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Bill Simmons on Russell Westbrook, Thunder, 2011 NBA Playoffs

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Bill Simmons unleashed a two-part article today where he covered the nuts and bolts of what has been a thoroughly entertaining playoffs.

NBA Playoffs are Wired | ESPN

Simmons uses one of his tried and true techniques of pairing up the compelling themes and plots with the many classic lines from HBO's The Wire.

Amongst those quotes, he did have a few directed at Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. I've excerpted portions of these below:

Russell Westbrook, who unleashed some serious Stringer Bell potential with his Marburyish performance in Game 4 in Denver: 30 shots and two egregious "don't you know that you have Kevin Durant on your team???" bricks in the final two minutes.

I joked all season on Twitter about the Avon/Stringer potential with Durant and Westbrook, never seriously thinking it might manifest itself, that a balcony scene was looming, that they'd end up wrestling on the floor, or even that Durant might give him up to Omar and Brother Mouzone someday. And it may have just been a one-game aberration, obviously. But this goes back to the "stay in your lane" concept. Westbrook is "hard enough for this right here" (you could never question his competitive fury, which ranks up there with anybody), but he's not always "smart enough for them out there" (getting teammates involved, taking care of the ball, controlling the pace of the game, etc.). At least not yet.

I understand the dynamic that Simmons is trying to describe. The Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale relationship is in my mind one of the most complex, rewarding, and yet tragic things ever committed to serial television because of how the underlying essence of what the two men were, both built them up and then destroyed them. It was positively Shakespearean. I think it works for Durant and Westbrook because of the way we the viewers see both of them. Westbrook is the ferocious but small guy who wants to eat snakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He's Avon. He is the tip of the spear. Durant, on the other hand, is the guiding force behind everything. He has the temperament matched with the talent to help the young squad along the season. Durant is the shaft handle of the weapon.

The only problem is, Durant is learning The Game just like Westbrook is. Neither one fully knows how to navigate these waters. It is as if they're  tandem paddling a kayak down a river.  Much of the time the kayak just goes with the flow. When the navigator negotiates all of the rocks, swirls, and swells, weaving in and out of the current, and gliding past the rocks, the kayak moves at an incredible pace and neither paddler has to do much of anything. That is the Kevin Durant Way; he's like Parkour on the court. However, there are other times when the kayak must go against the current with the sole means of brute strength and force of will. If the paddler does not put in the fullest effort, the current will overtake the craft. The brute force is the Russell Westbrook way. To make it through the playoffs, both methods are essential. However, if the wrong technique is applied at the wrong time - i.e. the kayak is paddled too aggressively with the current, or the paddler is too passive in fighting the current - the ship will be smashed. 

...Oklahoma City has enough talent to win the 2011 title -- it's sitting right there for them -- but it's going to hinge on how Westbrook runs the show....I don't trust him yet. Stephon Marbury never found that balance between scoring and creating; Allen Iverson only found it when they moved him off the ball. Can Westbrook find it on the fly? Either way, Durant's unreal fourth quarter in Game 5 was the best reality check possible...

That reminds me, I thought Chuck and Kenny did a spectacular job of breaking down Westbrook's struggles in Game 5 -- he took some heat for the first time (for Game 4) and it clearly affected him, but as Kenny pointed out (I'm paraphrasing), if you want to be great, you need to learn how to handle being the hero and being the goat. That's the final stage for a basketball player. Durant struggled earlier in the season, took some heat, questioned himself a little, and ultimately, it made him stronger. Now it's Westbrook's turn. To be continued.

I understand the concept behind comparing Westbrook and Durant with Marbury and his former running mate Kevin Garnett. The two kids, president and VP of the "All Nude" team, were supposed to be the revolution. And then, it fell apart before it even began. Marbury was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time contractually; Garnett got his rainmaker contract and Marbury was left out in the cold. Marbury walked out. It is easy to see the two Thunder kids in those roles, but they do not quite fit. Garnett was and is a high intensity, defense first, second banana. He doesn't do well as the alpha. Marbury was the kid from Coney who thought the world owed him. Psychologically, they are quite different from Durant and Westbrook. Durant knows he does one thing better than almost anybody - he scores points. He is learning to do the other things well, but he knows that it is his job to score a lot of points and let the offense revolve around him. Westbrook, on the other hand, plays the game with an unfolding physical self-awareness strapped on top of a predatory instinct (Imagine being a young apprentice Predator and then being told, "hey, you also get this shoulder canon. Go try it out and blow up crap."). He does not give off the air of an entitled blue chipper; he gives the impression of an un-entitled blue collar kid with a chip who needs to prove nightly his worth.

Who else fit into that dynamic? I'm going with Shaquille O`Neal and Kobe Bryant. If you could sum up their rocky dynamic which later turned toxic, it was this:

Shaq: My Team

Kobe: My Game

In a similar way, this is the impression I get of Durant and Westbrook. You remember how Durant ended Game Five, yes? (Go to 4:25 and lip read) KD is like Shaq - he's a paradigm shifter, able to do something better than anybody else and his talent must be utilized to its fullest capacity. On the other hand, Westbrook, still learning the game, seems to be searching the boundaries of what he can physically do. Kobe, dedicated to His Game, has worked non-stop over the years to make it as flawless as possible. And when it comes time for him to come forth, Kobe wants you the viewer to appreciate the fact that Kobe Doin' Work to get his game there. In a similar way, Westbrook's growth as a player seems to make him want it to be known that his game can wreck teams. Both Russ and Kobe seem to want to say, "look what I can do!"

Durant's team. Westbrook's game. Those are defining labels as much as anything.

How does it end? 

We find out the next chapter tonight.