Bernucca: Is Reckless Russell Becoming Relaxed Russell?

After the Thunder held on to beat the Clippers on Sunday, coach Scott Brooks praised the composure of Russell Westbrook, his often volatile point guard.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that Westbrook is making the necessary strides to gain control of his emotions and make the proper play in big games.

The other? When Westbrook is the tone-setter for your team’s composure, you may have issues.

I believe Westbrook is a top-five talent in the NBA right now. Really, how many players have more tools than him? LeBron James, certainly. Kevin Durant, his teammate. Perhaps Kobe Bryant, whose best tool at this stage of his career is guile. Maybe Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul.

And I also believe that Westbrook has the same borderline-insane desire to win as those guys, which is kind of like the vise grip in the toolbox of NBA greatness – you have to have it.

But unlike James, Bryant, Paul et al, that desire in Westbrook often manifests itself in outbursts across the entire emotional spectrum that are not conducive to winning championships.

Forget the six-shooters after 3-pointers and the leaping chest bumps after timeouts and the nine technical fouls. Those are blips on the emotional oscilloscope. That’s actually Relaxed Russell, just playing the game the way he always does.

Of greater concern are the more overt displays, such as the heated argument with Brooks during the 2011 Western Conference finals or his storming off to the locker room during a game vs. Memphis earlier this season. It is worth mentioning that both of those explosions came while his team was winning.

However, the biggest issue for the Thunder’s championship hopes is whether Westbrook – who already is playing with a severe amount of emotion – can be effective in a crucial juncture when his pores are bursting with rage or joy or whatever he is feeling at the moment. That’s Reckless Russell, and the Thunder cannot afford that.

Westbrook already gets a fair amount of criticism for his decision-making, much of which can be attributed to playing at breakneck speed (one of his tools) and emboldened by bravado that assures him he cannot be stopped (another of his tools). In this regard, he somewhat resembles a bigger, stronger version of Allen Iverson, an absolute terror with the ball whose decisions often don’t fit within our antiquated ideas of a point guard.

In microcosm, Westbrook is best illustrated by his performance in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals. Sharing the court with James, Durant, Dwyane Wade and James Harden, he clearly was the best player, speeding and soaring his way to 43 points. But in the waning seconds, he neglected to use his brain rather than his brawn and gave a really dumb foul that ended any chance the Thunder had of winning.

There was some of that hellbent play Sunday as well. When the Clippers went to a 3-2 zone, it took several possessions marked by ill-advised jump shots before Westbrook got the Thunder organized and began attacking (a) with the use of screens at the top of the zone and (b) by delivering the ball to the short corner.

But there came a time later in the fourth quarter where Westbrook had to get his team organized in a different and much more urgent fashion and did so.

Teammate Serge Ibaka made what can only be called a moronic play, winding up and hitting Blake Griffin in the groin as Matt Barnes was draining a 3-pointer to cut a six-point deficit in half. The referees consulted replay and called a flagrant foul, giving Griffin two free throws and the Clippers another possession.

As Griffin went to the line, Ibaka continued chirping at the referees and almost drifted below the foul line extended – which would have given Griffin a second try after missing – before Dan Crawford took pity, grabbed him and pulled him above the line. And when Griffin missed, Kendrick Perkins got into the act, shouting “Ball don’t lie!”

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