Miami, FL – It's hard to believe but Russell Westbrook has quickly become the most polarizing and heavily criticized figure in these NBA Finals.
Now granted LeBron James has been fantastic in the series so far but ever since he took his talents to South Beach, the reigning MVP has been the most vilified player in the NBA, taken to task for everything from his wardrobe to his facial expressions and oh yeah, that pesky habit of disappearing at the end of big games.
That last one went up in smoke in Game 2, however, when the Heat evened the series behind "The King," who came up with a number of big plays in the final frame. That forced the LeBron haters to shift their angst and instead of harping on James' lunch order, they took aim at another guy who likes to wear some interesting eyewear -- Westbrook.
The Thunder's point guard has been getting it with both barrels ever since his slow start in Game 2.
Westbrook was certainly playing far too fast early on in that one and his decision-making, considered his Achilles heel by most, was awful in the opening minutes, but as bad as the UCLA product was in the first quarter, that's how good he was late.
Problem is when you are down 18-2 like the Thunder were on Thursday, that's like climbing Mount Everest against a talented team like Miami.
"We need Russell to score. I know some of you don't like that, but Russell is a very, very gifted, talented player, and we would not be in this position without Russell Westbrook," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "He missed two layups, he missed two 14-foot pull-ups, and he normally makes those. He got off to a bad start, but he came back."
He certainly did and to its credit, OKC, largely behind Westbrook and Kevin Durant, almost came all the way back, only to be turned away in the final seconds by James and Co.
With two days to think about his failings in Game 2, Westbrook, no doubt tiring of some of the critiques he's received, grew some rabbit ears and turned defiant.
"I'm not making no adjustments," the Thunder star said. "Regardless of what anybody says or regardless of what you guys say about how I play, it doesn't matter. I'm going to play my game regardless of what happens. I'm going to go out and give 110 percent, and try to find a way to help us win the game.
That outburst had to be brewing for awhile. Some observers have taken shots at Westbrook ever since he arrived in Oklahoma City out of college, noting that he's not a natural point guard and sometimes doesn't get the ball to Durant often enough.
Some have even used the tired OKC will never win a title with Westbrook argument. Of course that means the Heat will win one with Dexter Pittman but logic is never the domain of the overly critical.
In Westbrook's defense, he wasn't a true quarterback in high school, never mind at UCLA and the Thunder don't expect me to be a carbon copy of their assistant coach, former Philadelphia star Maurice Cheeks, the prototypical natural point guard.
"Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a (John) Stockton or a Mo Cheeks," Durant said. "There's a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either. We need him to play the way he plays. Of course he's going to make mistakes, and we're all going to make mistakes."
In fact most conveniently forget that Durant was also one of those making mistakes alongside Westbrook early in Game 2, pressing in the opening moments and not getting to the spots on the floor he likes.
"It was tough to watch, go to the film and look at it and say, wow, did I really just do that?" Durant said of the opening minutes of Game 2. "It falls back on me as a leader. So I have to start the games out with a lot of intensity, no matter if I'm making shots or missing shots, no matter if I make a bad defensive rotation, I've just got to start off with a lot of energy."
Durant also had a chance to even the game in the waning seconds, misfiring on a short baseline jumper. Sure, it seemed like James fouled the scoring champion on the play but it also looked like Durant short-armed the shot a bit.
Durant, however, is beyond reproach and likely should be. The lanky superstar is averaging 34.0 points per game on 57.1 shooting through two games in The Finals.
Westbrook, however, isn't far behind, netting 27.0 ppg and also dishing nine assists per contest, more than any other player in the series.
Problem is, everyone needs a scapegoat and a guy like Thabo Sefolosha, who is shooting 30.0 percent in The Finals, doesn't have the kind of a cachet to play that roll.
So, for now, it's Westbrook, even if his teammates know better.
"The best thing about Russ is he comes to work every single day," Durant said. "That's what you guys don't see is how hard he works and how much he wants it. That's what I love about him. He doesn't care what people say, he's going to play his game and we need him to play his game, and we'll go from there."