Bill Simmons tackled the Russell Westbrook's Game 4 adventure in his latest column. It is well worth a read, not because he breaks any new ground, but because sometimes it takes an outsider to provide a less biased analysis to understand what we're watching. Certainly we've written about most of the contents in his post a dozen times or more, but his voice provides a certain confirmation that what OKC fans have been seeing is in fact reality.
Level 1: A very good player plays like a great one … and if he hushes a few critics along the way, even better.
Westbrook played a Level 1 game last night. After being picked apart like a presidential candidate during Oklahoma City's first two Finals losses, Westbrook responded with one of the most electric efforts in recent Finals history, sinking 20 of 32 shots, attacking the rim over and over again, and doing everything short of waving both middle fingers at his critics after every made basket. At some point during the next 50 years, I hope somebody explains why Westbrook only attempted three (?!?!?!?!?) free throws last night, or why so many 50/50 calls swung against Oklahoma City these last three games. Just don't blame Westbrook for last night's crushing defeat. As Charles Barkley gushed after the game, "that boy competed tonight."
Some players get worse when the predators start to circle. Westbrook seems to get better. One of the biggest transformations he has undergone in this past season is in his ability to transfer his frustrations into something positive rather than something negative. In last year's playoffs, OKC fans were always fearful of the moment when he would lose his composure and submarine his team's chances. Since then, this fear has largely subsided because Westbrook has learned how to refocus in the midst of the game and adjust his performance accordingly.
I actually ran into Van Gundy outside a Miami hotel on Monday night, one day before the biggest game of Westbrook's young life. I brought up his Francis comparison and threw one of my hairbrained theories at him: the "10 Percent Theory." Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they're tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others...
On Oklahoma City, it's tougher to see Kevin Durant's 10 percent (he's not strong enough yet to prevent defenders like Shane Battier from hounding him 25 feet from the basket and denying him the ball, and he's not a consistently good enough defender yet) than Westbrook's 10 percent (his recklessness, which permeates everything he does, good and bad). You notice when Westbrook shoots 27 times, you notice when he bricks an ill-fated 3 in a huge spot, and you notice when he's bowling someone over for a charge because he thought he could dunk over three guys.
Still, as I mentioned to Van Gundy, Westbrook does so many positive things that those 10 percent plays are something of a tax for the overall Westbrook package, right? Van Gundy agreed wholeheartedly. He believed Oklahoma City needed to win or lose this series on their own terms, not some idealistic, media-driven belief about how they SHOULD be playing. Westbrook will never be John Stockton. It ain't happening. We both wanted to see Westbrook be Westbrook again, one of the league's most fearless competitors, someone who brings a ton of things to the table and takes a few things off, too.
This is the best and most interesting analysis in the piece.
Not surprisingly the idea is inspired in part by Jeff Van Gundy, the guy who knows better than most how tenuous it can be to try to help an unbridled physical freak of a point guard try to harness his talents for the greater good. When Van Gundy commented in regard to Steve Francis,"I tried to change too much too soon," he was offering up a not-so-subtle warning to us all that to try and re-make Westbrook into something that makes sense in our own minds is the biggest disservice you can do to both him and the NBA as a whole.
That final paragraph resonates with me because Van Gundy understands (because he had to learn the hard way) that some players have such a unique gift about them in the way that they compete that it would be a crime against nature to try and marginalize it for the sake of the basketball 'idyllic.' Westbrook came at Miami in Game 4 with the same 'seek-and-destroy' intensity that we once saw in Jordan and still see in Kobe Bryant. To be sure the attack is sometimes messy, as the collateral damage can consume both friend and foe, but reality check here - this whole Finals series...heck, EVERY series...is messy. If you want to watch two talented offensive teams running up and down the court unfettered, then tune into a mid-season Timberwolves-Warriors game. Those teams however don't compete in the playoffs, because the playoffs require teams to get 'messy.'
I agree too with Van Gundy that OKC needs to win or lose this series on their own terms. They are who they are at this point - a 3-headed monster where all three - Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, must play well in order for the team to win at this level. It is only by them being true to who they are will they recognize when the way they do things is either right or wrong. That is what they realized in the Spurs series - their initial strategy was flawed, so they did a 180 completely on the fly. If they can somehow pull off a near-miracle in this series and send it back to OKC, it will be because the OKC trio finally figured out a way to all play well together. If they cannot, then they will head into the off-season knowing that their talents alone were not quite enough to scale the mountain, and then make the adjustments accordingly.
For goodness' sakes though, Westbrook has to be Westbrook if the Thunder are going to have any shot at all. He has to compete. And he will.