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As much as the Thunder liked Westbrook's game, it liked his makeup more. General manager Sam Presti had a 20-win team about to uproot from Seattle, the franchise's home for 41 years. He needed players who could handle adversity. When Presti brought in Memphis teammates Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts for workouts, they told him that at the 2008 Final Four, when the Tigers beat UCLA in the national semifinals, Westbrook was the one player who couldn't be intimidated. When Westbrook struggled through his individual workout—"my worst for any team, by far," he says—he worried that Oklahoma City wouldn't want him. But by then, Presti had already made up his mind. "Russell had earned everything he achieved by being persistent and consistent," says Presti. "He had a resilience and grit to him." In Westbrook's first year the Thunder fired coach P.J. Carlesimo one month into the season, which it started 3--29. Westbrook responded by averaging 15.8 points and 6.0 assists after the All-Star break, helping OKC to a more respectable 10--19 finish.
Each summer since he was a rookie, Westbrook, Rose and Kevin Love have gotten together for workouts. Westbrook and Love were roommates at UCLA and became friendly with Rose, who went to Memphis, at the Final Four. For 90 minutes in the morning and another hour at night, three of the NBA's top 20 players put in work. Westbrook and Rose pick up post moves from Love. Last summer Westbrook picked Rose's brain about better ways to finish. In his first two years Westbrook's shooting percentage in the deep paint—shots taken within four feet of the rim—was only in the mid-40s. Rose said he had been having success elevating off two feet. Westbrook adopted the technique, and this year he connected on 59.7%.
The toughest part is getting Westbrook to stop working. During the lockout his trainer, Rob McClanaghan, tried to scale back the six-days-per-week sessions to keep his body fresh. Westbrook, Rose and Love responded by insisting that they work out on Sundays too. On a day McClanaghan persuaded them not to come in, he got a call from a friend at a nearby gym. Westbrook was there, putting up shots. "He is the most competitive guy I've ever seen," says McClanaghan. "With the success he has had, you almost expect him to come in the next summer and not want to work as hard. But he just wants to work harder."
Westbrook's relationship with Durant has been dissected at a Kardashian level. Critics have wondered whether two alpha males can coexist, bringing up examples of discord (a well-publicized blowup on the bench in Memphis last December) and statistics (Westbrook's hoisting up nearly as many shots as Durant in a bumpy 2011 playoffs) as proof that they can't. What's rarely cited is how Westbrook and Durant were inseparable during All-Star weekend or how the two routinely text each other about anything, from basketball to video games, late at night. Nor is it often noted that the duo scored more points per game (51.6) than any other tandem this season, or that when the game is tight, Westbrook defers: With a minute to play and the score within three points, Durant has attempted 37 shots, Westbrook eight.
"Most people who talk about us have never been in an NBA locker room or been in an NBA battle," says Durant. "We are going to have emotions; it's a part of the game. The thing about me and Russell is, we want to do so well and we want the team to do so well that sometimes our emotions get hold of us. We are going to disagree a lot. Russ screams at me all the time. But as a man and as a basketball player you have to accept that, because your teammate wants the best for you."
Says Westbrook, "People keep trying to break me and Kevin up. But we just keep getting closer."
The Thunder doesn't want Westbrook to change his game either. OKC worries about the turnovers and the quick shots, the emotional outbursts and spurts of sloppy play, but not enough to ask Westbrook to try to be a player he's not. Late in games the Thunder may put the ball in Harden's hands, but only to get Westbrook more scoring opportunities. "People hammer him because he doesn't average 10 assists," says Brooks. "Who cares? I need him to score and play the way he plays for us to be successful."
The focus in Oklahoma City isn't on making Westbrook a point guard but a lead guard, one comfortable making key decisions and communicating on the floor. The NBA has changed in recent years. Restrictions on hand checking have made it easier for guards like Westbrook to create off the dribble, and the advent of the perimeter-shooting power forward has created more space for the little guys. In the Western finals last season, the Mavericks used what they called a "corral" defense on Westbrook. When he came off a screen, the Dallas big men would switch onto him for a few dribbles. The scheme called for them to back off and force Westbrook to dribble east to west until a Mavs guard could switch back. "We respected his speed and quickness, not the jump shot," says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, the architect of that defense as an assistant with Dallas last season. "Now, we wouldn't defend him like that. You can't back off anymore because he will knock down that midrange shot."
Westbrook shrugs off the criticism. "When I hear it, I revert to what my parents told me," he says. "Stay focused. Stay positive. The talk isn't going away. The better you get, the more stuff you are going to hear." Westbrook keeps his inner circle—his teammates, his parents, Raynard, now a junior running back at Central Oklahoma—tight, and they all believe anything negative bounces right off him.
The Thunder has steamrollered through the postseason, knocking out three veteran title-winning teams (the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs), so the negativity has dissipated somewhat—at least for now. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said that an Oklahoma City championship would be a Hollywood ending, the perfect underdog story. In the Finals, Miami will have counters for Durant (LeBron James) and Harden (Dwyane Wade) but few answers for Westbrook, leaving him in a leading role in the drama. One thing is for sure: He'll play the same way he always has, no matter what. "You are not going to mold Russ into who you want him to be," says Perkins. "He's always out to prove people wrong."