Nothin' but Net: NBA's most polarizing leading a comeback

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Updated: 5/28/2014 7:32 am

Philadelphia, PA ( - Know how certain things just create polarizing responses?

There could be a movie, TV show, song, food or book one person loves, the other hates and we have an argument.

"The Simpsons" Halloween episodes - I hate.

Candy corn - I love.

Some things elicit all-or-nothing responses.

Russell Westbrook is the NBA's version of that phenomenon.

The arguments against Westbrook are more publicized than a Kardashian wedding.

"He's too selfish."

"He looks for his shot too frequently."

"He takes poor shots."

"He shoots it too often instead of passing it to Kevin Durant."

You've read those statements, you've heard them from pundits, or you've thought them yourself.

There's merit in there. I've written it.

Through the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, Westbrook attempted 10 more shots than Kevin Durant and all Durant did this season was win the MVP award. That difference should either be tightened significantly, if not swung completely in the other direction.

Against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, Westbrook played completely out of control at times. His shot selection was embarrassing.

Funny thing happened, and whether it was purposeful or not, the disparity got closer. In Oklahoma City's Game 3 and 4 victories over San Antonio in the Western Finals, Westbrook has taken two more shots than Durant.

His performance on Tuesday night was historic. Westbrook torched the Spurs for 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals. The last player to post those numbers in the postseason was Michael Jordan in 1989. That's not even Jordan in his prime years. The best Jordan never did that.

The under-control Westbrook we witnessed on Tuesday was breathtaking. He didn't force a single thing and when Durant heated up in the second quarter, Westbrook force-fed him the ball like a mom pushing Brussels sprouts on a kid.

But in Game 4 what really made Westbrook remind the world of his greatness came on the defensive end.

While he missed time with knee injuries, OKC head coach Scott Brooks commented on how much the team missed Westbrook on the defensive side. That statement came to life in Game 4 and not just with the five steals.

Westbrook attacked his man as soon as he came over halfcourt. He reached in passing lanes, caused turnovers when he dropped down in help and pity the poor chap who came into the lane with Westbrook lurking. He stripped Tony Parker from behind; facing him, you name it.

"His focus on every possession on the defensive end and his poise on the offensive end, that's what is fun to watch," Durant said. "That's something we can build on as a group, watching him wreak havoc on the defensive end and offensively playing with such patience."

That's beautifully articulated by Durant. That's exactly what he did and that stifling defense ignited an offense that outscored the Spurs, 21-0, in fast- break points.

And forget about Parker of late. After he averaged 18 points in the first two games, he's at 11.5 in the last two, mainly with Westbrook guarding him.

"Once we use our athleticism, use our size, use our strength, it's at our advantage, and I think we're in a good position when we do things like that," Westbrook said.

Again, another brilliant statement because the athleticism factor has helped sway these Finals OKC's way.

San Antonio has looked old trying to chase down Westbrook, Durant, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. The Spurs are old, but they've had a knack of imposing their will on the opposition.

In the last two games, the Thunder have forced the issue through their defense. While Westbrook's on-ball pressure has been a gigantic force at the front of the monster, it wouldn't be fair to ignore the back end any longer.

Serge Ibaka returned two games into his season-ending calf injury and has been perhaps a bigger factor than previously thought. In his two games this series, Ibaka is averaging 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots. That's very strong, but his presence can be felt in the totality of what Oklahoma City has been doing.

In Game 1, San Antonio scored a massive 66 points in the paint. In Game 2, the number dropped to 54, which is still unacceptable. With Ibaka back, the Spurs have managed 40 and 36 in the two games and the number has gotten progressively lower as the series wore on.

Plus, the Spurs haven't shot 40 percent from the field since Ibaka limped back into action.

"We didn't play smart on a consistent basis, and all of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Game 4."I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They'd know who Serge was."

Pop's acerbic wit illustrates a big problem and that is San Antonio can't compete with OKC in the interior with Ibaka in the lineup. That's not to say the Spurs are done because with that Hall of Fame experience in the silver and back, all bets are off. Plus, the Spurs are proficient from beyond the arc, Popovich is a genius and two of the last three in the series are in San Antonio.

But this defensive renaissance has come at a perfect time. The Spurs are reeling and may remember two years ago when they blew a 2-0 lead to the Thunder in the conference finals.

Left for dead, the Thunder are back. They own all of the momentum heading into Thursday's Game 5 in Alamo City.

Durant has been his usual awesome self. Ibaka's return paid off larger than expected.

But the all-around play of Westbrook has been the catalyst. He's emotional, which helps in the huddle and helps when things are going well.

When things go south, Westbrook forces it, sometimes at the expense of Durant's touches and definitely at the expense of every other Thunder player's touches.

He's polarizing, not only in opinions about him, but in terms of which Westbrook we'll see on a nightly basis.

This version of Westbrook is working and the Thunder are winning. Nothing polarizing about that.


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