LOS ANGELES – Russell Westbrook(notes) shot too much and didn't pass enough during the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff run. At least, that's what his critics said. Westbrook didn't exactly agree with them.
Westbrook also argued with his coach, Scott Brooks, and his star teammate, Kevin Durant(notes), on the court, leading to speculation that he was feuding with both. And when the Thunder were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook shouldered most of the blame.
In the two months since, Westbrook hasn't lost much sleep worrying about the criticism.
"I refuse to let myself do that," Westbrook told Yahoo! Sports. "I've been working too hard to get to the position we were in last season to worry about anything somebody else was saying."
Westbrook distinguished himself as one of the NBA's top young guards last season, making the All-Star team and the All-NBA second team. Durant understandably received more recognition after leading the NBA in scoring for the second consecutive season. But it was hard not to pay attention to Westbrook as he averaged career-highs of 21.9 points – an improvement of 5.8 points per game from the previous season – and 8.2 assists.
What caused a stir, however, was Westbrook taking 20.2 shots per game in the playoffs, up from his average of 17 in the regular season. The criticism began when he took 30 shots and missed 18, including all seven of his 3-pointers, in a 104-101 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round. And yet he also scored 40 points in a 133-123 triple-OT victory against the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round.
The criticism returned after Westbrook missed 12 of 15 shots and had just three assists in a 121-112 road loss to Dallas in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. He was benched in the fourth quarter when the Thunder won the following game. Brooks exchanged words with Westbrook during the game, but said it had nothing to do with his decision to use backup point guard Eric Maynor(notes) down the stretch.
Westbrook averaged 26.7 points the last three games of the West finals while Durant averaged 25.3 as the Thunder lost each game and were eliminated.
Westbrook said his shooting was never an issue with the Thunder.
"My family and teammates had my back," said Westbrook, who averaged 23.8 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 turnovers during the playoffs. "That's all that mattered. I didn't [discuss it] unless I was asked about it [by the media]. Other than that, we never really discussed it.
"We were winning. As a team we were getting better each round. That's all I was worrying about."
Westbrook and Durant have both denied there's a rift between them, and Westbrook said he and Durant have been in communication regularly since the season ended. The team was more concerned about Westbrook's turnovers than his shooting.
"My job is not to prove myself to whomever it is that is talking about this team," Westbrook said. "It's to help my team and organization get better.
"Everyone has their own opinion, and once someone says something they just roll with it. And that's how it went."
Westbrook likely will again find himself in the spotlight after the lockout ends. He will make $5 million next season in the last year of his rookie deal but will be eligible for an extension after the lockout ends. If Westbrook doesn't sign a contract extension, he will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Publicly, Westbrook has expressed only excitement about the future of the Thunder. He and Durant are just 22, and the Thunder will retain next season the young core of a team that just reached the West finals.
Westbrook spoke with several members of the Thunder's coaching staff and front office before communication was frozen with the start of the lockout. He began working out in Los Angeles with trainer Rob McClanaghan and Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose(notes) on July 11. After playing for USA Basketball in the world championships last summer and making a long playoff run, Westbrook has enjoyed his time off. His body feels good, and he's looking forward to the start of next season – whenever that may be.
"It was a great year," Westbrook said. "We did a good job of getting better as a team. We will see what happens next year. … I know we will be able to come back and make the next jump."
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