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It was an unorthodox decision, but then again, Russell Westbrook has never bowed to convention. Most penetrating point guards, after slipping off a screen, would circle back out at the sight of Tim Duncan and his pterodactyl wingspan casing the paint. Not Westbrook. Early in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals he pounded one last dribble, took off from eight feet and soared past the 7-foot Spur, who kept his hands down in surrender as Westbrook hammered home a dunk. "I put my head down for a second when [Westbrook] was still in the backcourt—when I looked up, he was in the air," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Some people have this old-school picture of what a point guard should be. He is not it. But he is so important to us that he can't be."
Important? Yeah, something like that. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points in the regular season, with more field goals attempted (19.2) and made (8.8) than any other point guard's. He was an All-Star and made the All-NBA second team for the second straight year. He has steered a club that won 23 games in his rookie season of 2008--09 to the playoffs in '10, to the conference finals in '11 and now to the NBA Finals, where the Thunder will face the Heat. Those kinds of credits would normally be enough to galvanize support, but remember that bit about Westbrook and convention? The 23-year-old is a piñata for pundits, skewered for every turnover, forced shot and ill-fated decision. When Oklahoma City wins, others often get the credit. When the Thunder loses, it is Westbrook who's likely to shoulder the bulk of the blame.
Why? Consider Westbrook's job description: Don't just score, create, and do it while keeping the turnovers down, the shooting percentage up and, oh, yeah, making sure the NBA's scoring champ, Kevin Durant, is getting enough shots. Rarely has an elite point been asked to play such a multifaceted role. Westbrook has been a magnet for criticism at every juncture of his career: during his first years of high school (too small, Russ), at UCLA (not a true point guard, Russ), in the draft (not worthy of the fourth pick, Russ). But never has the scrutiny been this intense, or the stakes this high.
Oklahoma City enters the Finals with the reigning three-time scoring champ in Durant, a pair of defensive stalwarts in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, and a playmaking combo guard in James Harden coming off the bench. The wild card is Westbrook, who at his best is a dynamic scorer capable of carrying a team. (Witness his 15-of-26 night in the vital Game 4 win over the Lakers in the conference semis.) At his worst he's erratic, impatient and eminently capable of shooting his team out of a game (7 of 21, five assists and four turnovers in a Game 1 loss to the Spurs). Indeed, if the Thunder finishes off its postseason run with a title, it will be because Westbrook has silenced his doubters again.
Reggie Morris had been through it all with Westbrook. The coach at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., saw him struggle as a 5'9" sophomore. Morris was there when Westbrook was shut out of the ABCD camp and was the one who bribed the director of a local camp with cases of Gatorade to get Westbrook in. "Russell is an overachiever," says Morris. "He never takes days off; he's never short on effort. He's always trying to prove himself, and he feeds off the fact that people don't believe in him."
Today, Westbrook is a 6'3", 187-pound free safety playing point guard. "It's funny, people come up to me and say, 'You coached Russell, and you didn't win a state title,'" says Morris. "The guy I coached didn't look like that." It wasn't that Westbrook didn't work on his body; he did, constantly. When Westbrook was in middle school his parents, Russell Sr. and Shannon, took him to the steep sand dunes at Manhattan Beach. There Westbrook and his younger brother, Raynard, ran cone drills and suicides in the thick Southern California sand. At home he would do lunges in a sandbox outside his apartment. In the shower it was calf raises. He wasn't allowed to lift weights because his father didn't believe in it, so he did push-ups in the hallway between class and pull-ups on the arches of doorways. "I used to try so much crazy stuff," says Westbrook.
He also put in time on the court. Before his sophomore year San Diego State star shooting guard Tony Bland was looking for help to prepare for an overseas tryout. Westbrook volunteered to run through drills with Bland for hours just for the chance to play one-on-one with him after the workout. Early in the summer Westbrook was getting routed. By the end he was stealing a game or two.
It took time for the work to pay off. Westbrook was cut from the varsity as a freshman, and as a sophomore and junior he was, says Morris, "more Sam Cassell than Derrick Rose. He tried to do the things he's doing now. His body just wouldn't let him." So Westbrook became a student of the game. He tagged along with his father to the park, where he learned how to play closer to the ground. He became adept at bumping defenders off him to create space. He honed his midrange shot. He practiced cutting and getting to his spots. He took 1,000 shots from the left side, then moved over and took 1,000 on the right. "I'd keep telling him that no one was perfect," says Russell Sr., "but the great players keep moving forward, keep getting better."
The summer before Westbrook's senior season he grew four inches, and his body finally caught up to his game. Kent State and Creighton, the schools that were recruiting him, suddenly became UCLA and Arizona. He chose to stay close to home, but after a year as a backup point guard and a season as a combo guard and defensive stopper with the Bruins, he entered the draft. Interest, at first, was lukewarm. Teams wondered what position he would play. "I went one year without being a point guard, and everyone said I couldn't play point guard," says Westbrook. "That really bothered me."
It didn't bother Oklahoma City. In scouting Westbrook, the Thunder zeroed in on a stretch early in Westbrook's sophomore season, when he filled in for injured point guard Darren Collison. The front office was impressed by how Westbrook was able to get to spots on the floor quickly, how playing in a structured offense didn't stifle his athleticism and how coach Ben Howland always seemed to find ways to keep him on the court.