LAS VEGAS — Russell Westbrook was so good in Game 4 of the NBA Finals that Kobe Bryant couldn’t turn it off.
Bryant watched only one game in its entirety, and not surprisingly that was it. Westbrook scored 43 points, making 20 of 32 shots in a spectacular performance, but his Oklahoma City Thunder fell 104-98 in Miami.
“He just was bonkers,” Bryant said.
Good as Westbrook was, he couldn’t beat Dwyane Wade.
Now the Americans need him to be Dwyane Wade.
With Wade unable to play this summer, his former U.S. Olympic teammates believe Westbrook is the player who can inherit his role from Beijing as the potent scorer and game-changer off the bench.
“Absolutely, because he’s that type of player,” LeBron James said. “He’s that attacker, he’s that guy that can get in the passing lane, create steals. D-Wade, he changed the momentum when he came into the game. We told him we just want him to score, score the basketball, play high intensity on defense and he did that.”
Wade underwent left knee surgery Monday in Miami and is expected to be ready in time for the Heat’s training camp. The Americans think they can be better this summer than the 2008 gold medalists, but it will be difficult to replace Wade, who seemed to be playing at another speed in Beijing.
“One of the things that D-Wade brought to our team in Beijing was he created extra possessions for us,” Bryant said. “He shot the passing lanes extremely well. He got a great amount of steals, which created a lot of easy run outs for us, and Russell’s just as good at that.”
Wade was the Americans’ leading scorer in Beijing, averaging 16 points in just 18.8 minutes per game. He made 67 percent of his shots, almost unimaginable for a guard, by blowing by helpless defenders or capitalizing on the Americans’ repeated fast-break opportunities.
His status was unclear heading into that summer after he had sat out the end of the NBA season with a knee injury, but it was obvious right from their first exhibition game, when he started in place of an injured James and sparked a rout of Canada, that he was back in top form. He ended the summer by scoring a game-high 27 points to help the U.S. hold off Spain in the gold-medal game.
“D-Wade, he was the leading scorer of that team I think, and Russell can do the same thing,” said Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s Thunder teammate. “He can score at will, he’s so athletic, extend possessions for us with his offensive rebounding, his defense. So we’re looking forward to having him out there.”
Yet Westbrook isn’t for everybody, and he plays perhaps the NBA’s most scrutinized game. He isn’t a pass-first point guard like Steve Nash, infuriating those who think his job should be to create shots for Durant, not himself. He’s prone to awful shooting nights, following his Game 4 masterpiece by going 4 of 20 as the Heat wrapped up the title in Game 5.
Perhaps the combination of the Olympic stage and a playing style that suits his skills better will help Westbrook win over his critics.
“Maybe, but you know my job is not to worry about that,” he said. “My job is to come in every day and try to get better.”
Westbrook doesn’t understand why his game has so many haters, nor does Mike Krzyzewski. But the coach is focused on the good, and on the opportunity for Westbrook to do for him what Wade did.
“There’s that potential that Russell can do that,” Krzyzewski said. “I think Russell’s a great player. It baffles me how people can be so critical of him. I think what he does is absolutely sensational. His ball pressure, his offensive rebounding, his athleticism is off the charts.”
Westbrook averaged 9.1 points for the Americans in the 2010 world basketball championship, third on the team, including 13 points in the gold-medal game victory over Turkey. As with that team, he won’t be restricted to playing point guard now, with Chris Paul and Deron Williams both on the roster.
Westbrook’s game isn’t like theirs, but the Americans don’t care. They just need it to resemble Wade’s.
“I mean, I’m fitting the role of whatever it takes for us to win,” Westbrook said. “My job is to come in, be in attack mode. That’s what I do.”
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