Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Westbrook Responds to Detractors, But Can't Work Alone

The subject comes up again because Russell Westbrook is under a barrage of criticism for Oklahoma City's failures. All week, he's been the center of attack, verbal attacks, that is, for his decision-making and shot-selection. Had it not been for him this postseason, the Thunder would not be playing in the 2012 NBA Finals -- to be exact.

Unfair as it is to put heavy burdens on Westbrook entirely, he's played more than 40 minutes at point guard and has not backed down, despite harsh criticism of late. He is unfazed by the fault finding, refusing to surrender, unwilling to withdraw from contention. The trouble is, while Westbrook is focused on winning, he is working alone, putting in much effort to try and lead Oklahoma City to another victory to make it a series. If there's no supporting cast to assist Westbrook, forget it.

No shot.

No use blaming Westbrook. After a 104-98 Game 4 loss on Tuesday night to drop 3-1 in the series, he lowered his head, in the end of a 43-point performance for which he was weary and distraught. Sadly enough, it was a waste and may have also decided the Thunder's fate, on the edge of elimination as the Heat are one win away from an NBA championship. If you base it on history, no team has ever rallied from a 3-1 deficit as Oklahoma City is seeking to pull out the improbable.

The loss happened on a night that Westbrook had an electric game, making 22 of 32 shots by attacking the rim and knocking down jump shots, which was even more disappointing after giving it his best effort. It's impossible to grasp an assumption for a historic comeback for a team, trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, who has never been in such a heavy predicament and, without a resolute supporting cast -- with or without the 23-year-old point guard -- the Thunder simply have no chance.

In fairness, folks, Westbrook can use some assistance from the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha. Where has the three-time NBA scoring champ been? Where has the reigning sixth man been? Where has the Swiss superstar been?

The struggles continue to stifle Harden, and he's partly responsible for the Thunder's fourth-quarter failures in Game 4, not nearly shooting the ball effectively, not nearly as physical or assertive but suddenly absent. Things could turn around -- but in the meantime -- he doesn't exist, he seems lost, not exactly sure of himself. If the season ends Thursday, pointing the fingers at Westbrook would be morally wrong and irresponsible, based on what he's mastered in these finals to outdo Durant and Harden. Yet for all of Westbrook's marksmanship and toughness, he's taking the blame for losses and he's not even the problem but the solution if his teammates come out with as much poise and fire.

If he takes and misses too many shots, it's not easily discovered with lousiness from his teammates, leaving him with the bulk of the work as the pressure is greater than ever. If the Thunder, however, were to amazingly stun the world in one of the finest NBA Finals comebacks ever, Westbrook should rightly so be named Finals MVP. And there's no question in my mind that he wouldn't, thanks to his sheer dominance -- almost roughing up the Heat single-handedly with a crafty shooting performance.

Scott Brooks, Thunder head coach, knows he can count on Westbrook, but can't bank on his other players, to string together a convincing victory. It's unlikely to happen, unless Oklahoma City has a miracle up their sleeves to turn a series around and make things much more interesting. And now, it seems far-fetched without Durant, perhaps discomfited by foul troubles and missed shots, to see the Thunder keep hopes alive. Oklahoma City simply cannot persist in pomp of skillfulness if everyone is not contributing to what was supposed to be a hybrid offense, loaded with the most talent.

The Thunder, however, are anything but the deepest and instead are nonexistent, disappearing and shrinking on the national stage, a moment when the stakes are high, a moment when superstars align to play some of their best basketball. It's only Westbrook with a hot shooting touch, no one else, not even his counterpart Durant, who had 28 points and never takes shots as bad as Westbrook. There was, of course, the absence of Harden in Game 4, finishing with a miserable eight points on 2-of-10 shooting to raise much concern about his inability to score and snap out of dreadful drought.

The breakdown mentally incensed and frustrated the hell out of Westbrook, which was evident from his brief answers during postgame interviews when he wasn't in a good mood to have a conversation with the media. Then, of course, Durant is frustrated with the officiating that keeps favoring the Heat and limiting his time on the court, leaving Brooks with no choice but to bench the superstar. In the ultimate surge, Westbrook not only silenced his critics with a noteworthy game, but almost manhandled and stole a decisive Game 4 in a hostile territory to even it 2-2.

It turns out, at least so far, that averaging a playoff-high 43 points is not good enough, dropping two straight games against the Heat. And he ended up blundering when he fouled Mario Chalmers needlessly with 13.8 seconds left, while the Thunder were down three and the shot clock close to expiring. Other than that, Westbrook was ideal and played fiercely, whether he was attacking the rim or burying midrange jump shots to keep Oklahoma City within striking distance. No matter what, he always draws criticism and couldn't care less, not immune to the negativity.

At the end of the day, he's still playing with an aggressive style, a stubborn-minded player not altering his style of play for anyone, not even himself. It's not easy changing one's personality, and certainly not easy to transform a normally out-of-control Westbrook. It's in his nature, as a mercurial player, to run loosely and wildly, without very little control and maturity, developing into a full-grown brute on the hardwood. What he provides for OKC is toughness and confidence, something Durant and Harden can't even bring to the game on a nightly basis, struggling to get into a rhythm. The night he punched the James and the Heat his team couldn't win.

It was an individual effort not a team effort and, because everyone disappeared except Westbrook, he draws criticism off the court. He's basically criticized because he's great, not because he fouled a 79 percent shooter who was having his best game. It figured he would be picked apart for a bad foul that resulted in an eventual loss, even after giving it his best try, even after dropping in 17 points in the fourth, knocking down seven of his nine shots from the floor and all three free throws.

That wasn't enough to get it done.

For Harden, the struggles and dashing hopes came often in the fourth and went scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting in the quarter. Despite that he's one of the league's brightest and most endearing stars, Durant wasn't flawless as well and had six points and two turnovers in the last quarter.

Poor Westbrook was all alone. As a point guard who doesn't traditionally play like one, choosing to hold on to the ball for extended periods of time, Westbrook is not known for his playmaking, not known for creating scoring opportunities but known for shooting far too much and not dishing the ball to his teammates. From the start, he came out on fire, hitting his first four shots in a 13-3 run and continued to scorch throughout the game. By nature, however, he's big-name shooter and can score at will. It's too bad he had no team that rallied behind him. With Westbrook, it was more of a wrestling match down the stretch, for the most part, and it was a point guard duel as Chalmers had 12 of his 25 points for the Heat in the fourth period. Speaking of scorers in these Finals, LeBron James had 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.

That was enough, certainly.

LeBron, who could hardly stand late in the fourth, who limped and grimaced in pain after suffering a left leg cramp, had a supporting cast to count on.

You can almost feel sorry for Westbrook.