Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook has been called everything from an all-star and an artist to an arrogant agitator during his NBA career. But if the Thunder and their fearless floor general manage to eliminate Steph Curry and the ever-popular Golden State Warriors from this year’s post-season, Westbrook will officially become the most hated super-villain in NBA history.
Overly-confident and brash enough to break out a pre-game dance routine in your team’s arena, Westbrook has definitely earned his current reputation as one of the NBA’s resident bad guys. Whether it’s his in-your-face approach to facing the league’s elite, infamous fashion sense, or even his random hatred of NBA mascots, there’s a good chance that he’s gotten under your skin somehow, and Westbrook is proud to be the anti-Curry.
For longtime lovers of the NBA Playoffs, Curry versus Westbrook is the classic on-court battle between NBA good and evil, and in Monday’s edition of ESPN’s The Dan LeBatard Show, the host weighed in on the point guard match-up that could easily decide the series.
”One of the things I love about this [Warriors-Thunder] match-up is we agree by consensus for the first time with the MVP that Steph Curry is the best basketball player on this court, but the guy that’s guarding him doesn’t believe that.”
Just hours before the beginning of Oklahoma City’s fourth Western Conference Finals appearance in the last six years, Westbrook threw the verbal equivalent of an on-court punch to the throat by telling a crowd of reporters about his approach to facing the two-time reigning MVP.
”He’s a shooter,” Westbrook told the media. ”He’s not nothing I haven’t seen, him [Curry], [Damian] Lillard, guys like that who can shoot the ball from four, five feet behind the three you gotta do a different job, but just be physical.”
In Monday’s series-opener of the Western Conference Finals, Westbrook and the Thunder tossed conventional wisdom out the window by bouncing back from a significant second-half deficit to hand Curry and the Warriors one of the most unexpected losses of these NBA Playoffs in the form of a 108-102 final in front of a stunned crowd at Oakland’s Oracle Arena.
Initially, it appeared as though Westbrook was about to have the type of night that’s often plagued Toronto’s Kyle Lowry during this year’s post-season when the former UCLA Bruin hit just one of his first ten attempts from the field.
But like any true villain, Westbrook was simply working through the kinks of his master plan before scoring 24 of his 27 points in the second half and contributing 12 assists, seven steals, and six rebounds to Oklahoma City’s winning effort on the way to becoming the first player since 1984 to finish a playoff game with a similar stat line.
And with 17.2 seconds remaining in regulation and the Warriors down by three, a clear traveling violation that was missed by the officials while Westbrook attempted to call a timeout only added to Oracle Arena’s hatred of the league’s Lex Luthor.
While speaking to the media following Oklahoma City’s Game 1 win, Westbrook ended a surprisingly gracious comment with another veiled dig at the defending champs.
”We’ve just got to compete,” said Westbrook. ”It’s going to be a tough game. It’s a tough building. They have a lot of great players on their team, but I know we’re a great team and when we put our minds to it, tonight we didn’t play our best game and we came out with a win.”
Above all else, Westbrook’s historic performance sent a message to the defending champs, and it was a message that needed no interpretation. He doesn’t care if he’s guarding a small school super-hero turned MVP with NBA bloodlines, who also happens to be one of the most likable athletes in the history of professional sports. And he doesn’t care if the world wants Curry’s Warriors to win a second set of championship rings in 2016.
In the Western Conference semi-finals, Westbrook and fellow future hall-of-famer Kevin Durant were supposed to be bulldozed by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in order to set up a conference finals showdown between the now-defunct dynasty and Kerr’s squad of new-school champions.
But Westbrook wasn’t having it, and along with Durant, led Oklahoma City back from a 2-1 hole with three straight wins while averaging 25.2 points, 10.5 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game. Head coach Greg Popovich and the Spurs would not get one last crack at a championship; Duncan had been denied his walk into the NBA sunset, and Westbrook had added to his bad guy resume with a performance for the ages that may have marked the end of an opposing legend’s career.
While Westbrook was just two rebounds shy of averaging a triple-double during the regular season, he’s most often mentioned for his refusal to fear more popular opponents and an endless energy that’s destroyed countless playoff dreams, and with the world backing Curry’s Warriors, that’s the way he wants it.
[Photo By Christian Peterson/Getty Images]