The Oklahoma City Thunder treated their fans to a Christmas party on Sunday night that won’t be soon forgotten. The planets aligned, the heavens parted and the Minnesota Timberwolves bore the brunt of a 36 minute onslaught and a 12 point loss that didn’t come close to telling how dominate the Thunder were in the final 3 quarters of play.
Take notice, world. The Thunder played their best game thus far and they did it with two of their best players on the sidelines and a rookie back-up point guard that didn’t make the cut until the final day of training camp. The aforementioned players, Victor Oladipo and Cameron Payne, are set to return soon and will, not might.... will make this team better.
There will be bumps between now and May. That is unavoidable with any young team, but this Thunder team is improving and gaining confidence with each passing quarter. They are beginning to believe. Believe in themselves and most importantly, to believe in the simple principles the man they follow lives by. The team and winning come first, they never give up, and “can’t” is not an option.
It is the primary message of Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation and the code he lives by every single day. There is no mystery surrounding Westbrook, no hidden agenda. He says what he means and then walks it just like he talks it.
SBNation’s Paul Flannery wrote a recent feature on Westbrook titled, Why Not, and almost got it right when he began:
The following things should not be mentioned to Russell Westbrook: triple doubles and the pursuit thereof, Kevin Durant, rest, his shot selection, his usage rate, et cetera, et cetera.
When he is asked about any of these things, Westbrook tends to shut down the questioner with an icy stare much to the delight of websites like the one you’re reading. When he does answer in any way, his words rocket around the internet and find their way onto websites like the one you’re reading. Either way he makes great, if reluctant, content.
On the list of approved Russ topics: his teammates....
It would have made for a short article, but the truth is, Flannery could have stopped right there.
"That’s the best part of the game, to see the smiles on their faces and the breakthroughs they have as individuals," Westbrook said. "Once you put in all the work pre-practice and post-practice and see it in a game and see it in play, that’s a great feeling."
How great a feeling is it to Westbrook? This great:
To use footage like this, I am required to break it down and analyze it. With pleasure.
At the beginning of the clip, Russell and ALL of his teammates, 2 starters and 2 bench players, are locked in on defense, create a turnover and the fast break is on. Westbrook runs the floor with three options available; Andre Roberson to the right, Enes Kanter to the left, or Westbrook himself for a warp speed Euro-step lay-up. Russell opts for the lob to Robes, who finishes. Westbrook’s momentum carries him to the baseline, he turns and all he sees is blue. All four of his teammates, together, two passing options and two trailers, five players playing as one team, one unit, of one mind, focused on one goal... and Westbrook breaks out in total celebration at the sight.
Russell scored 31 points in the Minnesota game. He could have easily made it 33 on this play, but he wanted his teammate to share the glory. The Stephen A’s and Skip Clueless’s out there think Russell is just a selfish stat padder, and make no mistake about it, one of his stats was going to get padded on that play, but he chose the option that will pay the biggest dividend down the road. That builds up a teammate for the tougher days and the tougher games that lie ahead. That is hardly selfish, and considering the Thunder are 12 and 3 in games that Westbrook records a triple-double, my guess is coach Billy Donovan is all for any stat padding that may be going on.
Flannery’s is mistaken when he says we don’t know what makes Russell Westbrook tick, and that he is inscrutable. He stated exactly what makes Westbrook tick and Russell himself has told us all we need to know to understand him. He believes in family, real friendships, his team, and winning. At an early age, when his dearest friend Khelcey Barr suddenly passed away, he learned that tomorrow is not guaranteed. To make every day count:
When you lose something precious, something that you thought you could count on forever, especially as abruptly as Russell lost Khelsey, it changes you forever. It leaves a void in your soul that must be filled and Westbrook has filled it with the love of basketball that he and his friend shared. He plays every game like it could be his last because tragic experience taught him it could be and he gives his teammates everything he has on the court because that is what he wishes he could give Khelsey.
That loss explains why he won’t talk about certain ex-teammates, why triple-doubles and the pursuit thereof are meaningless, and why rest, usage, shot selection, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, type questions are ignored. They are distractions from what is truly important:
The team and winning.
The game is not about me, it’s about my teammates, and it’s about us as a team and winning a game. - Russell Westbrook
“The game is not about me....”
Westbrook has not wavered from that statement in almost eight and a half seasons. Over and over again he has stated his role is to do whatever he can to help his team win. Has he been perfect along the way? No? Has he taken on too much at times? Yes, but it was never for the purpose of personal glory.
It must never be forgotten that Westbrook did not enter the NBA listed as a point guard. He played point in high school but not in college. He missed two important transitioning years and spent the first 8 years of his pro career playing alongside one of the most efficient offensive players of all time.
Incorporating the entire team in the offense is a fairly new concept for Russell. There were the 41 games in 2014/15 that Westbrook played without Durant, the 32 games this season, and a scattering of games in the previous 6 seasons that Westbrook wasn’t playing a primarily Durant right or Durant left with the occasional dime to Serge Ibaka at the elbow kind of offense. Judging by his assist total this season, he loves it, and is determined to get every single teammate on board.
Case in point: Andre Roberson. Robe’s shooting struggles are well known, especially to Robes, and he has a habit of turning down shots. Teams were catching on and beginning to sag off him again and it was hurting the Thunder’s game in the paint and throwing off the offensive rhythm. So Russell did something about it.
He made Robes shoot.
On December 12th, in a home game against the Hawks, Westbrook made it a point to get Roberson the ball. Early on Andre passed up an open shot. Russell got on him about it. Andre passed up another, so Russell really got on him about it and Robes started shooting. By the end of the night Roberson attempted 9 three point attempts, a career high, and sank 3 of them. In the last four games, defenses are giving Robes proper respect, the Thunder have won all 4, and Robes has played some of the best defense of his career in those wins. Robes shooting the ball is now part of the team’s winning solution instead of the problem. It’s all about the team.
Semaj Christon was forced into service when Cameron Payne injured his foot during the summer, and Ronnie Price, a free agent pickup who was expected to be the 3rd string PG, failed to make the cut. Semaj was a rookie that spent last season in Italy and the season before that in the D-League. He isn’t particularly quick, doesn’t shoot very well, and many questioned whether Presti made the right move in signing him rather than keeping Price. And yet, as of late Christon has flourished under Westbrook’s leadership, even earned closing minutes playing time as a result. Christon is at his best in the open court and finishing around the rim. Sound familiar? It’s all about the team.
Joffery Lauvergne, a career 23.1% three point shooter, is hitting 37.5% of his shots from distance. Domantas Sabonis, another rookie, has started every game and is beginning to trust his own game and leads the team from beyond the arc at 41.6%. Jerami Grant, picked up in a trade after the season started, is nailing 3’s at a 40.9% clip, leads the team in blocks per game (while wearing #9 on his jersey), and hasn’t missed a free throw in 3 games. All of them believing, all of them improving. It’s all about the team.
Very few people know Westbrook as well as Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. When Russell delighted his fans and signed his current extension on August 4th, Presti told us all we need to know to understand Russell Westbrook:
.....the thing I just want to stress and say is, obviously an incredible opportunity to have a player like Russell Westbrook in your organization, not just as a player, we've all seen that evolution, but also has a human being and a leader. He's I think become synonymous with the Thunder but also the city and the spirit of the city.
....I think his spirit, his competitiveness, aside from being a great player... I've seen him play for eight years and I've never seen him take a night off. If you can have that, that's an incredible thing. That's why he's always been such a key part to the resiliency that the Thunder have become known for. We've been knocked around a little bit, had some tough times, circumstances, but he's the propulsive force behind each day when you come back in.
I really believe he lives what he says. He really believes in not only himself, but I think he raises the belief of the people around him, as well.
.....conversations with Russell, one thing I think you look at the team, there's a certain element of toughness. I think there's a certain edge to the team. We're probably not going to do it like everybody else. We never have. I think that's one of the reasons why we've really owned our own success, is because we haven't necessarily modeled ourselves after anybody or followed a certain playbook because that's the way everybody else has done it.
One of the things I see with the team being led by Russell is there's a competitiveness and I would say, like, a ferocity and physicality to us.
....my initial feeling is that this is Russell. He doesn't look back. He's always looking forward. I think there's a confidence that comes with Russell that I've seen for eight years. We sit at the end of the season in a hotel lobby or something, and the one thing about him is he's very direct. You don't need to interpret things with him.
When he's saying, What's next? He's thinking, How do we get better? To me, that was an indication of, like, it wasn't an inquiry, it was a unification.
....He took it in, thought about it. When he said that [what’s next] to me, This is great, because these are the terms he thinks in. Nothing had changed. All the times we've been together, I don't think I've ever walked out a conversation with him thinking, I don't know where he stands, I don't know what he thinks, I don't know what he means. It was right down the middle, direct.
The Genuine Article
Is Westbrook too direct sometimes? Maybe. To curt? Occasionally, but the curtness generally arises when a reporter violates Flannery’s list of questions you don’t ask and especially when there is no real need to pose it in the first place.
Before every game Westbrook ends his shootaround with a long baseline 3 attempt. He repeats the shot until it drops and then runs off the court in a comically maniacal display. Prior to the game on Christmas night, the Thunder posted this video:
The media, always hunting for a Westbrook viral moment, took this clip and ran with it. To uncritical ears, Westbrook’s whoop sounded something like, “Thank you Kyrie!” As in, thank you Kyrie Irving for burying a game winning dagger to humiliate the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day.
The only problem? According to NewsOK’s Erik Horne, Russell took the shot well before Kyrie Irving even hit the game winner in that game. Despite this straightforward understanding of, you know, a clock, it didn’t stop the haters from once again denouncing Westbrook’s pettiness. But play the clip again and turn up the volume. For you “Hooked on Phonics” folks out there, do you hear the long “i” sound..... ever? You can’t say Kyrie without enunciating a long “i” and yet here is Westbrook was being accused of yelling out the man’s name in gratitude for a shot that had not even happened yet.
Did that simple set of facts stop the “so-called” professional press from confronting Russell with this totally bogus and insulting accusation? Apparently not:
Russell Westbrook comments on the video of him screaming in the tunnel. (Some NSFW language here): pic.twitter.com/vcp6fdfoCU— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) December 25, 2016
(and main stream sports media types wonder why Westbrook treats them with such contempt)
Westbrook took the shot and ran off the court at 4 pm CDT, Irving’s shot didn’t fall until approximately 4:15. Yeah Fred, there was some NSFW language used in Westbrook’s response. The accusations were an insult to begin with, and posing the question as though there may some merit to it was even worse when a simple 5 minute investigation into the timeline would have, if not revealed the truth, at least shot down this embarrassing gotcha! attempt at Westbrook’s expense.
Here is Katz’s explanation for asking the question:
Reacting to viral videos and the Thunder's Christmas win over the Wolves on today's LOCKED ON THUNDER: https://t.co/IJjD56r3ZB— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) December 26, 2016
ESPN wasn’t there (unless you count Royce Young), Bleacher Report wasn’t there, but the local beat writers like Katz and Erik Horne of NewsOK were there. Maybe one of them should invest in a decent pair of headphones because “thank you Jamie” is clearly what Westbrook said and, muffled on their smart phones or not, as pointed out, at no time was a long “i” heard in anything Westbrook spoke.
A simple 5 minute investigation would have been time better spent asking someone from the Thunder when the video was shot, rather than wasting time drawing straws on who would jump on the national Westbrook bashing bandwagon and ask the worst question of the season.
For his part, considering the insult to both his integrity and his intelligence, Westbrook handled himself extremely well as he has throughout this ongoing [Durant] soap opera.
Westbrook has done everything in his power to push past the issue. He gave the story its just due at the time, but has repeatedly said since then that he doesn’t want to talk about it...but no one is listening. They would rather believe he is harboring some hidden grievance and then somehow forgot, after 8 years in the league, that there are cameras at every shoot around.
...And that is why I’m posting this today. I’m tired of it. Somebody, somewhere, somehow, needs to hit a reset button if there is one. Westbrook is not the bad guy, and he never was.
Westbrook has never lied, never made false promises, never flashed his junk on Instagram or beat up some college kid and his girlfriend because they asked for a little common respect. Never abused his wife, never been in trouble with the law. Doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke anything other than opposing defenses, and doesn’t stroll around with some ridiculous entourage in tow.
What he’s done since day one is speak honestly and play his heart out in every one of his 21,107 minutes in this league. Then, when everyone thought he would leave this summer, he said, with word and deed, his critics still didn’t understand. He doesn’t quit. He doesn’t run. He stuck by his team and their fans and indirectly gave these local beat writers something to write about other than a future lottery team.
Perhaps Russell isn’t as forthcoming as the media would like, and as a late bloomer, maybe he lacks the social polish that a player that was groomed to be a superstar since puberty may display. But that is no excuse for not spending 5 minutes divining the truth, but I guess setting one’s re-Tweets record is more important than the truth.
Russell is the genuine article, the real thing, but because he isn’t very nice sometimes, the experts refuse to fully accept the authenticity that is standing right in front of them, and that is a shame. Because even though the Dudley Dooright type is easier to accept, the anti-heroes like Rooster Cogburn are much more interesting in the long run.