Let’s start out with this: they don’t make ‘em like Russell Westbrook, anymore. There’s a subversive quality to his play on the floor. He can look frightening, in a very real and ill way. There are a lot of young 20-somethings in the NBA that play mad or ornery – dudes that throw hissy fits. Russ doesn’t throw tantrums, though. Russ just plays angry. It’s a noble anger.
Remember his alley-oop dunk in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals? It was the dopest dunk of the season. Far better than some cat in a lame, neon-green, light-up suit at the Slam Dunk Contest. Russ tried to yank the rim and backboard off the stanchion. It was the most violent act perpetrated on an NBA court all season. In the past 20 years, only Shaq and Blake Griffin have assaulted a rim with that amount of evil (not even Vince Carter and Shawn Kemp). It was beautiful. And it was also THE play that, on the road, permanently tilted that Game 5 and the series in Oklahoma City’s favor.
That’s the thing about Russ: he’s the heart and soul of the Thunder. He plays with so much righteous animosity, cocksure and diligence, that it spills over and his teammates sop it up. OKC is at its best when Russ is glowering and stalking and flexing and acting like a maniac. The dude is nuts – in the best way. The Thunder are going to win a championship one day and when they do, it will be as much about Russ’ visceral heart of a champion as Kevin Durant’s once-in-a-generation scoring virtuosity.
There’s also this, though: Russ isn’t really a point guard. In fact, it’s pretty amazing that he and the Thunder have been able to play as effectively as they have with Westbrook playing a position that is literally and figuratively at odds with his very nature as a hooper. (If OKC traded Russ to Indiana for George Hill and Paul George this offseason and Russ plays two-guard for the Pacers, he might win MVP.) If we know this, then the Thunder – most importantly KD and coach Scotty Brooks – know this.
If you’re dealing with one of the biggest egos and hearts in the NBA – a player not willing to allow games to be decided in his absence – then outside forces have to get involved sometimes, especially when Russ enters Russ’ World, gets into the Russ Zone and throws on his KD Blockers.
When KD is wettin’ cats from 25 feet every time he touches the rock and Russ comes down the next possession, dribbles for 15 seconds and pulls up for an ill-advised, off-balance 20-footer, guess who I’m mad at? KD, not Russ. Russ shouldn’t have the ball for 15 seconds, because KD should do “a Kobe” or “an MJ” and run over to Russ, physically take the ball from him, wave off his teammates and go to work.
KD stands on the wing with his arms at his side on a lot of those Russ Zone possessions. Brooks rarely goes in and extracts Russ from Russ’ World. Perhaps KD has conversations with Russ behind closed doors. (“Look, Russ – nobody on this planet can guard me. So, when I’m abusing squads, doing what I wanna do, when I wanna do it; don’t interrupt my groove. Gimme the rock and let me keep dancing.”) And that’s cool. But, if KD is in his I Can’t Miss Zone in Game 3 and Russ is in Russ Zone, KD is going to have to meet Russ’ brolic with mo’ brolic and let Russ know what’s what. (“Dude!! Get me the ball!!”) If Russ stays in Russ Zone, KD needs to go to Brooks and tell him to sit Russ down. That’s what a G would do, right?
This much is clear: if LeBron James passively let his teammate dominate a ball when he was on fire, the criticism would avalanche. It would be character assassination from an army’s worth of bullets, coming from every direction.
KD, however, doesn’t face character-questioning scrutiny about why he “let’s” Russ do what he does. But, he should. KD knows Russ better than any of us. He knows that if he doesn’t go take the ball, Russ will take matters into his own hands. That’s Russ’ nature. On almost any other team, this would be the best option. KD just so happens to be the surest two or three points on the planet, right now. It’s the Finals. Now is not the time to Kanye Shrug on the baseline.