Russell Westbrook vs Lakers: Breaking Through in the 4th

May 19, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) grabs a loose ball in front of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Ramon Sessions (7) in the second half of game four of the Western Conference semi finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Thunder won 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Game 4 ended in dramatic fashion, with Kevin Durant draining a back-breaking 3-pointer over Metta World Peace, which gave the Thunder a three point lead and put the Lakers on the ropes. However, long before that moment became a Moment, Russell Westbrook fueled the Thunder engine that was sputtering along for three quarters.

Through most of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, the Lakers were doing a great job of keeping the Thunder at arm's length so that OKC could not challenge for the lead. The magical spread number was seven; OKC simply could not break through that threshold, despite hitting it an amazing nine times during the game. One could sense that the Thunder players were beginning to get frustrated with the situation. While it is not OKC's nature to simply give in, you could see in their body language that they were desperately searching for a way to try and alter the game's trajectory.

A 10 point lead can fall apart quickly, but a trailing team's assault on it has to come at the right moment so that an over-aggressive spurt to pull the deficit to within a possession or two is not immediately undone when the over-aggression turns against them. OKC had to bide it's time to wait for that moment, so Westbrook stepped into the void and carried the offense almost by himself during that stretch. In playing the entire second half, Westbrook scored 13 in the 3rd and 10 in the 4th off of 9-15 shooting. In a way, Westbrook reminded me of this great scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Sir Lancelot the Brave just kept coming and coming and coming:

Even as the Lakers kept making plays on the other end of the court, Westbrook never stopped in his pursuit of them. He attacked the rim, hit his jumpers, and matched Kobe shot for shot. And then finally, with that seven point threshold sitting in front of them once again, Westbrook finally broke through.

(jump to 2:40)

Kendrick Perkins read the play perfectly, knew exactly what Westbrook wanted to do, and sealed off both his man (Pau Gasol) as well as Westbrook's man (Kobe). All Gasol could do was reach out and grab at Westbrook, but this proved to be a mistake as Westbrook just powered through the foul LeBron-style, made the lay-up, and earned the and-1. The Thunder had finally broken through.

***

Westbrook has become known for a lot of things in these past 12 months. He was made the scapegoat that cost his team playoff wins (Game 3 vs Denver), he was the emotional antithesis to Durant, he's been marked by guys like Skip Bayless as the single reason why OKC cannot win a championship, and it is now to the point where every extra shot or emotion Westbrook emits is over-analyzed.

Scott Brooks says it best though:

"He may not be your point guard, but he's my point guard."

Critics who tend to wish that Westbrook be traded for a pass-first point guard like Rajon Rondo are going to walk along side of Westbrook for the duration of his career. Brooks knows that those voices will never be quieted no matter how well Westbrook plays. Make no mistake, he has played very, very well these playoffs. He has controlled entire portions of games, played stifling defense, and done it without falling into the turnover traps that have defined his young career (he only has 3 TOTAL in this series, and the last one was a fluke when he slipped on the floor). If you're ranking the top performers in this season's playoffs, he's probably in the top 5, joining Durant, Tony Parker, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett, in some order.

Not to pick on our friend Coach Nick at BBall Breakdown, but he was one of the loudest voices when he reviewed Westbrook earlier this season. Westbrook's post-season play reminds me of a Twitter debate that we got into a few months back, where Coach Nick argued that he'd rather have a pass-first point guard, and started ticking off names like Jose Calderon and Ray Felton, to which one bloke retorted withe obvious response: "you can have your pass-first guys, I'd rather take Westbrook and win games."

I think that's the crux of it, and crystallizes my feelings about Westbrook the player. As a former point guard during my own playing days, I can appreciate the artistry of true passing visionaries; there is really nothing quite like it. Also, I freely admit that there are many imperfections in Westbrook's floor game. If Coach Nick, Skip Bayless, or anyone else argues, "Westbrook is NOT a point guard," my response is, "yeah, you're probably right." In the end though, I really don't care.

At the end of the day, I'll take an imperfect Westbrook over Calderon, Deron Williams, and Ray Felton, even if they finish out their careers with superior assist numbers and play the point in a more classical fashion. The reason why is that Westbrook has something that they and most others do not - he's got the hunger.

(As an aside, I am reminded of an account in Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball." The book's subject, Billy Beane, began his career competing with a young Lenny Dykstra for a spot on the team. Beane was described as a perfect 'five-tool' player. 'Nails' Dykstra was anything but; however, Beane described Dykstra as "perfectly designed, emotionally" to play; he had "no concept of failure." Dykstra, though not as purely talented as other players, was hungry. Despite lesser pure talent, Lenny was ferocious, relentless, and hyper-competitive, and went on to an All-Star career and won a World Series. Beane's playing career was over after bouncing through four teams in five years.)

You can see it in how Westbrook carries himself, how he attacks, how he never relents, how he howls at the crowd, and how he can still carry his team for long stretches at a time. That trait, that hunger, is actually quite a rare thing. How many other players in today's game actually have it to such a degree, where they can actually pair off their emotional state with their performance? I'd say maybe four - Kobe, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and even Tim Duncan in his own understated way. Durant, as wonderful as he is, doesn't quite have 'it.' Even though Durant has the talent to do it, I've never seen him walk onto the court with a devil-may-care attitude and put the other team on notice by scoring the first 10 points of the game the way we used to see Jordan and Kobe do. Westbrook though, he can do that, and he wants to do that. He has a burning desire, regardless of what he says in his goofy shirts and lens-less glasses, to eviscerate his opponent.

The formula is simple - when you combine elite talent with the hunger, you can win championships. When you find a player that has it (imperfect as he might be) you hold onto him as long as you can, because he will eventually figure things out. Westbrook has it, and he is figuring it out.

Westbrook might not be your point guard, but he is mine.

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