- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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The NBA playoffs are known for exposing players for what they are, whether it's good or bad.
OK, not all the time, but enough. Sometimes, Westbrook looks like he did in last year's playoffs: fearless in going to the basket, powerful and an extraordinary facilitator. But other times -- too many, in fact -- Westbrook appears to be impersonating Sidney Deane from "White Men Can't Jump."
I'm not saying Westbrook, who is just 22 years old, isn't an incredible talent. He is among a handful of players in the conversation for best point guard in the NBA. (Note: I didn't say he was the best, but just that he's been given that kind of consideration.) In fact, he's so good that he often reminds me that he is every bit of the ferocious attacker that newly crowned NBA MVP Derrick Rose is. Same athleticism. Same explosiveness.
But to further borrow from "White Men Can't Jump," sometimes it seems as if Westbrook would rather prove he's just as capable of being the man as Kevin Durant than sacrifice his own game to build on the team's success.
Westbrook was a little more under control in the Thunder's 111-102 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 2, finishing with 24 points and six assists as the Thunder evened the series.
Aside from the four turnovers, that's the kind of game the Thunder need from Westbrook, but that's not what they've been getting from him in the playoffs. (He's averaging fewer assists, more turnovers and a lower shooting percentage.)
Westbrook is wasting far too many possessions needlessly dribbling. He's been settling for long jumpers, which isn't his strength, or wildly charging to the basket and taking on three or four defenders instead of creating a better opportunity for one of his teammates, especially Durant.
Westbrook inexplicably took 30 shots in Denver's 104-101 victory over Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the first round, which helped prevent the Thunder from sweeping the Nuggets. He followed that up with a wretched Game 5 performance, where he missed 12 of 15 shots and finished with 14 points.
There were several stretches that night when Westbrook appeared totally uninterested in passing the ball. But Durant saved the Thunder with a brilliant 41-point game that showed he's coming into his own as a superstar in this league.
But in Oklahoma City's 114-101 loss to Memphis in Game 1, Durant's effort wasn't enough to offset Westbrook's poor play. Westbrook turned the ball over seven times -- the same number as Memphis' entire team -- and again took more shots than Durant (23–21).
"He has that look in his eyes where he's been watching television and reading the newspaper," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said after the Thunder blew Game 4 against Denver. "Instead of taking that constructive criticism, he's pouting."
Westbrook's development is obviously key because it impacts the Thunder's quest for an NBA title this season. But given how erratic he's been, it's opened up a larger discussion about whether Westbrook is the best long-term fit for Durant.
Of course, Durant is far too classy to voice any concerns about Westbrook to the media, but Durant had a heated exchange with Westbrook in the huddle during a timeout in the first half of Game 4. Also of note was Durant after shutting down the Nuggets with a terrific Game 5 performance: He beat his chest and used a colorful adjective to shout to the masses that the Thunder were his team.
A message perhaps?
"We've been doing that all season," Durant said of his tiff with Westbrook. "That's a part of a basketball team. You're not going to always be happy all the time. ... Sometimes you have to scream at guys for them to get the point. That's what we were doing."
This isn't to suggest Westbrook and Durant have a beef, but it's probably not always easy for a talent like Westbrook to play in Durant's shadow. On most other NBA teams, Westbrook would be a franchise player. And although Westbrook and Rose have similar games, Westbrook will never receive the same individual praise or accolades as Rose because he's playing with Durant, one of the most gifted players of this generation.
I don't blame Westbrook for feeling the need to make his own mark on the Thunder because that speaks to his competitiveness and the belief he has in his ability. But there is a fine line between competitiveness and foolishness, especially in the playoffs, where each possession is so valuable.
There are no indications that Oklahoma City is unhappy with Westbrook, but we've seen minor tensions between talented teammates blossom into full-blown problems in the past.
We saw it with Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. And we saw it with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles. Garnett and Marbury were poised to become an emerging power and Kobe and Shaq probably could have doubled their championships had they stayed together, but ultimately those relationships were sabotaged because team success wasn't enough to abate ego.
I'm not predicting the Westbrook-Durant dynamic will play out as disastrously as Marbury and Garnett or Kobe and Shaq, but as Westbrook matures hopefully he'll understand that becoming an elite player isn't always about how much you can showcase, but what you're willing to sacrifice.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Too many times, Russell Westbrook appears to be impersonating Sidney Deane from "White Men Can't Jump."