HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Delivering world-class performances on a nightly basis, Russell Westbrook brings his act to the world’s most famous arena for a sold-out, one-night-only engagement.
Call him controversial. Call him hot-headed. Call him a ball hog. On any other team without Kevin Durant (or LeBron James) you just might call him MVP.
That’s how good Westbrook, the brash Oklahoma City point guard, has played for the better part of two months and particularly so since the start of February, a span of 14 games in which he’s averaged 27.4 ppg, 6.2 apg, 4.6 rpg and has shot 50.9 percent (136-for-267) overall while averaging 19.1 shots a game.
So break a leg — — and hopefully not an ankle — Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and whoever else New York throws at the 6-foot-3 lightning bolt — when the Thunder and Knicks clash in a marquee matchup at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET, TNT).
“Take away the first month of the season, he didn’t shoot the ball well, but other than that he’s been on a nice offensive shooting streak the last 15-20 games,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But his leadership, his ability to control the game and manage the game is improving every game.”
There might not be two better examples than the Thunder’s last two wins against Los Angeles’ two teams. OKC beat the Clippers in L.A. In the final 2:51 with the game hanging in the balance, the edgy Westbrook scored six of his 10 fourth-quarter points and delivered two of his three assists to take the 108-104 victory. He finished with 29 points on 11-for-20 shooting (55 percent), 10 assists and six rebounds.
“That game was one of his best performances considering who he is playing against [Chris Paul], who we are playing against and on their floor in a crazy environment,” Brooks said. “He just kept doing his job at a very consistent level, just form a point-guard team leadership and managing the players.”
Two nights later, he crushed the Lakers for 37 points on 15-for-29 shooting (51.7 percent), 10 rebounds and five assists. He scored 15 of OKC’s 26 third-quarter points and had 18 in the second half to keep the Thunder ahead as Kobe Bryant rallied the Lakers to within five points with six minutes to go and Durant struggled to just six points in the second half.
Afterward Kobe praised the former UCLA Bruin who was in third grade when Kobe broke in with Westbrook’s hometown Lakers.
“It’s always fun to go up against him,” Kobe said. “Some nights I get the best of him. I’d argue with him that most nights I get the best of him. But tonight he did his thing, he did his thing. He was very tough to control. He’s a fantastic player.”
A few moments later as the Lakers pulled out of town, Kobe tweeted about Westbrook: “He’s got mamba blood runnin thru his veins . You gave it to me tonight lil bro. C u down the road!”
Since Westbrook and Durant have paired their polar personalities in OKC, with the more reclusive Westbrook seemingly thriving on anger and the all-inclusive Durant nurturing ego harmony, the perception of the past was that that the two won’t co-exist for long. The idea was Westbrook can’t submit to Durant, that he gobbles up too many shots that should go to his mega-star scoring champ.
Only no one with the Thunder has ever laid down such parameters.
“He has the ball in his hands a lot and he picks and chooses his spots really well, when to score, when to pass,” Durant said. “He’s done a great job.”
With a size, quickness and athletic advantage over most of his counterparts, Westbrook is a devastating penetrator and has become even threatening to get to the rim as he’s developed his stop-and-pop, high-rising jumper from the free-throw line and elbow. As tremendous an offensive season as Durant is compiling, Westbrook’s 23.6 ppg and 7.8 apg, the highest point-assist combo of his career, can be overshadowed.
But it can’t be overlooked.
The three-time All-Star is well on his way to a third consecutive All-NBA team spot, and is threatening to turn his two previous second-team selections into a first-time first-team nod.
“Nothing new,” Durant said of his partner. “He’s been a leader all year for us, vocal, keeping the game composed, everybody on our team, keeping his cool and controlling the game from both ends of the floor. He’s been great all season.”