By Kelton Brooks
Russell Westbrook sat before the media eights months ago at a news conference to reveal to his adopted home of Oklahoma City that he will entrench himself in a place that has grown accustomed to two of its brightest stars in franchise history.
But perhaps its brightest star in Kevin Durant, uprooted himself from vast Oklahoma City to the riches of Golden State.
The incandescent Westbrook normally dressed in abnormal fashion was less subdued in a white button down with an even-all-over cut as he made the following statement about loyalty:
“There’s nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said at a news conference to announce the deal. “You guys have basically raised me. I’ve been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad, you guys supported me through it all, and I appreciate it. Definitely when I had the opportunity to be able to be loyal to you guys, that’s the No. 1 option. Loyalty is something that I stand by.”
Eight months and a triple-double average for only the second time in NBA history later, Westbrook again sat at the podium to address the media. The maestro orchestrated another masterful performance as he compiled a triple-double in the first half, becoming the second player to claim three consecutive triple-doubles in the playoffs.
But this time, the smiles and raised cheek bones were supplanted by an aggressive tone and dismissiveness of Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel’s fair question to Steven Adams on essentially why the team withers when Westbrook isn’t on the court.
The Thunder were outscored 13-4 in a stretch that lasted from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth against Houston. The lapse turned a 75-68 lead into an 81-79 deficit. The Thunder ultimately loss 113-109 to the Rockets, dropping to a 3-1 deficit in the series.
Before Adams could form his lips to utter a word, Westbrook interceded.
“I don’t want nobody to try and split us up. We’re all one team. If I go to the bench and Steven’s on the floor and I’m off the floor, we’re in this together. Don’t split us up. Don’t try and split us up. Don’t try to make us go against each other or make it Russell and the rest of the guys. Russell against Houston. I don’t want to hear that. We’re in this together. We play as a team. That’s all that matters.”
When Tramel pressed, Westbrook became more agitated, repeatedly saying “Next question.”
“Say ‘Russell, the team hasn’t played well,'” Westbrook said. “Don’t say, ‘when Russell goes out the team doesn’t play well.’ That doesn’t matter. We’re in this together.”
The exchange evoked some to label Westbrook as selfish, but he threw himself under the bus in front of a national audience instead of his teammates, which is what Durant was praised for when he called Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban an idiot for saying Westbrook “is an All-Star but not a superstar.”
Durant left. Westbrook stayed.
Westbrook has taken the brunt of the force even when Durant was still in Oklahoma City. Whenever a reason arose to point fingers on the failures of the Thunder, the digits directed themselves towards Westbrook while Durant was coddled.
And Westbrook purposely guided those pointing fingers back at him Sunday.
Even during arguably the best individual performance in regular season history, Westbrook was deemed problematic and selfish for his style of play, even though the supposedly next best player in Victor Oladipo is averaging 11 points per game, shooting 38 percent from the field in the series.
Westbrook is what “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” looks like. The star’s in-your-face-attitude comes off as brass, but it’s a personality needed to mask a lack of talent on Oklahoma City’s roster. If Adams would’ve answered the question, it would’ve only confirmed what was recognizable throughout the season, this team is not a good.
Without Westbrook, the Thunder would be looking to replace the former UCLA guard with another incoming Bruin.
The love for Westbrook has diminished since his postgame defense of his teammates allowed spectators to release the disdainfulness towards the 28-year-old carrying a franchise he could’ve left thirsting for talent eight months ago.
Love him or hate him, but a once-in-a-lifeime talent and leader who is willing to take repeated blows regardless of how he performs individually, doesn’t come around often.