Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins doesn't want to hear anything about Russell Westbrook's shot count or his drop in assists or his occasional arguments with Kevin Durant. The only thing Perkins sees in Westbrook is an All-Star point guard who has helped lead the Thunder to the NBA's best record.
"He always gets this label of being selfish," Perkins said. "He's not that at all. The one thing about Russ is he's a scoring point guard, and that's what we need him to be. That's why this team has been successful because he does what he does.
"The thing that bothers me … is Derrick Rose is not a true point guard, he is a scoring point guard, but nobody gets on Derrick Rose like they get on Russ."
While the Thunder have few concerns about Westbrook's play – they gave him a five-year, $80 million contract extension this month – he was criticized during last season's playoffs after averaging slightly more than 20 shots a game, including the 30 he hoisted in one opening-round game against the Denver Nuggets. His relationship with Durant and coach Scott Brooks also came under inspection in the postseason when he had brief squabbles with both. The Thunder have always publicly insisted they want Westbrook to be aggressive while running the offense, but that didn't keep him from becoming a scapegoat once the team was eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in last year's Western Conference finals.
"When things go wrong they got to find somebody to put it on," Westbrook said. "That's fine and dandy. As long as you continue to win like we are playing now, it will be all right."
Westbrook's scoring has dipped slightly this season, but his assists have fallen from 8.2 per game last season to 5.8. The Thunder, however, point to the drop as a product of Durant and guard James Harden increasing their playmaking roles.
Westbrook's "assists have been on the rise the last few weeks and we need that to continue," Brooks said. "I have made it a priority to become a better passing team. Harden and K.D. are sharing the responsibility of making plays for the team. The process has been moving forward in small increments."
Westbrook doesn't hide his emotion when he's on the court. If he sees something he doesn't like, he'll say so. He and Durant barked at each other in a Dec. 29 win over the Memphis Grizzlies after Westbrook criticized Thabo Sefolosha for not shooting when he was open.
"My dad always emphasized growing up that the ball is my only friend," Westbrook said. "After the game we can jump around and all that. But before and during the game, I'm not going to be joking around with nobody."
Said Perkins: "The one thing about Russ is he always plays with a serious chip on his shoulder like he wants to prove the world wrong. Every matchup he goes against, he has a personal problem with."
Durant thinks his arguments with Westbrook have been overblown. When players are around each other "more than your own family, of course you're going to have arguments and heated discussions," Durant said. What's more troublesome for Durant is the ongoing debate about whether he or Westbrook is the better player.
"We're on the same team," Durant said. "That's something that makes him mad, makes me mad. But the perception he gets, as far as what people say about him, is farfetched because he is a great person."
Brooks admits he's had some growing pains with Westbrook, but also thinks their relationship has improved since last season. The two recently sat down to watch 15 of Westbrook's plays and the guard was primarily on the same page as his coach with what he needs to improve. Westbrook says he's learned from some of last season's mistakes.
"We fight, no question," Brooks said. "We have some tough conversations. But I think that's part of coaching. My job is to coach these guys and I have to put them in a position where they see improvement and there also has to be team improvement. With Russell, he's stubborn at times. But if you want to be great in this league you have to have that."
The Thunder describe Westbrook as a fun-loving guy off the court who's always ribbing his teammates and keeping them loose. Durant wishes fans and media could see that side of his teammate.
Still, Westbrook continues to think much of the public doesn't have a good opinion of him. Of course, as long as the Thunder are winning, he could also care less.
"Probably the misperception about me is maybe I have a bad attitude," Westbrook said. "But when the game starts I'm not here to smile and joke around. People that know me know that I'm not that type of guy. Everyone doesn't have the same type of nature. Mine is built off emotion.
"I've been playing with a lot of emotion since I was growing up. That's how I play. For me to get to the level I want to be at, I have to keep playing like that."
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