Athletic dynamo. Arrogant celebrator. Funky dresser.
And legitimate leader.
Russell Westbrook is growing and maturing, even if he’s still pouting or preening much of the time he’s on the court, still pointing those fingers into the crowd before every half and holstering his flashy hands after he makes three-pointers.
Westbrook is taking more control of the Oklahoma City Thunder ship with each passing day, steering it with his relentless energy most of the time, but also corralling his teammates to follow him with his fast-stepping movements forward.
“He kept our guys together,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said about Westbrook’s performance in the road victory over the Clippers on Sunday.
Brooks was direct in crediting Westbrook for “great dialogue with his teammates.” The Thunder avoided blowing a 19-point lead by refusing to let Chris Paul take over in the end, further establishing OKC’s superiority over a Clippers team that is still trying to get to that elite level.
And as it is with NBA superstars, it’s not only about what you do in a given game, but it’s what you accomplish in the next game also. You’ve got to be consistently excellent and provide leadership on a daily basis in that stratosphere, and there was Westbrook, imposing his will once again against the Lakers on Tuesday night.
After 29 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, one steal and three turnovers on Sunday, Westbrook delivered 37 points, five assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and one turnover two days later against a team that needed the victory way more than the Thunder did.
It’s the mark of a winner when a hungry team simply gets turned away by a better team that just continues to do its thing.
“Everyone said it was a must-win for them,” Westbrook said. “We needed a win too. We came out with a sense of urgency.”
Westbrook played the whole first quarter and came away with more points (13) and rebounds (six) than anyone on either team, setting the tone for the entire game. That’s what he does on so many nights, and it’s a bonus when he does it without losing any control, as he did in that dominant first quarter with no turnovers.
“It’s getting around that time of year when you need to focus in and be sharp,” Westbrook said.
The Thunder wound up tying the NBA record for fewest turnovers in a game with two, even though they came in with the second most in the league (15.8 per game).
But again, complete control is not what it’s about, nor is it what anyone should demand from Westbrook. With experience, he has been blending his incredible athleticism with greater knowledge and wisdom, which is what matters most.
This knowledge was apparent when the Lakers were giving him jumpers, which he did not settle for, and instead drove to the basket for much higher percentage attempts. His new-found wisdom was obvious when we saw the normally emotional Westbrook stay away from a hot Joey Crawford when even Kevin Durant got too close and drew a technical from the referee.
Even Kobe Bryant offered this rare direct respect toward Westbrook via Twitter after the game on Tuesday night: “He’s got mamba blood runnin thru his veins . You gave it to me tonight lil bro. C u down the road!”
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.