Listen to what Russell Westbrook says.
Then look at what he does.
Both are in accord with one another when it comes to what Westbrook does on a basketball court.
The point guard who continues to be a lightening rod for criticism for everything from his shot selection to his body language has undoubtedly made questionable choices throughout the first four years of his career. But the more you listen to Westbrook off the court, and compare what you hear to what you see on it, you soon understand that most of Westbrook’s mistakes are born out of a burning desire to just make his team better.
While some of the criticism is certainly fair, one knock that clearly is foul is critics calling Westbrook selfish.
Don’t take my word for it. Look at what the Thunder All-Star has done in this conference final.
Westbrook’s numbers are down…way down.
After averaging 22.3 points in the first round and 25.6 points in the semifinals, Westbrook enters tonight’s Game 5 averaging just 15.3 points. Some of that is due to a mini shooting slump. Westbrook has connected on just 34.3 percent of his shots against San Antonio after making 45.3 percent against Dallas and 48.5 against Los Angeles. But there’s something else behind that dip.
Westbrook has sacrificed his offense. He’s given up shots.
In the first four games against the Spurs, Westbrook has averaged 17.5 shot attempts. Against the Mavericks, he averaged 18.8. Against the Lakers, he averaged 20.2.
To turn the Thunder into a tougher cover for the Spurs, Westbrook willingly has turned into a facilitator among other things. He’s given up his own offense for the greater good of the team. In this series, Westbrook is averaging 6.8 assists. That’s 2.2 more than the 4.6 he averaged in the last round and 2.5 more than he registered on average in the round before that.
“Like I said before, my job is to make sure we win,” Westbrook said recently when I asked in what area of the game he feels he needs to be most effective. “Whatever it is throughout the game that I need to do to make sure of that, that’s all that matters.”
That’s Westbrook talking the talk.
I call your attention to Games 3 and 4 as evidence of Westbrook walking the walk.
Over the past two games, Westbrook has scored 17 points on 7-for-25 shooting. There was a time — see Game 4 against Dallas last year — when that was a night’s work for Westbrook. No more. Now, the mercurial point guard is maturing. He had nine assists in Game 3 against just two turnovers. Despite scoring a mere 10 points, Westbrook helped the Thunder to a 20-point rout. He did it with sound decisions and selfless play. That was the first game in this series in which Thunder coach Scott Brooks took Westbrook off Tony Parker and assigned Thabo Sefolosha to the Spurs’ fantastic Frenchman. Westbrook’s ego could have been wounded. His pride could have taken a pounding. He didn’t let it. Westbrook just came out and played one of his best all-around games of the season, adding seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks to his stat line. He locked up both Danny Green and Manu Ginobili, using both ball denial and stout on-ball defense to help limit those swingmen to a combined 11 points on 2-for-8 shooting.
I asked Westbrook the day after that game what part of his performance he was most impressed with.
“That we won,” he said. “For the most part, that’s all that matters. Regardless what the stats look like, our team win, that’s all that matters.”
It’s not like Westbrook asked off Parker. He’s one of the most competitive guys on the team. Westbrook wanted to stay on him. But he followed his coach’s orders. Didn’t care that he risked being run ragged in the pick-and-roll.
“I wasn’t really tired or nothing like that,” Westbrook said.
Reminded he was involved in roughly 70 pick-and-rolls in Game 2, and that a night of that many bone-crushing screens is an awfully lot of banging, Westbrook quickly made it clear that wasn’t his worry.
“If you want to win,” he said, “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win.”
There’s that word again, win.
And in Game 4, the Thunder got another one and evened up this series at two games apiece despite Westbrook scoring seven points, marking just the third time this season he’s been held to less than 10 points. Westbrook was 2-for-10 but was again a pest on the defensive end and again swallowed his pride and switched off of Parker. This time, Westbrook not only deferred to fellow All-Star Kevin Durant late in the game, but he also became the conduit that helped Durant create his magical fourth quarter. Durant got free only by running off a series of down screens set by Westbrook. In Durant’s unforgettable five-minute stretch, Westbrook set six down screens, which the Thunder refers to as “pin downs.” Durant used them to score 13 of his 16 consecutive points. The fifth one Durant used to draw a three-point play after faking toward the screen before going back-door for an alley-oop.
“When teams start making a run, we’ve got to go to our first option and that’s Kevin,” Westbrook said from atop the podium after that Game 4.
Somehow, in spite of all the evidence, there are those who still feel like Westbrook wants to, check that, has to be The Man. But with each passing game in this conference final, Westbrook is setting fire to that foolishness.
“I’m happy with Russ the last two games,” Brooks said. “I mean, his numbers don’t stand out and say he had a major impact on the offensive end. But he did. He made timely passes, he set incredible screens and he chased down a couple of plays that probably only Russell can do in the NBA.”
Still think Russell Westbrook is selfish?