EDMOND, Okla. -- At 6-foot-11, 245 pounds, Cole Aldrich has about eight inches and nearly 60 pounds on Russell Westbrook. But that size difference didn't seem so significant Monday when, during a break at the Thunder's practice, the rookie center attempted to put a few moves on Westbrook in the post. He started his dribble on the right block and began to back down. And backed down. And backed down. Finally, Aldrich turned and tossed up a half hook over Westbrook's outstretched arm that bounced harmlessly off the rim.
This is the beauty of Westbrook: He has the speed of a guard, the strength of a power forward and the steadily improving shooting touch of a swingman. Westbrook and Chicago's Derrick Rose represent the new breed of NBA playmaker, freakishly gifted athletes who look like they were put together on an assembly line.
The Thunder don't need Westbrook to be a jack-of-all-trades, however. Just one. And in Oklahoma City's 114-101 loss to Memphis on Sunday in Game 1 of the second-round series, Westbrook struggled in his role as primary playmaker. He scored 29 points, but needed 23 shots to do it (he made only nine). He dished out six assists, but they were overshadowed by seven turnovers. Many times Westbrook cruised past the first defender, but when he got into the paint, he would frequently toss up an errant shot or throw the ball away.
"Sometimes I'm going too fast for my own good," Westbrook said. "I have to pick and choose when to do it. [But] I've got to keep attacking."
Said Thunder coach Scott Brooks: "Russell is one of a handful of guys on our team who can manufacture his own shot. But he's also one of those guys who can manufacture shots for his teammates. He has to continue to work on that. It's always an area of concern that he has to always focus on."
As a coach, Brooks walks a fine line with Westbrook. He doesn't want to shackle his young star or turn him into a robot. Westbrook's strength is his power and explosiveness, his ability to absorb contact from a 7-footer and still finish at the rim. But Oklahoma City can't win if Westbrook fires up nearly as many shots as points or if his turnovers outnumber his assists.
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"I want Russell to be aggressive, but if there is an extra man that is in his way, that means somebody is open," Brooks said. "You have to be able to be a big decision-making point guard and hit that guy right on time and on target. Because those are shots that our guys can make. And those guys need those shots."
It's easy to forget that the 22-year-old Westbrook is still learning the position. He made major strides in his third season, raising his shooting and free-throw percentages to career-best levels. Brooks says his pull-up game and defense have improved, too. All from a player who, coming out of college, understood point guard like most people understood Arabic.
"All of us sometimes fail to remember [his inexperience at point guard] because he is such a gifted, hardworking player," Brooks said. "We are always pushing him. But what he has done in three years is remarkable."
But as much as Oklahoma City tries to downplay the outcome of this season -- "learning experience" is a phrase tossed around often by Thunder personnel -- this team is built to win. Kevin Durant is an elite scorer, James Harden was one of the best sixth men in the league in the second half of the season and the addition of Kendrick Perkins has given Oklahoma City a formidable front line. The Thunder are young, sure. But in a wide-open Western Conference, there is little reason to think that they can't make a deep run.
How deep could depend on Westbrook. He's the wildest of wild cards, a player capable of lifting the Thunder out of a cold shooting stretch or burying them with sloppy play. Another game like Game 1 and the Thunder could find themselves in a nearly insurmountable 2-0 hole. But if Westbrook can manage the game better and use his superior skills to create more opportunities for his teammates, Oklahoma City can get right back in this series.
"It's a tough job at this level and this time of the year," Westbrook said. "You take the good with the bad. Sometimes people like when you score, sometimes they don't like when you score, sometimes they like when you pass. You got to just play. I just try to follow my instincts."
Brooks wants Westbrook to follow those instincts, too. He just wants him to remember he doesn't have to do it all alone.
"Russell is very prideful and at times he takes the whole thing on himself," Brooks said. "That's what has made him a special player. But he can't do that as a daily diet. He has to also do a better job of managing those urges that he has and pick and choose his opportunities."