The silver lining of the Game 3 loss was that Westbrook didn't sulk, bouncing back nicely with 30 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. But the issue has never been his ability to score, it's his tendency to dominate the ball at inopportune times. Is it a function of his youth and inexperience as a playmaker, or is there something darker at play—jealousy of Durant's position as Oklahoma City's alpha male?
Ominous comparisons have been made between the Westbrook-Durant dynamic and the Stephon Marbury--Kevin Garnett partnership with the Timberwolves in the 1990s, suggesting that this may be another situation in which a young star point guard tries to grab a bigger share of attention from a more celebrated teammate. Thunder teammates insist there is no such power struggle going on, and Durant and Westbrook seem as friendly as ever, playfully pushing and shoving each other during shootarounds and after practices.
"Russ has his head on straight," says Durant. "He probably gets more criticism than he should. When we win everybody gets credit, and when we lose people seem to focus in on him. It's not really fair, but he knows that comes from outside. He doesn't hold that against anybody on the team." Brooks downplayed the situation as well, saying that he didn't feel the need to check on Westbrook's state of mind after his extended bench time in Game 2. "I might have had to massage some ego if Russell weren't a team guy, but he is, so there was no need for that," Brooks said.
It also helps that Westbrook has a reputation for letting his occasional flashes of temper fade as quickly as they come. His inconsistency may be due not so much to ego but to learning his position on the fly after playing extensively at shooting guard in his two seasons at UCLA. Westbrook is a late bloomer whose basketball instincts aren't as refined as some of his more experienced peers. He didn't crack the varsity starting lineup at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., until he was a junior. His scholarship offers were limited to such mid-major schools as Creighton, Kent State and San Diego until the Bruins became interested late in his recruitment. "I feel like I've accomplished a lot but I still have a lot to learn," he says. "All I can do is put aside what people say and try to play to the best of my ability and try to help us get where we're trying to go."
On Monday, Westbrook again struggled, turning the ball over six times and missing 15 of 22 shots. That Dallas railled behind Nowitzki (40 points) came as no surprise to the Thunder. "They're a veteran team and their window is short on chances of winning a title," Perkins said of the Mavericks. The Thunder, conversely, is a young squad that figures to have more chances, probably better chances, as its players mature. But they should expect to see plenty more of the Mavericks in their path, aging or not, for years to come. Rivals always have a way of finding each other.