As much as Russell Westbrook said he refuses to change, he truly realizes he must in some ways. The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant abruptly departed for the Warriors three seasons ago. Westbrook was humiliated by Damian Lillard in Portland’s first-round win over the Thunder this past week.
The two have been rivals for years. Both feel disregarded in their own way — Lillard because he came from a mid-major college (Weber State) and has spent his career proving he’s a franchise player, Westbrook because he was abandoned by Durant and it’s reached a point where most basketball observers take his triple-double record for granted. He has averaged more than 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists for three consecutive years now.
But Westbrook has done nothing for the short attention spans of NBA fans. There’s been no big playoff moments. No series wins. Nothing to show for all those numbers. So when Lillard, who considers Westbrook an adversary, swished a 37-footer in the face of Paul George at the buzzer to help the Trail Blazers win their first-round series, it reflected poorly on Westbrook.
Is he just a brash-talking, out-of-control point guard who puts up numbers but not wins? Is he a highly skilled player who has never mastered a jump shot or a move that requires more than athleticism? And is the league tiring of his attitude and surly personality while players such as Lillard make more respectable names for themselves.
Westbrook made it clear during his exit interview he’s good with who he is. He feels as if he’ll never avoid criticism about his game because his skill set is so unique.
Perhaps he’s right, but if the Thunder are to compete for a title again in the next half-decade, Westbrook will have to improve and his supporting cast will have to change.
“If you want to determine my career, what I’ve done over two, three games, you go ahead, that don’t mean [expletive] to me,” he said. “I’m going to wake up, three beautiful kids, I’m going to wake up, smile, be happy, enjoy my life. It doesn’t change anything. I know who I am as a person and that’s the biggest thing I can say. I know what I’m able to do. I know what I’ve done. I know what I can or can’t do. Blessed to wake up every day and enjoy my life.”
That was the carefree Westbrook, the one that presents himself in media sessions. The one who’s convinced he’s one of the best players in the world and doesn’t care what the outside world believes. But he later acknowledged he knows there’s work to do.
“I know I can do everything at a high level so I always find ways to make sure I’m able to do that,” he said. “When you do so much — there used to be conversations that I was a ball hog, and now I lead the league in assists the past three years. That’s getting squashed out, so now the conversation’s about my shooting. Next year I’ll become a better shooter and next year it will probably be my left foot is bigger than my right one. When you have so much impact on the game, I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
So his message to the NBA public is, if you know somebody else who can average triple-doubles, find him. If you know someone with his skill set who can dominate the game in four different categories, including defensively, find him.
He does make a point. As much as Westbrook is turning from hero to villain in the post-Durant years, he remains one of the best all-around players the league has ever seen, and that can’t be taken away.
“That’s why I know you got so much impact on the game. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a very, very great player,” he said. “I don’t care what people think about me because I know what I’m able to do at a high level every night and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis. If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”
Let’s see how Westbrook uses this summer, what kind of player he is next season, his 12th. Can a man more than a decade into his professional career improve dramatically? Can he change his style? Can he become more efficient? Westbrook has spent his career proving us wrong, and he’ll have a chance to do it again.
HE’LL BE MISSED
Havlicek left his mark on the sport
The second of the Celtics’ 1970s Big Three died Thursday — all-time great and franchise leading scorer John Havlicek, who left a legacy as a tireless worker, prolific scorer, and relentless defender.
Dave Cowens joined Jo Jo White and Havlicek to win NBA titles in 1974 and 1976 under coach Tom Heinsohn. Havlicek’s lack of recognition in comparison to Bill Russell and Larry Bird has always bothered Cowens, who said Havlicek was the most talented player he ever played with.
Havlicek scored 26,395 points without the benefit of a 3-point shot in his 16 seasons. He was also eight times an All-Defensive selection, 13-time All-Star, and 11-time All-NBA. Havlicek was already a 30-year-old, eight-year veteran when Cowens was drafted out of Florida State, but the impact was immediate.
“He was one of these guys that exhibited quiet greatness,” Cowens told the Globe. “He was very stoic, professional to the nth degree, and competitive. As a professional and a person, he was top-shelf. To be able to play with a guy like that for eight years in terms of knowing how to win and being a leader, a guy’s got to be pretty lucky.”
Unfortunately, those 1970s teams are often overlooked when great Celtics teams are discussed. The general conversation jumps from the Bob Cousy-Russell teams to the Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish championship clubs, to the 2008 squad with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.
Those 1970s teams played in a more competitive and athletic NBA than their 1960s predecessors. The Celtics, led by Havlicek and Cowens, wanted to prove they could win titles without the retired Russell.
The 1972-73 team won a club-record 68 games before Havlicek separated his shoulder in the Eastern Conference finals and the Celtics lost to the Knicks. Boston responded with two titles in three years, beating Milwaukee and Phoenix. They helped popularize a league that would soon be taken to new heights by Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Bird. More television coverage would make those three into megastars, but players such as Havlicek, who retired in 1978, a few years before the NBA’s renaissance, would become afterthoughts.
“I think we had a good run if you look at it,” Cowens said. “We had a pretty good stretch for quite a long time with two championships and a chance to win it on three other occasions. It’s like they always say when a guy dies everybody talks about how great he was. It would have been nice if people would have given John a little more credit and notoriety about his game than they ever did.
“He deserved it. He was as good as any player that ever played a game from a production standpoint, and he did it without any flair. He was just so solid, an all-around great player. Russell said it best. He said he was the best all-around player I ever saw, and I would agree. He was also a great leader and a great person, a great example of how to life your life.”
Cowens, 70, is an all-time Celtics great. His No. 18 was retired soon after he retired for the first time in 1980, but he has watched some of his most cherished teammates pass away recently. White died in January 2018. Cowens said he cherishes those times and the opportunity he had to play with such greats.
“It also makes you bring a past into the present very clearly,” Cowens said. “It resurrects a lot of thoughts and great times that you had, and I was very thankful that I had an opportunity to play with John for eight years and to be his teammate and to be his friend. It was a blessing for me.”
Cowens said he last talked with Havlicek earlier this month and he appeared lucid and in good spirits. It still annoys Cowens that he feels his friend didn’t get enough recognition for talents and contributions to the game, and he wants to carry that flag.
“The NBA talks about their people, they talk about Bird and Johnson and Erving and Bill Russell, but John Havlicek you never heard anybody on TV talk about how he played and what he meant to the game, his accomplishments,” Cowens said. “He’s sort of ignored and it always bothered me and I would always bring it up when I get into interviews.
“First of all, there wasn’t a lot of TV exposure for John back then. They don’t have a lot film on him and there was not a lot to show to promote and advertise how great this guy was as a player. He was a day-in and day-out guy. He just produced.
“You needed a bucket at the end, he produced. No fanfare. No speeches. No hype. No nothing, just ready to go to work. He was a great finisher. That’s what you want in the NBA. That was his job. I wish they could have more players that understood [humility].”
On a personal note, I actually saw Havlicek’s final professional basketball game – of sorts. The summer after he retired, he played in a charity game at the Inglewood Forum on Aug. 5, 1978, which would be his last organized basketball game. For years I had a T-shirt from the event that read, “I saw Hondo’s last game” on the back. It was one of the my more cherished childhood memories with my late father.
Pacers’ roster due for big changes
The Indiana Pacers were eliminated by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, swept in four games. Their weakness was apparent. The Pacers sorely missed Victor Oladipo, who had been out since January with a knee injury. They lacked scoring punch — in each game of the series, the Pacers went through prolonged droughts that cost them a chance to make the series competitive.
Indiana could have a completely different roster next season as six of its players are free agents. The only Pacers under contract are Oladipo, Myles Turner, Doug McDermott, Domantas Sabonis, T.J. Leaf, and Aaron Holiday. The Pacers will have enough salary cap space to sign a maximum free agent and could certainly use a frontline point guard to pair with Oladipo.
But the Pacers have so many holes that it probably wouldn’t be prudent to use a max slot on one player and then try to add others on discount contracts. Indiana is not a destination city for NBA players, so they are either going to have to overpay free agents, offer bloated short-term deals, or make bids for restricted free agents.
What needs to be decided is the center position. Turner has been a splendid find from the draft after one year at Texas and he is an improving player. Sabonis could emerge as a capable scorer and pick-and-roll player. The Pacers didn’t play both together much and perhaps could dangle Sabonis for another piece.
The problem with the Pacers is they don’t have any extraordinary players besides Oladipo, and they were exposed in the Boston series because they just didn’t have enough talent. Turner was the lone Indiana player who would likely start on other playoff teams. The Pacers had to depend on Bojan Bogdanovic, career scoring average of 13.3, as their primary offensive option when Oladipo went out.
Thaddeus Young is a nice power forward but likely a backup on a contending team, the same with point guard Darren Collison. Indiana was depending heavily on Wesley Matthews to come through in the playoffs and he averaged 7 points on 30 percent shooting in the Boston series.
“I’m going to take some time off and just try to assess my situation,” Collison said. “I have big plans coming up this summer. I finished out the season pretty strong for my age  and I’m very proud of the way I finished it off. I’ve led the best way I can these last two years and I’m thankful for being in the situation to do that.”
Players such as Leaf and Holiday could perhaps garner more playing time, but Indiana desperately needs scoring and may have to pay a hefty price for a small forward who can take offensive pressure off Oladipo.
“I love Aaron,” Turner said of Holiday. “He’s just so poised and I feel like any position that he’s in, he’s going to be himself. You can’t make him speed up. You can’t make him get out of character. I think he’s going to be great for this organization. I have high hopes for him. He’s on a particular road. He’s been groomed to do so and he’s going to be an impact player.”
The blame can’t be placed too much on coach Nate McMillan, who just didn’t have the offensive weapons with which to work. The Pacers signed Tyreke Evans for scoring punch and although he was perhaps Indiana’s best scorer in the Boston series, he shot 39 percent during the regular season and dealt with some off-court issues. Indiana could make bids to bring Young and Bogdanovic back, but the question is whether that would keep them a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
“All season long, and really since we got this group together last season, effort has not been a problem for us,” McMillan said. “Regardless of who was in uniform, what injuries may occur, our guys came out and gave us everything they have every single day. I’ve never had to question this team on their effort. We had a number of injuries this season where we had guys step in and play, and we were able to keep our head above water and finish fifth in the East. We talked about leaving everything on the floor — I thought we did.”
Free agency begins July 1 and there is already one player interested in joining the Celtics. Former Boston College swingman Jared Dudley, who enjoyed a solid bounce-back year for the Brooklyn Nets as a team leader, agitator, and 3-pointer shooter, is interested in returning to his college city to play for the Celtics, according to a league source. Dudley turns 34 in July and played in 59 games for the Nets, starting 25. He shot 35.1 percent from the 3-point line, his worst clip since his rookie season but still respectable. Dudley also served as a capable defender against bigger players and a locker room mentor for many of Brooklyn’s young players. Dudley just finished the three-year, $30 million deal he signed in 2016 with Phoenix. He earned $9 million this past season so he may be open to a mid-level contract. Also, he is represented by Mark Bartelstein, the agent for Gordon Hayward who has a strong relationship with Danny Ainge . . . The Orlando Magic will have to determine what to do with two key free agents in Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, both of whom experienced difficult series in the first-round loss to Toronto. Vucevic, named to his first All-Star team this season, struggled mightily against the Raptors, which may affect his free agent status. He could have been in line for a $100-plus million deal because of his career-high numbers this season (20.8 points, 12 rebounds per game) and is still one of the better big men on the market. Ross is an intriguing free agent because of his freakish athleticism and ability to score. Ross has been overshadowed during his career, first in Toronto (DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry) and then Orlando (Vucevic and Aaron Gordon). But the former slam dunk champ may be ready for a more prominent role. Ross averaged 15.1 points and shot 38.3 percent from the 3-point line as a reserve. With the success of players such as Lou Williams as scorers off the bench, Ross could join a contending team for a similar role. He earned $10.5 million in the final year of his deal and most certainly will receive a raise this summer . . . The Houston Rockets made the unusual move of traveling to the Bay Area in preparation for their second-round series with Golden State, even though the Warriors had not yet won their first-round series. Houston officials figured if the Clippers took the series to seven games — Game 7 would have been Sunday — and won, then the Rockets could head back to Houston for a Game 1 on Wednesday. After the Warriors clinched on Friday, the Rockets were already in the Bay Area for Game 1 on Sunday.