Ultra-competitive Russell Westbrook puts up astounding numbers, but Thunder’s future is up in the air
In a few hours it will all be over.
Russell Westbrook’s season will be finished, an offseason drenched in uncertainty will commence, and the final image of Westbrook’s 2017-18 season will be of him walking off the court, as the other team’s streamers fall from the rafters, then slapping at a phone held by an encroaching fan.
But right now, there is hope and focus.
It’s 7:20 p.m. on Friday, April 27, and Westbrook sits at his locker, right in the middle of it all. There are five lockers lining the back wall of the visiting locker room at Vivint Smart Home Arena and Westbrook is right in the center. To his left, after one empty space, Paul George waits for a few minutes before leaving to continue his pregame routine elsewhere. To his right, after another empty space, Carmelo Anthony’s empty locker. One sound drifts throughout the room and it’s coming from Westbrook.
“We were staying in Paris,” he sings, then smiles self-consciously in the direction of a Thunder employee. “To get away from your parents.”
Almost no one else is talking, and if they do, not above a whisper. This isn’t an indication of the pressure of the elimination game they’ll play in about an hour. The Oklahoma City Thunder generally keep things quiet pregame.
With his feet in an ice bucket and wireless headphones lodged in his ears, he sings, pleasantly: “If we go down, then we go down together.”
Westbrook is different inside and outside of his circle. Basketball has no gray area for Westbrook. You are with him or you are against him.
He has often thrived when he feels under attack. It might be why he takes a famously combative approach with reporters and why he rarely interacts with opponents to congratulate or accept congratulations after a game.
In Game 4 of the Thunder’s first-round series against the Utah Jazz, Westbrook channeled his anger into being so physical that his fouls quickly mounted and he received a $10,000 fine for an altercation with Utah’s Rudy Gobert. The Jazz won the game.
In Game 5, with the Thunder down 3-1, Westbrook saved his team. He scored 45 points with 15 rebounds and seven assists, helping his team erase a 25-point deficit in the third quarter.
“He bangs home two threes in a row and it really, really gave our team life,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
It left opposing rookie point guard Donovan Mitchell in awe too.
“The character that he showed to be able to come back was huge,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been watching him for a while, since I was in high school. You always see it on TV in highlights. But it’s one thing to see it happen in person.”
Back in Utah for Game 6, Westbrook did his best. He took 43 shots and scored 46 points with 10 rebounds in the 96-91 defeat.
“Couldn’t blame him; nobody else was doing anything,” said Berry Tramel, a columnist at the Oklahoman who has covered Westbrook for his entire career. “He doesn’t do it to score 50, he really thinks, ‘I gotta do this. Who else is going to do it?’”
Anger got the best of him as the game closed. At halftime, Westbrook barked at a fan who heckled him as he left the court. That fan, who declined to give his name, said he asked Westbrook how his ankles were and Westbrook snapped at the fan to back off. As he left the court after the game, Westbrook slapped at a phone held by a fan leaning over the barrier near the tunnel to the Thunder locker room.
Both instances were probably a result of pent-up anger over the result of the game and also things he heard from Jazz fans during it.
“I don’t confront fans, fans confront me,” Westbrook said after the game. “Here in Utah, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said with these fans man. It’s truly disrespectful. Talk about your families, your kids. It’s just disrespect to the game.”
In many ways the series offered a microcosm of Westbrook’s mercurial mentality and his career. It’s a mentality that extends all the way back to his high school days.
“Russell was very misconstrued because of his competitiveness,” said Kerry Keating, a former UCLA assistant who recruited Westbrook out of Leuzinger High in Lawndale. “But when I recruited him, his competitiveness is what drew me to him. … He had a very deep-rooted sense of competitiveness that I always like to say was misunderstood as immaturity.”
The way his college recruitment unfolded actually might have fed that need. Only mid-major schools recruited him at first. Keating kept in touch even before UCLA had a scholarship to offer Westbrook. When Jordan Farmar left for the NBA, it freed up a space for Westbrook.
He averaged only nine minutes a game as a freshman, then became a star his sophomore year, joining Kevin Love to help take UCLA to its third straight Final Four. That summer, the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Westbrook fourth overall and a week later the team announced it was moving to Oklahoma.
Westbrook went from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City without the kind of troupe of supporters many other players have early in their NBA careers. His immediate family was his crew.
He and Kevin Durant grew to be stars together until Durant left in free agency in 2016. No longer his teammate, Westbrook took some symbolic jabs at Durant hinting at an animosity nobody ever saw between the two players when they were on the same team.
“He plays with an anger that can come and go, but I think the difference later in his career is he’s been able to control it more and use it just as motivation,” said Nick Collison, who has been with the organization throughout Westbrook’s career. “… He sees the guy in front of him and wants to kill that guy. That’s on the 65th game in February, March, in a game that sometimes it’s hard to get up for, he’s able to find a way to get up for that game and motivate himself.”
Collison says Westbrook came into the NBA wanting to prove himself, and later expanded his goals to bringing the team together in the right direction.
That’s what Donovan says he sees in Westbrook, too, in his three seasons coaching the team.
“Russ is an unselfish guy,” Donovan said. “He’s got good relationships. I think if anything he’s tried to make those guys feel welcome. He’s tried to embrace those guys.”
Donovan quickly redirected a question about Westbrook considering this team his team.
“They’re sensitive about it,” Tramel said. “He was not telling the truth. This is Russell’s team. Russell decides what uniforms they wear, what music they listen to.”
Tramel wonders if Westbrook’s unceasing intensity wore on Durant during their time together, and if that is part of why Durant wanted a change. That is an impression that wouldn’t serve the Thunder in free agency. And it doesn’t sound like the impression George got.
“He’s unbelievable,” George said. “Amazing. Just a standup guy. It’s no cliché but when people say he’s an unbelievable basketball player and an amazing person, that’s truly how you can describe Russ as a friend, as a brother. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve had. By far.”
This season was not supposed to end like this for the Thunder.
Westbrook was the league MVP last season after becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double, but Oklahoma City lost in the first round to Houston.
The Thunder made bold moves in the offseason that removed them from the rebuild conversation, acquiring two stars in George and Anthony. Westbrook then agreed to a five-year, $205-million contract extension that will keep him in Oklahoma City through the 2022-23 season.
There was risk involved in both moves, especially in George. George was still telling friends last summer that he wanted to sign with the Lakers in the summer of 2018 as the trade happened. It was on the Thunder, in large part on Westbrook, to change the five-time All-Star’s mind. This offseason for the Thunder might boil down to a bizarre proposition — one of L.A. County’s own trying to keep another from going back home.
Throughout the season that was a subject that rankled Westbrook, who again averaged a triple-double.
The first time the Thunder played the Lakers in Los Angeles, Westbrook was asked if he felt this season was a sales pitch to George. He said no before adding, curtly, “Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship. Beat that pitch.”
Months later during All-Star media day in Los Angeles, ticketed fans allowed to attend the event chanted, “We want Paul.” Westbrook heard and stopped his own media session to yell at them: “Paul ain’t going nowhere! It’s over for that!”
It came up twice during his postgame news conference after the Jazz eliminated the Thunder. Westbrook was asked directly if he thinks George will be back next season. Westbrook said he would think about that later. Westbrook was then asked if, given his plan for postseason success as a recruiting tool for George, it crossed his mind that an early exit could affect George’s decision.
“What did I just tell him?” an irritated Westbrook said, referring to the previous questioner. “Next question.”
How soon Westbrook’s team is able to become a contender again will depend heavily on what George decides.
Twenty minutes after the streamers fell and the opponents celebrated finishing the Thunder, Westbrook got dressed in that center locker, while Anthony sat to his right glowering at nothing in particular. Anthony has a $28-million player option for next season and Saturday he told reporters in Oklahoma City that coming off the bench was out of the question for him.
To Westbrook’s left hung George’s polo shirt. George was somewhere unseen, likely taking a long shower to wash away a disappointing and premature end.
This was supposed to be an answer to the superteams that dominate the Western Conference, but the Thunder struggled, especially after losing defensive stalwart Andre Roberson to injury.
Anthony’s role shrank during the season and George might decide to leave. Before the season began, many thought the only thing that could convince George to stay in Oklahoma City was if he thought the Thunder could compete with the Warriors.
If George leaves, the Thunder won’t be starting from scratch. With Westbrook’s transcendent ability and capable big man Steven Adams, they’ll still at least compete for playoff spots. And general manager Sam Presti has shown an aptitude for improving his team’s situation in unlikely ways.
There are so many variables, and so much is unknown except for this: Westbrook is at the center of it all.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli
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