Still getting acclimated to the attention he has received since the Oklahoma City Thunder became a relevant franchise, Westbrook takes in stride the harsh assessments — such as Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson declaring at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA Finals that Westbrook was “the worst point guard in the championship finals I’ve seen.”
Westbrook comes back seemingly more defiant.
“The more negative you hear, the better you’re doing,” Westbrook said, as the Thunder and Miami Heat prepare for Game 3 on Sunday at American Airlines Arena. “That’s how I look at it.”
Westbrook has scored more points than everyone except LeBron James and Kevin Durant in this series, but no one has taken more shots — which seems odd because he is listed as point guard, a position that historically requires creating scoring opportunities for teammates.
If Westbrook played on any team without Durant, his style might seem more palatable. But when Westbrook misses, he catches flak for taking away scoring opportunities from Durant, the three-time scoring champion, or James Harden, the sixth man of the year.
“They both have to score points for us to be successful,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said of Westbrook and Durant, the highest-scoring duo in the NBA this season and the only teammates to both finish in the top five in scoring. “I don’t look at who gets more, who doesn’t get more. I look at quality shots. Could Russell have taken two or three better shots? Absolutely. But they both need to score.”
Westbrook had 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in a 105-94 win Game 1 and 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Thursday’s 100-96 Thunder loss in Game 2. Westbrook took 24 shots in the opener, 26 on Thursday, but his 18 assists are the most among anyone in the series.
“I’m not making no adjustments,” Westbrook said, when asked about being a better point guard. “There’s always room for improvement, always room to get better. But the style of play that I play with, that’s not changing.”
Westbrook’s style works for him, for his team, and has Oklahoma City within three victories of an NBA title. He has the instincts of a scorer and not a setup man.
“He's such an aggressive, attacking player; I think even when he makes mistakes at times that they live with it because he creates so much on those assaults to the rim,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That relentlessness is probably part of his greatness.”
Durant is an efficient scorer partly because Westbrook also isn’t afraid to take the bad shots that Durant can turn down, and his penetration often gives Durant room to operate on the perimeter. Durant lifted his hands in frustration a few times on Thursday when Westbrook ignored him or failed to see him wide open, but he remains supportive.
“It’s not deserving at all, because we wouldn’t be here at this point, and people don’t recognize that,” Durant said of the Westbrook criticism. “We need him to play the way he plays. Of course, he’s going to make mistakes, and we’re all going to make mistakes.”
The Thunder feeds off Westbrook’s contagious and ferocious energy, which ensures that there are rarely any lulls in the action. He has picked up a technical foul for slapping the ball away from Shane Battier, but he also has split two defenders and hopped off the wrong leg for a rally-starting layup.
“Russell is a phenomenal talent, and he just has to trust his instincts, play his game,” veteran point guard Derek Fisher said. “There’ll always be critics and people that have comments to make about your game. I played with Kobe [Bryant] for a long time, and I think he’s the best example of no matter what you do, people will always have something to say or question whether you should or should not be doing something.”
Westbrook expects the scrutiny to continue.
“I didn’t really get that much attention in college until I got to the NBA,” said Westbrook, who went No. 4 in the 2008 draft out of UCLA. “But it’s something that comes with the territory. I feel like I’m doing something right. I feel like every year, I come back a little better, the more negative I hear. So I feel like I’m doing a good job of getting better, getting my team better.”
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