MIAMI — Russell Westbrook came to the NBA podium Wednesday afternoon much like he came to the NBA podium Tuesday night.
A changed man.
After a historic Game 4 in the NBA Finals, a 43-point night that put Westbrook in the company of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and Michael Jordan, the Thunder point guard has a new prefix.
No longer superstreak. Superstar now precedes Westbrook's name. Westbrook has been knighted.
What else can be said after a jaw-dropping performance that didn't end in victory but ended in assurance of just how special is this Thunder duo of young guns. Westbrook and Kevin Durant give the Thunder a locked-and-loaded duo for at least the next four years that can trump any NBA franchise for talent supremacy.
Probably not in these NBA Finals. The Heat's 104-98 win Tuesday night puts the Thunder in a 3-1 hole, and teams don't emerge from 3-1 holes, though put anything past Durant and Westbrook at your own risk.
Durant, everyone knew. But Westbrook? Some doubted his level of stardom. No longer. Not after Westbrook, in the biggest game of his life, reached 43 points with incredible efficiency (62.5 percent shooting) and minimal help from the refs (only three foul shots).
Of the 10 players who had ever reached 43 points in a Finals game, only two had shot better than 62 percent: Wilt Chamberlain (1970) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000), both of whom sank most of their shots from within arm's length of the basket.
Westbrook likes that neighborhood himself, not with brute force but with dizzying athletic drives. But Westbrook, who missed all three of his 3-point shots, also sank 12 of 18 2-point jumpers away from the basket.
This was a night that elevated Westbrook to NBA royalty at the grand old age of 23. A knight that will get him nation-wide respect in American coliseums and a mega-shoe contract and even more attention from opposing defenses, if that's possible, starting with the Heat in Game 5 Thursday night.
“He was tremendous, and I don't think the film does it justice how explosive he was playing,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
The kind of night that even forgave Westbrook for his late faux pas, unnecessarily fouling Mario Chalmers with the Thunder down three and just 13 seconds left in the game.
Westbrook, maybe the league's most scrutinized player north of South Beach, drew plenty of witnesses who pointed out that while the foul was boneheaded, it didn't cost the Thunder the game.
And the way the oft-surly Westbrook handled the situation was pristine.
Wednesday, he was asked why he thought he needed to foul Chalmers, after a jump ball had restored the Miami shot clock to five seconds (from 0.8).
“Just a mental error on my part,” Westbrook said. He said it without his usual defiance. Said it without his usual disgust at the question.
He screwed up. But he also seemed to grow up.
In the post-game press conference Tuesday night, Westbrook was asked if he felt vindicated toward his critics for his historic game.
“No,” he said, again without emotion, good or bad. “Let me get this straight. What you guys (media) say doesn't make me happy, make me sad, doesn't do anything. It's all about my team and us winning a game.
“I don't have a personal challenge against you guys, and it's not me against the world. It's not the world against me. It's me and my teammates trying to win.”
Westbrook's teammate, Nazr Mohammed, saw replays of the exchange and said he couldn't be more proud of how Westbrook rejected the bait.
And Westbrook took the same mode Wednesday when asked about the historical nature of his game.
“I haven't really had an opportunity to look at that part of it,” he said. “But like I said yesterday, I can't really be too happy about what I done because we didn't win. It doesn't matter.
“There's probably a lot of different guys that put up so many points or so many amount of rebounds, and nobody remembers it. The only thing that people remember is if you won the championship.”
Scotty Brooks, who spends no small part of his media time defending Westbrook, was glad to do it again.
“He cares about winning,” Brooks said. “Nobody wants to have a great game in a losing effort. It doesn't sound good.”
“Obviously you guys know I'm a big Russell fan. I love how he plays … he has a motor, and you can't turn a guy on if he doesn't have that motor. He has a motor.”
That motor revved Tuesday night like it's never revved before. It took Westbrook to new ground. Superstar status. And if that doesn't pay off for the Thunder in these NBA Finals, it surely will in one soon to come.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.