If he was aggressive, critics said he was shooting too much. If he fell back and played more like a playmaker, they said he was too passive and was hurting his team.
Russell Westbrook couldn't win during the Thunder's postseason run, even while his team was winning plenty.
Everything, from the point guard's body language on the bench to how he handled the team's final defeat of the season, was overanalyzed.
“It's kind of crazy how the last two series happened with all the stuff he had to go through,” said forward Nick Collison. “It kind of hit everybody by surprise because, for us, it didn't seem like anything was different. We love Russell, and we love what he brings. And we realize without him this year we wouldn't be a playoff team. We wouldn't be anywhere near as good as we are.”
The criticism Westbrook experienced could have torn apart the Thunder. Instead, it brought the team closer together. And when it was all over, the Thunder had received an unexpected but valuable crash course in how to cope with scrutiny during a deep playoff run.
“For all of us, we can't listen to what's going on outside our locker room,” Collison said. “We know what's real and we know what's going on, and I think it was good for us to see that that stuff doesn't matter.”
Because of the incessant backlash, many observers have wondered where Westbrook's state of mind is. It's a completely understandable concern considering Westbrook is still only 22 and had never faced as much scrutiny as he did throughout April and May. But if the criticism had any lingering effects, you certainly couldn't tell when he faced the cameras. Westbrook handled it all with an almost shocking amount of poise and positivity.
“Regardless of what I do, it doesn't matter. I can't do no right. So I just go out and play,” Westbrook said a day after Game 2 against Dallas, when he didn't play in the fourth quarter and had to watch four reserves and Kevin Durant lead the Thunder to victory.
Westbrook admitted in his season-ending interview that he didn't think the criticism he faced was warranted. But, like always, he refused to dwell on it.
“I just got to continue to do what I'm doing and try to stay positive,” Westbrook said.
Ironically, Kendrick Perkins had a front-row seat to similar scrutiny that landed on another point guard's front stoop three years ago. His name was Rajon Rondo, then in his second season with Boston. The Celtics had just acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team up with Paul Pierce, and Rondo became a giant question mark to the team's title hopes.
Eventually, Rondo silenced the critics that season.
“Rondo's (criticism) lasted for a little bit. Russ' lasted throughout the whole playoffs, no matter if he played good or bad,” Perkins said. “He still was getting criticized on something. And I thought he handled that, as I say, like a G.”
Perkins, who joined the Thunder in mid-February, was impressed with how a much younger Thunder team avoided the perils of outside noise. In Boston, one of the league's biggest pressure cookers, Perkins had quickly learned to tune out most of it.
“I don't even talk basketball with my own wife; seriously, because it can break up a locker room,” Perkins said. “It can break up a team.”
The remaining Thunder players got that lesson this postseason and, fortunately for them, they didn't have to learn it the hard way. They never succumbed to the scrutiny, and now they should be stronger because of it.
“I'm definitely going to try to come back and be stronger,” Westbrook said.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK'S ROLLER COASTER
A look at the criticism Russell Westbrook faced throughout the 2011 playoffs.
April 25: Roasted after Game 4 at Denver, when he took 30 shots to get 30 points while Kevin Durant had just 18 shot attempts in a 104-101 loss.
April 27: Criticized for pouting in a closeout win in Game 5 against Denver, when he played a more passive role and launched only 15 shots and scored just 14 points in 36 minutes.
May 1: Shots were fired at him after Game 1 against Memphis, when he took two more shots than Durant (23 to 21) in a 13-point loss.
May 7: He took the brunt of the blame for the Thunder's offense stalling out in the second half and overtime of a 101-93 overtime loss in Game 3 at Memphis. OKC scored just 17 points in the final 17 minutes.
May 13: Westbrook got ripped after a 95-83 loss in Game 6 at Memphis, another second half collapse, despite being the only Thunder player with a pulse in the final 24 minutes. His three fourth-quarter turnovers drew more attention than his aggressive and much-needed attacks on the rim.
May 17: He went 3-for-15 in a Game 1 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals. Most of his 20 points came at the free throw line, where he converted 14-of-18 attempts.
May 19: Westbrook became as much of a lightning rod as ever when was benched in favor of Eric Maynor for the entire fourth quarter of a Game 2 win at Dallas. Instead of talking about the win, or how three other starters sat for almost the entire fourth period, national pundits focused on the story of Westbrook.
May 22: Following a Game 3 home loss to Dallas, a story in the New York Daily News, quoting an anonymous Thunder team veteran as saying of Westbrook, “He thinks he's better than Kevin Durant.”
May 25: He came under fire after a Game 5 loss against Dallas for allegedly walking off the court without congratulating the Mavericks, as well as false reports of refusing to address the media in the interview room following the game.