Saturday, June 16, 2012

Before Westbrook Ceases Criticism, Adjusting Style of Play Is Key

He trotted off the court without having a grin on his face, showing no emotion at practice Saturday. By watching closely, you'd realize that Russell Westbrook is unfazed by criticism, when his postgame wardrobe has been just as hideous as his dismal game. That's because he's normally hogging the ball, and then afterwards, walks into the press conference room wearing his outlandish, geek-chic outfits.


Sooner or later, he should discern that he's one of the struggling players in the NBA Finals, but he's stubborn and has no intention of altering his game, not immune to the harsh criticism he has heard over the last few days. It's obvious that none of this bothers him, as much as it irritates, say, someone who devotes and spends too much time and money on pro teams. But seriously, he's partly the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder are losing, with the blame falling quickly and unfairly on him, growing into a more polarizing figure in these finals, after starting 1-for-7 shooting with only one assist as the Thunder trailed 18-2 to open Game 2.

It was another slow start, another night that he was nowhere to be found -- making his teammates look in the Lost and Found for their second-scoring option. He was Waldo, not Westbrook. Where was he? He had Scott Brooks, his coach, searching for him for much of the night.

Turns out Westbrook is ignoring criticism. That became clear when he said he's not changing his style of play, even after Magic Johnson said at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA Finals that Westbrook was "the worst point guard in the championship finals I've ever seen," even after critics lambasted him following a formidable night. Under a barrage of criticism for his decision-making and terrible shooting, especially when he failed to distributed the ball to Kevin Durant for more touches and potential scoring opportunities, Westbrook is not changing into a traditional point guard anytime soon. He's going to do it his way, or no way.

"I'm not making no adjustments, regardless of what anybody says," Westbrook said before the Thunder's practice. "I'm going to play my game regardless of what happens."

What I wanted to see from Westbrook was an aggressive, self-controlled scorer who performed brilliantly in the postseason to suddenly burgeon into a perennial star. Even if he has the numbers, a bevy of mind-blowing numbers that stand out, Westbrook's numbers are presentable but are very misleading. He has not shown up to play his best game, with his emotions getting the best of him. Either he's too assertive or lacks toughness, shooting when he wants selfishly, missing a flock of ill-advised shots and then escaping the criticism by shrugging off the magnitude of improvement in the threshold of his first NBA Finals appearance.


His penchant for taking way too many shots, and not leaning heavily on the league's scoring champ, is denting the Thunder's chances of winning an NBA championship. It would have been nice, for a team surrounded by a lethal scorer, to see him share the wealth -- yes, you heard correctly -- to see Westbrook share the wealth with Durant. One can argue that he's a solid point guard with playmaking intangibles, despite his sketchiness and unstable maturation, haunting him deep down inside. All the blame lies on Westbrook -- and yes -- unfairly. But it happens when people demand much from a player at his position, and a guard who allegedly takes away too many shots from Durant -- maybe an exaggerated statement commonly rehashed.

Either way, it seems, he's not much of a distributor and should dish the ball to Durant, a much more efficient scorer, a skilled and versatile player. This season alone, and in his first real test, Westbrook is evolving after making his transition to the point and still is getting a feel for the position, where he may never become a pass-first, unselfish guard -- at least not during his young career. No matter what, the Thunder need him and want him to be a scorer and a prudent decision-maker.

The problem is, he's too defiant, too selfish and too careless. Another problem is, and this may be the real issue, that he's overconfident and too emotional as Brooks insist he makes better judgment passing the ball and getting his teammates involved, particularly Durant. Often times, he diminishes from his mistakes, he fades out of the spotlight for his volatile attitude and much of it has cost him and the Thunder. There's been talk he won't ever match the ability of Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, well, at least not anytime soon.

But maybe, since he's someone who can attract us with his fashion, Westbrook can convince the fashion police, by sporting his shirts that are louder than the thunderous Oklahoma City crowd. For Game 3 on Sunday night, he will need his best game to erase a horrendous night in shooting, only making 2-of-10 shots to begin Thursday's game. The criticism is fueled from his inability to know when to shoot and when not to shoot, while also he can sometimes be overly relentless.

But, as we know by now, he's not changing it for anyone, unwilling to sacrifice and alter his attack, whether he's lacking trust in his teammates or just wanting to be the superhero. In all, Westbrook compiled monster numbers on the scoreboard, and has taken more shots than anyone in this series, unable to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. The blame stems from him taking over the game when he's teamed up with Durant and James Harden, the sixth-man of the year.

And so, Westbrook's style of play is compatible with another system, where he may actually fit in and work brilliantly for another team, but not for the Thunder, a team loaded with plenty of offensive weapons. The other night, he had 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a 100-96 Thunder loss in Game 2, where he attempted 26 shots.

And he doesn't think there's room for improvement...

“I’m not making no adjustments,” Westbrook said, when asked about being a better point guard. “There’s always room for improvement, always room to get better. But the style of play that I play with, that’s not changing.”

He could be unselfish and not so obstinate, and take fewer shots.