Russell Westbrook’s Ascension Was The Moment They All Feared

The stat geeks, tacticians and Golden State fans all have varying explanations as to why a historically great, 73-win regular season juggernaut is on the brink of collapse in the Western Conference Finals.

The officiating? Child, Please!

Yes, there have been some no-calls, some missed calls and some terrible calls. But 20 and 30-point blowouts can never be attributable to the officials.

The Warriors rode into this series like Satan’s Messengers, the biker gang who strolled into the mafia bar in A Bronx Tale, having previously wreaked mayhem, havoc and destruction on anyone they encountered. Draymond Green took the warfare up a notch, doling out testicular contusions for which the normally stern NBA police turned a blind eye, refusing to suspend him for Game 4.

But when Golden State walked into the Thunder’s bar, arrogantly announcing that they were about to tear it up in the same way they defiled the Rockets and the Trail Blazers in the playoffs’ first two rounds, they stood in shock when Russell Westbrook, playing the role of Sonny LoSpecchio, locked the door and said, “Now you’se can’t leave.”

If you’ve watched Golden State play during the regular season,  you knew that this series would be their first true test of the playoffs, because no other team presents such a unique matchup conundrum for them quite like OKC. To put it simply, the Thunder’s length and hunger on the defensive end is the kryptonite to the Warriors outside-in attack.

The only other team with that combination of speed, size, length and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, a crew who also played Golden State tough this year, was Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee Bucks featuring Kris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Michael Carter-Williams, Jabari Parker, John Henson and perhaps the illest young talent in the game that no one talks about in the lofty manner that they should, the marvelous Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Andre Roberson have cracked the code to the Warriors prolific offense, making the team that has been compared to the 1996 Chicago Bulls, 1986 Boston Celtics and 1987 Los Angeles Lakers look like the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats in Games 3 and 4 of the conference finals.

Getting to those long rebounds and loose balls that their pace-and-space offense creates is simply not happening, and Steph and the entire team looks about as uncomfortable running the offense as a 10-month-pregnant hostage right now. 

Draymond Green, who some had the foolish audacity to say was better than LeBron in terms of being the most complete player in the game today, is looking more like Mitch “Blood” Green. Over the past two years, Draymond has been marvelous. In this series, he’s playing less like Scottie Pippen and more like Pete Chilcutt

It’s obvious that Steph is not 100% healthy, and OKC’s defense has been abusing him like Mary did Precious, making every one of his cuts through the paint as painful as having to listen to Chris Webber, aka Captain Obvious, provide the television color commentary. 

Billy Donovan has pushed all the right buttons as OKC’s head coach during this year’s playoffs, Steven Adams is emerging as one of the game’s elite big men and Kevin Durant is simply one of the most prodigious, phenomenal talents the game has ever seen.

But the real reason why the Thunder have dispatched of an exceptional 67-win Spurs team and are on the verge of doing the same to Golden State is an alien life form. And his name is Russell Westbrook.

This was the moment the 29 other NBA teams have feared since Oklahoma City made it to the 2012 NBA Finals. And that is the full blossoming of Westbrook’s audacious talent merging with his ferocious competitive nature and otherworldly, mercurial energy.

“I play every game like it’s my last, regardless of who’s in front of me,” Westbrook said after the Thunder took a 3-1 series lead. 

“Russell just plays with incredible passion,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan added after Tuesday’s Game 4. “He’s got such a great force and great will, and he’s also a really, really high IQ player. Just his effort and energy throughout the course of the entire game is terrific. As a coach, you sit there and have great respect and admiration for somebody that plays that hard and gives to the game and his teammates what he gives.”

In these last back-to-back 133-105 and 118-94 blowouts in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, his 30 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds on Sunday, followed up by an encore of 36, 11, and 11 on Tuesday have asserted his ownership over the series thus far.

Durant will always have his foot on a defense’s neck, but when Westbrook plays at the crescendo of his abilities, it’s a wrap for the rest of the league.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The energy he brings to the court when he’s at his best is unquantifiable, and his teammates feed off of it like Lavell Crawford at a Memorial Day cookout. He’s managed to locate that delicate balance between going for his, and involving his teammates in the offensive flow.   

In the year of the Warriors and Steph Curry’s unanimous MVP voting, Westbrook is letting everybody know that as incredible as Curry has been, he’s not even the best point guard in this series. At least he hasn’t been thus far. 

Russ ain’t simply playing the game, he’s dictating it.

Over the last two games, with him morphing into Sonny from A Bronx Tale while asserting the force of his powerful, gangster essence over the stunned bikers, I’m hearing the voice of Colagero when looking at the shocked expressions worn by Steve Kerr, Green, Curry and the entire Warriors gang:

“I will never forget the look on their faces. All of them. Their faces dropped. All their courage and strength was drained right from their bodies. They had a reputation for breaking up bars, but they knew that instant, they’d made a fatal mistake. This time they walked into the wrong bar.”  

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