It was an unorthodox decision, but then again, Russell Westbrook has never bowed to convention. Most penetrating point guards, after slipping off a screen, would circle back out at the sight of Tim Duncan and his pterodactyl wingspan casing the paint. Not Westbrook. Early in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals he pounded one last dribble, took off from eight feet and soared past the 7-foot Spur, who kept his hands down in surrender as Westbrook hammered home a dunk. "I put my head down for a second when [Westbrook] was still in the backcourt—when I looked up, he was in the air," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Some people have this old-school picture of what a point guard should be. He is not it. But he is so important to us that he can't be."
This is an article from the June 18, 2012 issue
Important? Yeah, something like that. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points in the regular season, with more field goals attempted (19.2) and made (8.8) than any other point guard's. He was an All-Star and made the All-NBA second team for the second straight year. He has steered a club that won 23 games in his rookie season of 2008--09 to the playoffs in '10, to the conference finals in '11 and now to the NBA Finals, where the Thunder will face the Heat. Those kinds of credits would normally be enough to galvanize support, but remember that bit about Westbrook and convention? The 23-year-old is a pi√±ata for pundits, skewered for every turnover, forced shot and ill-fated decision. When Oklahoma City wins, others often get the credit. When the Thunder loses, it is Westbrook who's likely to shoulder the bulk of the blame.
Why? Consider Westbrook's job description: Don't just score, create, and do it while keeping the turnovers down, the shooting percentage up and, oh, yeah, making sure the NBA's scoring champ, Kevin Durant, is getting enough shots. Rarely has an elite point been asked to play such a multifaceted role. Westbrook has been a magnet for criticism at every juncture of his career: during his first years of high school (too small, Russ), at UCLA (not a true point guard, Russ), in the draft (not worthy of the fourth pick, Russ). But never has the scrutiny been this intense, or the stakes this high.
Oklahoma City enters the Finals with the reigning three-time scoring champ in Durant, a pair of defensive stalwarts in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, and a playmaking combo guard in James Harden coming off the bench. The wild card is Westbrook, who at his best is a dynamic scorer capable of carrying a team. (Witness his 15-of-26 night in the vital Game 4 win over the Lakers in the conference semis.) At his worst he's erratic, impatient and eminently capable of shooting his team out of a game (7 of 21, five assists and four turnovers in a Game 1 loss to the Spurs). Indeed, if the Thunder finishes off its postseason run with a title, it will be because Westbrook has silenced his doubters again.
Reggie Morris had been through it all with Westbrook. The coach at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., saw him struggle as a 5'9" sophomore. Morris was there when Westbrook was shut out of the ABCD camp and was the one who bribed the director of a local camp with cases of Gatorade to get Westbrook in. "Russell is an overachiever," says Morris. "He never takes days off; he's never short on effort. He's always trying to prove himself, and he feeds off the fact that people don't believe in him."
Today, Westbrook is a 6'3", 187-pound free safety playing point guard. "It's funny, people come up to me and say, 'You coached Russell, and you didn't win a state title,'" says Morris. "The guy I coached didn't look like that." It wasn't that Westbrook didn't work on his body; he did, constantly. When Westbrook was in middle school his parents, Russell Sr. and Shannon, took him to the steep sand dunes at Manhattan Beach. There Westbrook and his younger brother, Raynard, ran cone drills and suicides in the thick Southern California sand. At home he would do lunges in a sandbox outside his apartment. In the shower it was calf raises. He wasn't allowed to lift weights because his father didn't believe in it, so he did push-ups in the hallway between class and pull-ups on the arches of doorways. "I used to try so much crazy stuff," says Westbrook.
He also put in time on the court. Before his sophomore year San Diego State star shooting guard Tony Bland was looking for help to prepare for an overseas tryout. Westbrook volunteered to run through drills with Bland for hours just for the chance to play one-on-one with him after the workout. Early in the summer Westbrook was getting routed. By the end he was stealing a game or two.
It took time for the work to pay off. Westbrook was cut from the varsity as a freshman, and as a sophomore and junior he was, says Morris, "more Sam Cassell than Derrick Rose. He tried to do the things he's doing now. His body just wouldn't let him." So Westbrook became a student of the game. He tagged along with his father to the park, where he learned how to play closer to the ground. He became adept at bumping defenders off him to create space. He honed his midrange shot. He practiced cutting and getting to his spots. He took 1,000 shots from the left side, then moved over and took 1,000 on the right. "I'd keep telling him that no one was perfect," says Russell Sr., "but the great players keep moving forward, keep getting better."
The summer before Westbrook's senior season he grew four inches, and his body finally caught up to his game. Kent State and Creighton, the schools that were recruiting him, suddenly became UCLA and Arizona. He chose to stay close to home, but after a year as a backup point guard and a season as a combo guard and defensive stopper with the Bruins, he entered the draft. Interest, at first, was lukewarm. Teams wondered what position he would play. "I went one year without being a point guard, and everyone said I couldn't play point guard," says Westbrook. "That really bothered me."
It didn't bother Oklahoma City. In scouting Westbrook, the Thunder zeroed in on a stretch early in Westbrook's sophomore season, when he filled in for injured point guard Darren Collison. The front office was impressed by how Westbrook was able to get to spots on the floor quickly, how playing in a structured offense didn't stifle his athleticism and how coach Ben Howland always seemed to find ways to keep him on the court.
As much as the Thunder liked Westbrook's game, it liked his makeup more. General manager Sam Presti had a 20-win team about to uproot from Seattle, the franchise's home for 41 years. He needed players who could handle adversity. When Presti brought in Memphis teammates Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts for workouts, they told him that at the 2008 Final Four, when the Tigers beat UCLA in the national semifinals, Westbrook was the one player who couldn't be intimidated. When Westbrook struggled through his individual workout—"my worst for any team, by far," he says—he worried that Oklahoma City wouldn't want him. But by then, Presti had already made up his mind. "Russell had earned everything he achieved by being persistent and consistent," says Presti. "He had a resilience and grit to him." In Westbrook's first year the Thunder fired coach P.J. Carlesimo one month into the season, which it started 3--29. Westbrook responded by averaging 15.8 points and 6.0 assists after the All-Star break, helping OKC to a more respectable 10--19 finish.
Each summer since he was a rookie, Westbrook, Rose and Kevin Love have gotten together for workouts. Westbrook and Love were roommates at UCLA and became friendly with Rose, who went to Memphis, at the Final Four. For 90 minutes in the morning and another hour at night, three of the NBA's top 20 players put in work. Westbrook and Rose pick up post moves from Love. Last summer Westbrook picked Rose's brain about better ways to finish. In his first two years Westbrook's shooting percentage in the deep paint—shots taken within four feet of the rim—was only in the mid-40s. Rose said he had been having success elevating off two feet. Westbrook adopted the technique, and this year he connected on 59.7%.
The toughest part is getting Westbrook to stop working. During the lockout his trainer, Rob McClanaghan, tried to scale back the six-days-per-week sessions to keep his body fresh. Westbrook, Rose and Love responded by insisting that they work out on Sundays too. On a day McClanaghan persuaded them not to come in, he got a call from a friend at a nearby gym. Westbrook was there, putting up shots. "He is the most competitive guy I've ever seen," says McClanaghan. "With the success he has had, you almost expect him to come in the next summer and not want to work as hard. But he just wants to work harder."
Westbrook's relationship with Durant has been dissected at a Kardashian level. Critics have wondered whether two alpha males can coexist, bringing up examples of discord (a well-publicized blowup on the bench in Memphis last December) and statistics (Westbrook's hoisting up nearly as many shots as Durant in a bumpy 2011 playoffs) as proof that they can't. What's rarely cited is how Westbrook and Durant were inseparable during All-Star weekend or how the two routinely text each other about anything, from basketball to video games, late at night. Nor is it often noted that the duo scored more points per game (51.6) than any other tandem this season, or that when the game is tight, Westbrook defers: With a minute to play and the score within three points, Durant has attempted 37 shots, Westbrook eight.
"Most people who talk about us have never been in an NBA locker room or been in an NBA battle," says Durant. "We are going to have emotions; it's a part of the game. The thing about me and Russell is, we want to do so well and we want the team to do so well that sometimes our emotions get hold of us. We are going to disagree a lot. Russ screams at me all the time. But as a man and as a basketball player you have to accept that, because your teammate wants the best for you."
Says Westbrook, "People keep trying to break me and Kevin up. But we just keep getting closer."
The Thunder doesn't want Westbrook to change his game either. OKC worries about the turnovers and the quick shots, the emotional outbursts and spurts of sloppy play, but not enough to ask Westbrook to try to be a player he's not. Late in games the Thunder may put the ball in Harden's hands, but only to get Westbrook more scoring opportunities. "People hammer him because he doesn't average 10 assists," says Brooks. "Who cares? I need him to score and play the way he plays for us to be successful."
The focus in Oklahoma City isn't on making Westbrook a point guard but a lead guard, one comfortable making key decisions and communicating on the floor. The NBA has changed in recent years. Restrictions on hand checking have made it easier for guards like Westbrook to create off the dribble, and the advent of the perimeter-shooting power forward has created more space for the little guys. In the Western finals last season, the Mavericks used what they called a "corral" defense on Westbrook. When he came off a screen, the Dallas big men would switch onto him for a few dribbles. The scheme called for them to back off and force Westbrook to dribble east to west until a Mavs guard could switch back. "We respected his speed and quickness, not the jump shot," says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, the architect of that defense as an assistant with Dallas last season. "Now, we wouldn't defend him like that. You can't back off anymore because he will knock down that midrange shot."
Westbrook shrugs off the criticism. "When I hear it, I revert to what my parents told me," he says. "Stay focused. Stay positive. The talk isn't going away. The better you get, the more stuff you are going to hear." Westbrook keeps his inner circle—his teammates, his parents, Raynard, now a junior running back at Central Oklahoma—tight, and they all believe anything negative bounces right off him.
The Thunder has steamrollered through the postseason, knocking out three veteran title-winning teams (the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs), so the negativity has dissipated somewhat—at least for now. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said that an Oklahoma City championship would be a Hollywood ending, the perfect underdog story. In the Finals, Miami will have counters for Durant (LeBron James) and Harden (Dwyane Wade) but few answers for Westbrook, leaving him in a leading role in the drama. One thing is for sure: He'll play the same way he always has, no matter what. "You are not going to mold Russ into who you want him to be," says Perkins. "He's always out to prove people wrong."