Why Russell Westbrook Will Be The Reason OKC Makes The NBA Finals

“That guy doesn’t know a thing about basketball,” Kevin Durant said of Skip Bayless prior to the Thunder facing the Grizzles on April 2.

SI‘s Chris Mannix tweeted recently, “I like @RealSkipBayless, I’ve sat across the desk from him, but the suggestion that OKC is doomed w/Westbrook at point guard is ridiculous.”

As if Skip Bayless doesn’t have enough cats on his hit list, Russell Westbrook is the latest player to feel the hate. He has nicknamed him “Russell Westbrick.” Bayless doesn’t like that he takes too many shots, isn’t a pure point guard, and doesn’t defer to Durant in crunch time. Last season’s playoff performance by Westbrook fueled the media fire against him, but Bayless continually condemns his play and expects he’ll be the Thunder’s cause to their ultimate playoff demise this season. He definitely “doesn’t know a thing about basketball” and his analysis is downright “ridiculous.”

If Bayless knew anything about the game and Westbrook as a hooper, he would know that Westbrook is on the verge of proving why he’ll be the reason the Thunder reach the NBA Finals.

Well before Shabazz Muhammad decided to put UCLA back on the map, Russell Westbrook was honing his skills in Pauley Pavillion. As a product of L.A.’s mean streets, the West Coast’s aura imparted him with the confidence and killer mindset required to succeed.

Westbrook came out of nowhere. He barely got recruited from Leuzinger High School. The only schools he visited before committing to UCLA were the likes of Creighton and Kent State. Westbrook didn’t even play much as a freshman (9.0 MPG and 3.4 PPG). Fans and NBA scouts didn’t start to catch on until he made a name for himself during the NCAAs as a sophomore. His dunks on LeKendric Longmire and Jamal Boykin just showed the surface of the potential.

During that 2007-08 March Madness, Westbrook increasingly got better every round. In the second round versus Texas A&M, he recorded five points, four boards and three dimes; in the Sweet Sixteen against Western Kentucky, he posted 14 points, 11 boards and five dimes; and in the Elite Eight versus Xavier, he netted 17 points, three boards and three dimes.

Westbrook saved his best performance for the Final Four and Derrick Rose. He dropped 22 points on 10-for-19 from the field, while Rose had 25 points on 7-for-16 shooting. This collegiate run showcased that on the game’s brightest stage, Westbrook lives for the spotlight. Thunder GM Sam Presti took notice and didn’t think twice about drafting him fourth overall in the 2008 NBA Draft.

People questioned why Presti would select Westbrook that high when more highly touted guards, Eric Gordon and Jerryd Bayless, and bigs, Kevin Love and Brook Lopez, were still on the board. I’m sure he saw some Tony Parker in him from his days as an exec in San Antonio. That type of projection and the development since then is partly what has led Westbrook to be an MVP candidate alongside Parker this season. Four years later, Westbrook represents the league’s new-age point guard and is arguably the best player out of that 2008 Draft… along with Rose and Love. Parker has only won three rings and a Finals MVP in 11 seasons without ever being labeled a true, pass-first point guard. Westbrook’s on a similar path to match that level of greatness, and has a chance to eclipse it.

Again, his fast climb to the NBA’s elite can be attributed to his days as a kid in L.A.

“Russell was always focused. He wasn’t distracted by anything. He had a vision at a young age of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to get,” said Reggie Hamilton, Westbrook first basketball coach, in a piece by The Oklahoman‘s Darnell Mayberry.

For Westbrook to have this kind of concentration and single-minded approach denotes how committed he’s always been to being the best. In the City of Angels, it’s easy for anyone to get sidetracked. The wrong cats are lurking when one least expects it. He’s been able to block the outside pitfalls and put in the gym time to push his game to greater heights. His athleticism has always been unreal. Still, Westbrook isn’t content on just being an athlete. His jump shot has improved considerably and he knows when to utilize his innate physical traits to his advantage.

The point guard position has transformed the past few years. It isn’t that important to set-up guys all the time as it is to have a constant impact on the game. The number of shot attempts per game (19.3 FGA, third overall and first amongst PGs) and turnovers (3.7 TOPG, third overall and third amongst PGs) are largely a byproduct of his aggressiveness. And these same stats casted negatively on Westbrook also are apparent on others who are deemed great floor generals: Derrick Rose (18.2 FGA), Deron Williams (17.5 FGA), Rajon Rondo, and Steve Nash is tied for third with him in turnovers, while Williams leads all PGs with four a game. All of these other cats should be held to the same standard as Westbrook. He shouldn’t be the main point guard taking this flak, especially when his overall influence matches — if not exceeds at times — the class of PGs.

Westbrook’s scoring (23.8 PPG, fifth overall and first amongst PGs), getting to the line (6.2 FTA, ninth overall and first amongst PGs) and rebounding (4.6 RPG, second amongst PGs) prowesses are too paramount to dismiss. He’s a game-changer. And yet, those like Bayless who were quick to criticize him for his assertiveness in last year’s playoffs, should’ve also noticed his increased postseason production. After taking the Lakers to six games in his playoff debut, Westbrook played 11 more games en route to the Western Conference Finals as a 22-year-old in his second stint. His minutes per game went up from 35.3 to 37.5, points from 20.5 to 23.8, and dimes from six to 6.4. There’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue this year.

SB Nation’s Welcome to Loud City founder, Zorgon, expounded further in an e-mail with regards to Westbrook’s expected playoff improvements:

“During the 2011 Western Conference Finals, Russell Westbrook was like a bull who constantly saw red. The result was one of three things: A highlight reel play, a really badly missed shot, or a turnover. More likely than not, against a championship team like the Mavericks, the result was one of the latter two options. This year, Westbrook still has that same fire in his belly, and he’ll still drive the ball recklessly on the fast break. But when the Thunder are running their offense in crunch time, he plays smarter. While running the ball up, he analyzes the defense, rather than zeroing in on the basket. He’ll call plays, he won’t fire as many quick shots, and he’s willing to defer the hot hand. This tells you that he’s more focused on making plays that actually score, and resorting less to cheap tricks and determination. In laments terms, he’s playing with his head, not with his balls.”

Of course, despite the strides Westbrook has made this season to quell last year’s playoff struggles, everyone will always call out his relationship with Durantula. The media and Twitter have circled this fabricated storyline like starving vultures.

When teams grow from an upstart to a contender, the expectations and profile dramatically rises. People want to crown the new champs before the season starts, and anything or anyone who slightly alters their anticipated outcome is automatically at fault. Players ain’t allowed to develop, experience and learn from their mistakes for more than one year, at best. The Westbrook/Durant drama escalated to the levels of Kobe versus Shaq when it doesn’t have an ounce of substance compared to those two.

In reality, Westbrook and Durant are as cool as teammates can be. They’re going through the same growing pains as any dynamic duo of the past. Their on-court chemistry doesn’t reflect how they act with each other off it. Durant didn’t sign a five-year, $85 million extension in 2010 if he didn’t believe he can win a ‘ship with Westbrook. More importantly, Westbrook would not have also re-up for five more years this year without an opt-out clause and without the “Rose Rule” – a max deal netting 30 percent of the cap — if he had real beef with KD. This fake subplot should be put to rest already.

“During the playoffs last year, I think the two were caught off-guard by how intently the media was trying to dig into their relationship dynamic, almost as if they wanted to see some fissure,” explained Welcome to Loud City’s J.A. Sherman in an e-mail. “This season though, the two seem to understand the media game a bit better and the intensive scrutiny has galvanized them. The entire Skip Bayless nonsense is a perfect example for how they have chosen to approach things — they have each others’ backs. Their personal relationship will have little if any bearing on the playoffs; all that matters is how they perform on the court.”

The NBA postseason is about matchups, not about b.s. off-court relationship issues. Who can guard Westbrook four out of seven times in a given series? Teams can devise schemes all they want towards forcing him to revert to last year’s tendencies. Westbrook and the Thunder have learned how to maximize his skill-set without curtailing his impact and the team’s overall success. Opponents will have a harder time dealing with him than he will with them. They have to make those adjustments, not him.

As the playoffs approach this weekend, Westbrook is primed to show the world he can lead the Thunder to the promise land. That’s the next step towards being considered the game’s consensus best point guard. His improvement is real and profound like a Dr. Dre produced beat. And just like there’s still build-up surrounding Dre’s Detox, Westbrook’s best is yet to come. The only difference is Westbrook is droppin’ his version this playoff run.

“The best thing about Westbrook though is that he never stops playing hard. He goes hard at the league’s best, so the chances of seeing other great guards like Tony Parker and Chris Paul will motivate him exponentially,” continued Sherman.

Yeah, that’s what the greats do come playoff time.

What does Westbrook need to do to help get OKC to the Finals?

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