MIAMI – When Russell Westbrook played for Mike Krzyzewski on Team USA in the 2010 world championships, the tempestuous young guard rapidly became one of the coach’s favorite players. The energy, the explosion, the enthusiasm – it was something to behold in Istanbul. Around Duke and USA Basketball they understand: Westbrook is nearly a sure thing to be selected for the final roster for the 2012 Olympic team in London.
Even now, people say Krzyzewski sometimes invokes Westbrook when trying to illustrate to college players and staff about the kind of fervor and fearlessness he wants. Westbrook's disposition can sometimes border on intensity and dourness, but no one should ever confuse him for being uncoachable. Westbrook wasn’t happy with Scott Brooks benching him for the final minutes of the third quarter in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, but no level of baiting Westbrook in news conferences would inspire him to fire at OKC’s coach.
"It was the coach's decision," Westbrook flatly said Monday. "You have to live with it."
When pushed about getting an explanation from Brooks for why he sat so long with a 10-point lead evaporating, Westbrook still deferred. "They don’t have to cater to what is best for me. You have to do what is best for the team."
Yes, the Thunder desperately need Westbrook playing at the highest level to overcome this 2-1 deficit to the Miami Heat, and, so far, these Finals haven’t witnessed the best of him. He’s missed 40 of 68 shots in the series, including 11 of his 14 3-pointers. As much as his position demands he run the Thunder offense, he has to be a shot-maker for the Thunder. They're constructed around his ability to score the ball, as much as pass it.
And yet, sources say, Westbrook's push and pull with Brooks has long been about the offense, about the Thunder’s ability to run sets that make it easier for him to feed Kevin Durant and James Harden for scoring chances. In many instances, breakdowns have left Westbrook scrambling at the end of the shot clock and frantically searching out his own offense. Too often in this series, the Thunder have also relied on Harden to go one-on-one late in the clock, driving into the teeth of the Heat defense for difficult, contested shots.
This isn’t the first time Westbrook has been criticized in the postseason. He heard his share a year ago when the Thunder lost in the Western Conference finals. And again this year, when the Thunder dropped two straight to the San Antonio Spurs. Yet, these are the NBA Finals, and no young point guard wants to hear Magic Johnson come down so hard on him. "It’s been hard for him to hear," one source close to Westbook said, "but he’s mentally tough enough to get through it."
There’s a stubbornness to Westbrook that makes him great, that pushed him past a throw-in scholarship offer at UCLA into the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft. It wasn’t so long ago that Westbrook was planning college visits to Wyoming and Creighton, far, far away from the privileged lot of a future NBA lottery pick. And unless Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver hadn’t possessed such a keen eye for talent, there’s no telling how far Westbrook would’ve dropped past the fourth spot in the 2008 draft.
This is all so much, so fast, for Westbrook and the Thunder, an NBA finalist constructed around two 23-year-old All-Star guards. There’s a reason this is so rare in league history, so unprecedented: It's hard to grow up fast in the NBA, and that’s the mandate for these Thunder now. Everyone will be watching Russell Westbrook in Game 4, studying him, and make no mistake: With his talent, his explosiveness – from Miami to London, the NBA Finals to the Olympics – it can all change on a moment’s notice.
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