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.