Fill in the blanks.
As ________ __________ goes, so go the fortunes of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A year ago, as the indelible face of the franchise, one would have most certainly filled in those blanks with the name of one Kevin Durant. The young star is, without doubt, the identifying face of the young franchise.
However, if the Thunder's fortunes continue to present themselves for the taking and falter in the end, it won't be pinned on young Durant. So fine is the line between hero and goat... and Russell Westbrook is tiptoeing it ever so gingerly... and dangerously.
Granted, Westbrook dropped a career-high 40 points in the triple-overtime Thunder win last night, and there are those who will argue (correctly) that the Thunder aren't in it without Westbrook's aggressive play.
But Westbrook was also a large part of at least three reasons that Oklahoma City even had to go the extra sessions. Turning the ball over in the stretch, poor execution, poor decision-making and a 9' shot that needed to go 9'6” were among many of the things that would have lit up Oklahoma City radio as it was Monday.
In fact, were it not for Durant taking the ball up the court, waving Westbrook off twice and sinking the dagger, instead of reading this, you would be on your 11th Red Bull watching Scott Brooks/Maurice Cheeks and Lionel Hollins/Johnny Davis play two-on-two to settle Game 4.
Westbrook is growing up right in front of us, whether we agree with it or not.
They say that the best steel is forged under the hottest temperatures, the strongest coming forth from the most duress. A gem cannot be polished without the most friction. But are the best items produced so close to the critical deadlines or waning minutes of their production lives?
Anyone in the industry will tell you they are forged along the way. The best come forth from any number of average pieces that come through on a daily basis. They will also tell you that the strongest steel isn't a true product on its own – it is an alliance products wrought under extreme pressure.
Intense heat. Continued hammering. Honing. Constant critique.
Westbrook has a lot in common with this type of development from nothing to something special; and may know a thing or two about any or all of the aforementioned processes.
Problem is, right now, the Oklahoma City Thunder need him to be that 'something special' and not the kind of slag that gets thrown aside, as many critical fans are seemingly willing to do with his inconsistent play of late.
In this year's playoffs, he is as erratic as a young driver in the Grand Prix in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, negotiating every curve … except the last one. One could imagine Brooks' encouragement as “Great job on the way you handled all the curves … until you drove off the cliff.”
“I've been working hard to put myself in the best position possible,” Westbrook said of his development as a player.
And, knowing the kind of person Westbrook is, it's hard to argue that no one is tougher on Russell Westbrook than Russell Westbrook.
“I’m always going to keep a chip on my shoulder,” he told AskMen.com late last year. “I always feel I can get better and can make my teammates better. That’s just how I’ve always played. If you go in with a chip on your shoulder, it’s going to make you push yourself harder, play harder and make you better."
Through Oklahoma's slow but steady process of building a solid team, Westbrook who has inherited the point guard position, despite being a '2' in college who had the luxury of Darren Collison feeding him the ball.
Arguably, Westbrook is more of a shoot-first player, in the mold of Dwyane Wade or Derrick Rose, and less of a distributor and playmaker like Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. To become more well-rounded, in the eyes of Thunder fans, Westbrook needs to evolve into more of the latter.
“Rose is the MVP of the league and he leads their team in scoring,” head coach Scott Brooks told The Oklahoman. “He takes the most shots. He’s good. That’s how they play and that’s how they win, but that’s point guards now. Point guards are like that now.”
Such is the case with Westbrook, who has steadily developed since being selected as the fourth overall pick by the franchise in 2008. But back then, you had a guy who wasn't relied upon to be the general on the floor. In college, Collison – and hard work on Westbrook's part – helped Russell build his reputation as a post-up scorer, even at 6-foot-3, and a strong physique that would enable him to get through traffic and to the rim with ease.
Control and good decision-making skills would come with time. After all, Brooks and Westbrook figured to have plenty of time, after inheriting a team that had won one game in 14 under PJ Carlesimo in the Thunder's inaugural season.
Two building years, a taste of the playoffs a season ago, and a solid summer with USA Basketball later. Westbrook's confidence – and his coach's confidence in him – is elevated to a different level, one plainly visible from the opening tip of the 2010-11 season.
His evolution helped elevate his game to that worthy of his first All-Star appearance, helped propel the Thunder to a 55-win season and is a key reason the Thunder now have a Northwest Division Champion banner for their home arena.
But Westbrook no longer has the same luxury in Oklahoma City. Despite the fact it's argued and suggested that the team needs to bring in a Collison or a TJ Ford to offer Westbrook's talents toward the '2' position where many feel he and the team would be better suited, he's Brooks' guy.
Meanwhile, his backup – Eric Maynor – plays with more the mentality that the Thunder desperately need, both in this series with Memphis and down the road.
Though starting Maynor and putting Westbrook at the '2' may offer a more synchronous flow to the game against the defense of the Grizzlies, Brooks is seemingly resistant to the notion. Instead, Thabo Sefolosha, noteworthy for his defensive skills, has cemented the starting nod even though he has done little in this series to stop the hungrier Grizzlies.
The team and coach remain confident and secure with Westbrook as the team's floor general, seemingly anointed from the 5th game of Brooks' tenure. Oddly enough, it was Westbrook starting at the point for the first time that garnered Brooks his first coaching victory in Oklahoma City... a 111-103 victory over the Grizzlies in Memphis on November 29, 2008. Twelve points on five-of-11 shooting, five offensive rebounds, four assists later, and Earl Watson was a distant memory.
But these aren't the same Grizzlies.
And this Thunder squad is a different mentality than the Oklahoma City Thunder of 2008-09.
Yes, Russell Westbrook has been a big part of that turnaround. But is he where he needs to be? Is this where he best helps the Thunder? And is that enough reason, enough loyalty from coach to player to not make another change that could benefit the Thunder on Monday night... and going forward?
In Brooks' mind, it just might be.
“It seems like everybody’s breaking down the film,” Brooks continued. “It’s not fair to him. It’s really not fair to him. He’s developed into an All-Star in three years. Not a lot of guys you can say that played the two-guard spot in college and only for two years and can come in and lead a team that had a bad record three years ago and become an All-Star and make the playoffs twice.”
However, Brooks just might not realize how wide open this window of opportunity is for Oklahoma City … and how quickly it can close.
The threat of an NBA lockout looms ever-so-tenuously on the horizon, as temperamental and unpredictable as Oklahoma weather itself.
With the state wholly enveloped in Oklahoma Sooner football, and the promise of the 2011-12 season resulting in the Sooners being crowned as national champions, the Thunder are already behind the eight-ball, even as their popularity gains.
That popularity defines the Thunder as a winter sports alternative that Oklahomans never had the luxury of enjoying before Clay Bennett relocated the former Seattle SuperSonics franchise to the crossroads of America. But, unfortunately, it is just that.
If the NBA locks out next season, jobs will be lost for those who work inside the arena. Impacted will be the business around the proximity of the arena, who thrive on the fans that flock to see their beloved team. As gas prices continue to rise, people will quickly shed the high price of an NBA single-game ticket.
And who will take the blame? The league, or its local representative, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Every bit as much and as quickly as Russell Westbrook is taking lumps for missed opportunities and game losses.
As endeared as these people are to Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder may have to look at a solid public relations campaign to make sure the seats that rumble every home game are filled again once the league and players come to terms over a new collective bargaining agreement.
That's why every game for whatever remains in the Thunder's 2010-11 season is so critical. The window is more wide open than the rim is on a 30' three-pointer for Durant.
The Lakers were dispatched handily by the Dallas Mavericks. Gone is the dynasty that is the San Antonio Spurs. Suddenly, the West looks like Oklahoma City's for the taking... and fans know that.
They're chomping at the bit.
Sports radio airwaves have already become filled with trade proposals marking Westbrook's exit, meaning they've already written him and his inconsistencies off.
“Trade him and Ibaka to L.A. for (Blake) Griffin!” said one fan on Twitter. (NOTE: Neither Sam Presti nor Neil Olshey in their right minds would do such a deal).
Yet one would have to believe that the criticisms must sting. It shows on Westbrook's face, in his body language, when he struggles. But what probably sting even more is when Westbrook looks at the stat sheets from Games 1 and 3 versus Game 2.
Game 2 saw him shoot 45 percent and score 24 points with only four turnovers. In the two Thunder losses against the Grizzlies, Westbrook has turned the ball over seven times in each game and hoisted 45 shots, making only 16.
He had 39 percent of the team's 18 turnovers in Game One and was responsible for more than half the team's turnovers in Game 3. Westbrook leads the playoffs in turnovers at 3.8 per game, his season average was 3.9 a night, so one can see where seven – not once, but twice – can become increasingly frustrating.
His Game 4 performance gives Scott Brooks another reason to stick by his guy.
“Russell knows what he needs to do.” Brooks assured. “We talk to him, he’s coachable and he wants to get better. He controls his improvement, and he has done that. He doesn’t listen to the critics because you can’t. You have to be hard on yourself and he is. And I’m hard on him. And we have an understanding that we only get better when he continues to improve and he has improved for three straight years. And that’s all I ask for.”
But at what cost?
The time is now. Every game is critical. Every possession.
No one will be satisfied, nor was it anyone's goal just to get past the first round.
The execution that Brooks affirms Oklahoma City “did not do” after Game 3 must now be done. It finally happened at about 1:45 a.m. EDT for Game 4. But it's something that Westbrook, that every member of the team – one through 12, playing or not – must understand and execute.
Making adversity work for is largely a matter of choosing to let it hold you back or propel you forward.
The Thunder and Brooks have to figure out the smartest way the exit the playoffs, because one thing is certain … the Oklahoma City Thunder will exit the playoffs.
Will it be as champions? As heroes or as goats?
Only Westbrook can answer this question... and he must do it before every possession in which he touches the basketball.
For as Russell Westbrook goes, so go the Oklahoma City Thunder.