Kobe Bryant paid Russell Westbrook the ultimate compliment with his actions Tuesday night, when he stepped up and insisted on defending the Thunder’s young gun in Game 5.
But you’d have to excuse Westbrook for refusing to return the same level of reverence with his words.
"It’s not like he’s the best defender in the world,” Westbrook said Thursday, the day before his team’s do-or-die Game 6 against Bryant’s Lakers.
"I don’t think he’s, like, the best defender in the NBA to where I’m like, ‘OK, Kobe’s guarding me now’ and I tighten up.”
Westbrook’s stance could be taken as a slight. It’s not. It’s a sneak peek into the mental toughness that has transformed Westbrook from an overlooked high school prospect into the Thunder’s best player in its first-round series with the Lakers.
And it’s that stubborn attitude that has enabled Westbrook to use these playoffs as his coming out party.
The Thunder trails 3-2 in this best-of-7 series largely because Westbrook has been his team’s lone consistent offensive weapon. Westbrook enters tonight’s game averaging 20.4 points on 50.7 percent shooting. He’s added 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Cleveland’s LeBron James is the only other player in the playoffs averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds and five assists.
With his blazing speed, sneaky steals and high-soaring dunks, Westbrook has commanded the attention of previously clueless casual fans. But it’s the desire by Bryant, arguably the league’s best player, to take over defensive duties on Westbrook that has shone the brightest light on the second-year point guard’s growing status as a star.
"Most teams that scout us know he’s a problem,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison.
"They know he’s a big part of what we do. What I think a series like this does is bring some of the outside attention that he hasn’t had, that we haven’t had as a team that much this year.”
Westbrook is all too ready to receive the love. For now, though, he’s just trying to extend his team’s season.
"I’m not trying to go home,” Westbrook said.