Russell Westbrook has made headlines over the past week as the Thunder have put together a strong 3-game winning streak. Those headlines have been in part because of his surging play (3 game averages of 18 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 3 steals) and part because of his tete-a-tete with local media reporter Berry Tramel (perhaps inspired by the great Rasheed Wallace).
On a night where a win over the rebuilding Heat was primarily due to Westbrook's execution in the 4th quarter (3-3 shooting, 3 assists), TNT anchor Ernie Johnson figured out how to get Russ to smile.
Perhaps it is the different setting, talking to the star power of Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Chris Webber rather than the local media scrum, that puts Westbrook in a better mood (although I tend to think it is more because he's had a chance to shower and change and allow more time to pass after the game), but it is easy to see that Westbrook's demeanor radically shifts based on his setting. There's no need for me to further play pop psychologist, other than to comment that his TNT interview is much closer to Westbrook the person whose joyful and creative personality is often hidden behind the veil of competition.
More interesting to me is what analyst Isiah Thomas had to say about Westbrook.
"I sit here as a former point guard that used to play in the league and I can tell you, out of all the point guards out there playing, (Westbrook) is the one that none of them want to play against," Thomas said. "There's not a point guard at home sitting there saying: ‘I can't wait to play against Russell, I got Russell coming in here tomorrow.' No, no, no, no, ain't nobody saying that. There's great competition out West, there's great competition in the East at the point guard position, but I guarantee you no one is asking to play against Russell Westbrook...
"I wouldn't have been able to stop him defensively because he is just bigger and stronger than I was," Thomas said. "So I would have tried to frustrate him, get in his head. I would have had to frustrate him and psyche him out a little bit because physically I couldn't beat him. So I would have to throw him off his game mentally, get him distracted. Say ‘Hey, man, (Kevin) Durant was open, you not gonna pass it to Durant? Hey, why you hogging? Durant, you're boy ain't gonna throw you the rock? That's messed up.' But then on the offensive side, he'd have to check me, too. And I think I would have got him a little bit. But I would have laying in bed the night before saying ‘What am I gonna do with this joker?' Because when he comes full-throttle, like I said, he's the Mike Tyson of point guards. He comes with that mentality. Comes with that anger and when you step on that floor you gotta be ready to battle him."
I don't know if I've ever read a more apt description coming from another player, with the possible exception of Kobe Bryant's succinct summary:
"I don't know what the media is doing out here, but everybody just needs to lay off of Russell. That's a bad little dude, man. That's a bad little dude, man. You guys are fortunate to have him....
...He's got the same type of dog that I had in me - that I still have in me - when I was coming up with Shaq. He's got the same fight and he's just 6-4."
Thomas' comments, like Kobe's, resonate because of the types of players and personalities that they are. While Thomas wore a smile while Westbrook and Kobe wear a scowl (or a strange underbite gesture), all three of them are ornery competitors obsessed with winning. The Tyson comparison is good too, because while Tyson was never a technical boxing tactician in the ring, he overwhelmed his opponents with fear, aggression, and violence. Also like Tyson, Westbrook has a tendency to want to land knockout punch after knockout punch, even if it's only the first 2 minutes of the game.
What Westbrook is learning, while Tyson never really did, is that sustained greatness comes from executing the battle plan from beginning to end. Knockouts are fun, but they're mostly reserved for the tomato cans. Against the true heavyweights, the preparation, science, patience, and execution is what delivers playoff wins.