OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant's third quarter three-pointer wasn't even through the net when Russell Westbrook started sprinting toward the Thunder bench, neck arched, a primal scream cutting through the deafening crowd. Timeout, Lakers, and there was no coming back. Two years ago, Westbrook walked off this same floor, against this same team, a loser. He played well in that series, but that Thunder group was too raw, too green to go up against an experienced Lakers team that ultimately went on to win the NBA title. This time around the hunted has become the hunter, and this Oklahoma City team isn't just out to beat the Lakers; they want to destroy them.
When the Thunder lose, it's usually Westbrook that receives the lion's share of the blame. Too many turnovers, Russ; too many quick shots. Far too often Westbrook has been a national pin cushion, poked and prodded, his weaknesses exposed. When Westbrook signed a long-term extension with the Thunder in January -- leaving money on the table, too -- the reaction was less, 'Hey, the Thunder locked up one of the top-five point guards in the NBA' than 'Hey, they just tied up the payroll with a guy who may not be able to play with Durant.' Thunder GM Sam Presti's phone rang off the hook when the lockout ended with offers for Westbrook, and some wondered why he didn't pull the trigger.
He didn't because the organization sees a special player in Westbrook, the kind of star that can, oh, say put up 27 points, dish out nine assists and pull down seven rebounds against just one turnover with arguably the greatest playoff performer in the game, Kobe Bryant, draped all over him. Yes, if you want to criticize Westbrook, then credit him for this: In a critical, tone-setting 119-90 rout of the Lakers in Game 1, Westbrook was the best player on the floor.
"Russell has improved every year since we drafted him," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "His midrange game is as good as any player in this league. He's athletic, he can get to the spot, he can stop on a dime and he can shoot that shot. It's hard to guard Russell. He comes at you with a lot of force."
That force is what makes Westbrook special, unique. He's not a pure playmaker, never will be. He's a 6-foot-3, 187-pound human-battering ram. He's still learning the position, still learning to deal with a spurt of athleticism that hit him all at once in his last year of high school. Even now, with two All-Star selections and an All-NBA nod in his pocket, Westbrook is a work in progress. But he has two exceptional tutors in Brooks and assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who have stressed to Westbrook not to worry about being a point guard, but a lead guard capable of harnessing his considerable talent. And performances like the one Monday night show just how dynamic he can be.
The Lakers will have their hands full with Westbrook, one of a growing number of problems quickly stacking up against them. Los Angeles looked understandably tired coming off a grueling, seven-game series with Denver that ended just 48 hours earlier. The pick-and-roll coverage was sloppy, the transition game nonexistent and the turnovers (15) piled up. But the schedule doesn't get any easier; these two teams will play again on Wednesday before heading to LA for a rare back-to-back playoff set on Friday and Saturday.
Fatigue aside, this Thunder team may simply be better. Time has developed them, experience has hardened them, and the addition of a slimmed down Kendrick Perkins this season has toughened them. With the games counting the most, Oklahoma City is playing its best: the Thunder was the sloppiest team in the league during the regular season, committing a league-high 16.3 turnovers per game. In the first round against Dallas, they committed 12.7 per game. Game 1 against LA, they committed just four.
"We had four in the first six minutes of games sometimes [during the season]," said Brooks.
Two nights ago the Thunder huddled in Nazr Mohammed's kitchen, watching the Lakers and Nuggets battle on a 19-inch TV. They would have been fine with Denver, but privately they wanted the Lakers, the team that unceremoniously booted them out of the playoffs two years ago, the team with the one player, the elbow-swinging Metta World Peace, the Thunder had grown to despise. There is a swagger developing in this team, a belief that they can not only beat teams, but crush them, that they not only can win a championship, but they should. Like Westbrook, Oklahoma City is developing quickly, becoming a force that will be difficult to stop.