After becoming the second team in NBA history to defeat the past two champions in the playoffs, the Thunder is back in the conference finals, against the San Antonio Spurs — a team with collective experience and consistent blandness that you won’t find in the 23-year-old Westbrook.
How many times have you seen a member of the Spurs hit a three-pointer, blow the tips of his index fingers as if they were guns, then stick them into imaginary holsters — with his team down by 10 points? That’s Westbrook.
And the Thunder wouldn’t have it any other way. “He’s taken our franchise to a level that we can say, we can compete with the best,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s about winning basketball games. Is he a complete player? No. And he knows that. He’s going to continue to work to get to another level.”
Westbrook wasn’t created by the NBA hype machine, didn’t arrive with a sneaker company trumpeting his every step. He hasn’t earned his stardom as much as he snatched it and strapped it over his shoulders. “He has a battery pack on his back,” Harden said.