Westbrook the key to a Thunder upset

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Russell Westbrook is great. There’s really no way to dispute this.

Oklahoma City’s point guard is likely to make his first All-NBA First Team this season after appearing on the Second Team four times. He’s won the All-Star MVP in back-to-back years. Westbrook is widely recognized as the most athletic guard in the league, a physical force of nature.

That’s why these Western Conference finals rest on his shoulders, win or lose.

While Golden State chases down its second consecutive championship and Stephen Curry continues to wrestle “face of basketball” status from reigning King LeBron James, Westbrook remains stuck in the shadows. Because he plays with another elite star in Kevin Durant, he’s actually played the role of scapegoat, often deservedly, instead of being lauded for his exploits.

That makes him the ultimate x-factor in a series few actually believe the Thunder can win. Sportsbook.ag set the series prices at -350 for favored Golden State while enticing OKC backers with a return of +275 prior to Game 1.

Westbrook, who calls Curry just another elite shooter and nothing he’s never seen before, hasn’t shied from the fact that he feels slighted by the two-time MVP.

Curry, who has viewed Westbrook as a rival as well due to the physical disadvantage he’s often at against him, typically shines against the Thunder. Despite the fact they don’t often defend one another, this is personal.

During the regular season, Curry averaged 35.0 points in the three wins over the Thunder, shooting 48 percent as the highest-scoring team in the league posted an average of 118.7 points in the three wins, twice scoring 121.

Curry’s 3-point shooting was erratic, since he enjoyed his most prolific game on a memorable Saturday night where he went 12-for-16 from beyond the arc.

You remember, that was the game he won at the buzzer in OT, drilling his NBA-record tying 12th 3-pointer to the disbelief of everyone in attendance in Oklahoma City and captivated watching at home on national television. Westbrook was stuck trailing the play and shaking his head.

Golden State swept the Thunder in three regular-season games, and Westbrook hasn’t been his typically dominant self in any of the matchups. He had his best game against the Warriors in that first outing, a visit to Oakland where he shot 8-for-22 but dished out 12 assists and committed just three turnovers, playing within himself despite the huge stage, one night before the Super Bowl also being played in the Bay Area, which made the Saturday evening basketball game an appetizer attended by a who’s who of celebrities.

His other performances simply were awful. In the game Curry thrived in, Westbrook was sliced up defensively, turned it over seven times, shot 10-for-29 and was an ice-cold 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. In the most recent March regular-season meeting, he was 8-for-24 from the field, including 1-for-8 from 3-point range.

The Warriors provide him with multiple looks to limit his aggressiveness and try to bait him into settling for jumpers. Thus far, it’s worked, which makes that their likely strategy for these conference finals.

Given Durant’s impending free agency, Oklahoma City is banking that Westbrook can fare well enough to entice his long-time running mate to stay put, even for at least one more year.

Durant has definitely not been the problem against the Warriors considering the Elias Sports Bureau notes that he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players ever to average at least 36 points, 12 rebounds and six assists against an opponent they faced at least three times in a season. He shot 53 percent despite often facing two of the top defenders in the game, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

That means this is all on Westbrook, always divisive since his antics have cost the Thunder games in the past. These Western Conference Finals will swing on his improvement. They ride on his decision-making.

Westbrook’s rock bottom in this postseason has been a 10-for-31 shooting performance in the last loss suffered against the Spurs, a nightmare of a Game 3 that looked like the beginning of the end for OKC. While Westbrook didn’t shoot the ball well in Game 4, he dished out 15 assists, turned it over just three times and was able to make sure everyone else got off, a chore he struggles with in balancing his ridiculous talent with the job description of a point guard.

Entering the series opener, Oklahoma City is a perfect 6-0 this postseason when Westbrook dishes out double-digit assists. They’re 2-3 when he doesn’t.

Nobody should expect him to deviate too far from the attacking, Tazmanian devil-style that has made him great, but reining himself in enough to ensure the ball moves and everyone remains engaged against Golden State is a must if you’re going to beat a team this efficient.

Make no mistake, if you’re taking the gamble that Oklahoma City can pull off a stunning upset of the 73-win Warriors, you’re banking that Westbrook can out-shine Curry to finish a season where he’s been the NBA’s golden boy. It’s risky, but he can definitely bring the thunder of the boom-or-bust proposition.

And, yes, as we’ve seen, he can definitely drag you down and everyone else along with him.

Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].

About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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