MIAMI - The similarities between Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo are becoming increasingly evident as the NBA Finals transpire.
Those who watch Westbrook only occasionally are awed by his speed, impressed with his midrange shooting ability, and floored by his explosiveness.
Those same people who watch Rondo occasionally tab him the league’s best point guard after one of his customary playoff triple-doubles.
Yet, there are dark sides to both of their games. Rondo annoys Celtics fans with home-run passes, lazy turnovers, and erratic shooting. There were similar groans Thursday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena when Westbrook pulled up for a fast-break jumper as Kevin Durant got open on his right side or when he dribbled down the 24-second clock to a nub and then rushed a runner.
Both guards face heavy criticism and Westbrook has been hit by detractors on the league’s biggest stage as the Finals shift to Miami with the series between the Thunder and Heat tied at one game apiece. While Westbrook was instrumental in helping the Thunder catch and then pull away from the Heat in Game 1, he was completely out of rhythm in Game 2. And while it was apparent from the beginning that his shot was wayward (going 1 for 7 in the first quarter), he kept shooting.
What’s more, Westbrook attempted more shots than three-time scoring champion Durant, missing 16 of 26 in the 100-96 loss in Game 2. Westbrook’s biggest issue over his short career has been playing under control. And the consensus is that Westbrook has to make better decisions for the Thunder to prevail in this series.
In the first two games, Westbrook is 20-of-50 shooting - Durant is 24 of 42 - and 2 of 10 from the 3-point line.
“I’m not making no adjustments,’’ Westbrook said Saturday at AmericanAirlines Arena following practice. “Regardless of what anybody says or regardless of what you guys say about how I play. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to play my game regardless of what happens. I’m going to go out and give 110 percent and try to find a way to help us win the game.’’
Westbrook’s biggest issue has been blending distribution with his sparkling scoring skills. At times, he is a scoring guard pressed into being a point guard. Learning when to be aggressive and when to divert to Durant has been an arduous process.
“[The criticism] is not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point, and people don’t recognize that,’’ Durant said. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a [John] Stockton and [Thunder assistant] Mo Cheeks. There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either. We need him to play the way he plays. Of course, he’s going to make mistakes and we’re all going to make mistakes. But the best thing about Russ is he comes to work every single day. That’s what I love about him. He doesn’t care what people say, he’s going to play his game and we need him to play his game.’’
And like Rondo, Westbrook’s stubbornness has been a key to his success. He was a point guard at UCLA and grew 4 inches between his freshman and sophomore seasons, turning himself into an NBA prospect with his athleticism and speed. The then-Sonics stunningly took Westbrook fourth overall in 2008 and he developed into one of the league’s most explosive and productive guards.
But along with that explosion and production has come erratic play, indecision, and the desire to carry the scoring load while Durant and James Harden watch. So the next games will be about balance for Westbrook, trying to find the perfect blend of scorer and distributor.
“I think Russell is an aggressive player; we need Russell to score,’’ Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “I know some of you don’t like that, but Russell is a very, very gifted, talented player and we would not be in this position without Russell Westbrook. He missed two layups [in Game 2]. He missed two 14-foot pull-ups, and he normally makes those. He got off to a bad start but he came back. Him and Kevin are both terrific players. They both have to score points for us to be successful. Could Russell have taken two or three better shots? Absolutely. Going into [Sunday’s] game, hopefully that’s the case.’’
But if Westbrook does improve, it will be because he will play the same game and hope for different results. He said the criticism has allowed him to develop a thick skin and brimming confidence in his game and approach.
“I didn’t get that much attention in college until I got to the NBA. But it’s something that comes along with the territory,’’ he said.
“I feel like I’m doing something right. I feel like every year I come back a little better, the more negative I’m going to hear. We’re in the NBA Finals now, and the more negative you hear, the better you’re doing. That’s how I look at it.’’