MEMPHIS — Russell Westbrook plays with a fire seldom seen on a basketball court. Westbrook plays with an attitude. An anger. Chip on his shoulder? Ship on his shoulder is more like it.
The previous paragraph is based on a true story. Westbrook is a committed ballplayer. Always on offense. Sometimes on defense.
That sometimes needs to become always Thursday night at FedEx Forum. Game 3 of Thunder-Grizzlies will tilt the Western Conference playoff series, and if the Thunder keeps Memphis point guard Mike Conley from controlling the game, advantage OKC. Huge advantage OKC.
But that plot demands that Westbrook play the big-time defense of which he’s capable. A point guard this strong and this quick and this driven and this, well, mean, ought to be able to neutralize inferior athletes. Which the crafty Conley is.
Yet Monday night in Game 2, Conley coolly directed a Memphis offense that shot 49.4 percent from the field and committed just six turnovers in regulation. Conley and the other Grizzly guards continually got in the paint for easy floaters or passes for layups.
And Westbrook doesn’t shirk from the responsibility.
“When you lose, you just can’t wait to get back on the floor again, try to redeem yourself,” Westbrook said. “That’s kind of the vibe around here.”
On TNT’s post-game show Monday night, Charles Barkley described it well. He said Westbrook takes things personally on offense. Not so on defense. Well put. It’s time Westbrook played with the same take-no-prisoners attitude on defense as he does on offense.
“Russell is as competitive as anybody on our team,” said Scotty Brooks. “He’s locked in. I expect him to play well on both ends of the floor. Russell’s always been up for the challenge … especially after a loss. Russell can guard anybody on the floor.”
Can? Sure. Will? Not always.
Westbrook is one of those personalities who invents enemies, for motivational purposes. A quick list of NBA point guards on his most-wanted list: Greivis Vasquez, O.J. Mayo, Goran Dragic and Chris Paul. Probably some more I haven’t thought of. But if you’re not on the list, Westbrook’s defense comes and goes.
Despite repeated playoff showdowns, Conley doesn’t make the cut. Probably because he strikes everyone as a swell fellow. A prince among point guards.
But it’s high time Westbrook looked upon Conley as someone trying to take his lunch money. High time Westbrook concocts some egregious crime and charges off on a holy crusade.
Many are the benefits of a locked-in Westbrook on defense. Starting with, Thabo Sefolosha doesn’t have to play so many minutes. Thabo rode to the rescue in Game 2, helping curtail Conley’s penetration and allowing the Thunder to stage a late comeback. And Sefolosha no doubt will take his turn at Conley in Game 3. But Thabo played 32 minutes in Game 2, six more than his season average.
That’s six minutes Caron Butler had to sit the bench, and against this Memphis defense, the Thunder needs its scorers to play every minute possible.
Westbrook actually was in a rare reflective mood Wednesday. He said his competitiveness comes naturally. “It’s just how I play,” Westbrook said. “I only know one way. That got me to the position I am now, and I’m not about to stop. That’s just how I am. That’s part of my nature. That’s how I play.”
But that has to include defense, and though Westbrook didn’t confess that he’s been lax, he did admit to the value of guarding the foe.
“If you want to be a great player in this league, you’ve got to play both sides of the floor,” Westbrook said. “You can’t just be a competitor on offense, then run around on defense and not help your team out. There’s times you’re gong to get scored on. There’s times you’re going to get beat back cut. You’re not perfect. But you gotta compete. Take charges, block shots, rebound. Do whatever you can to help your team win.”
Westbrook does that a lot. But he occasionally gets lost, either in assignment or focus or just wondering how quickly he can get back to the other end of the court and roust out the moneychangers.
Simply put, the Thunder allowed the Grizzlies in Game 2 to be the aggressor, and while that’s difficult to do against a team quarterbacked by Westbrook, Memphis did it.
“The team that loses the first game is always going to come out and be more aggressive, play harder, play tougher,” said Derek Fisher, who knows a thing or two about playoff basketball, since he’s scheduled to break the NBA record for playoff games next Tuesday in Oklahoma City. “We didn’t do as good a job at keeping the ball in front of us.”
Now it’s Westbrook’s turn to be the Aggression King. But that doesn’t mean just pushing the ball on offense and attacking the lane. That means getting in Conley’s grill the way Tony Allen has latched himself onto Kevin Durant. That means remembering that ship on his shoulder on both ends of the court. That means taking it personal, even when Memphis has the ball.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.