OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After a drama-filled and disappointing season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook remains as defiant as ever.
The All-Star point guard averaged a triple-double for the third straight season and nearly averaged one in the playoffs. But Portland bounced the Thunder in five games, and Westbrook’s poor shooting played a significant role in another first-round exit. He shot 36 percent from the floor during the series and made just 11 of 31 field goals in the deciding Game 5 loss.
Don’t expect the 30-year-old gunslinger to change his approach when teams back off, daring him to take a shot.
“There’s no process,” Westbrook said. “Shoot it. That’s it.”
The emotional Westbrook has been at the center of the good — and the bad — this season for OKC.
He got into a verbal altercation with fans in Utah, led the league with 16 technical fouls and was suspended a game for them, engaged in trash talking with Portland’s Damian Lillard during the playoffs and responded during postgame news conferences with, “Next question.”
Westbrook’s actions have been magnified by the team’s disappointing early playoff exit and the fact that since Kevin Durant left for Golden State after the 2015-16 season, the Thunder have not won a playoff series.
It also has led to backlash within the league. Injured Portland center Jusuf Nurkic wore a T- shirt after Game 5 that read: “Got Bricks? Next Question.”
Westbrook clearly hears and sees it all, but said he does not care about it.
“When you do so much at a high level, a lot of haters come,” he said. “That’s how life is, man. That’s life, man. When you do so much, people going to try to pull and take away and try to take that away from you. But nobody can take away from me.”
Thunder forward Paul George said there’s more to Westbrook than the fans see. It was Westbrook who convinced George to stay when he could have left in free agency last summer. And Westbrook helped George finish second in the league with 28 points per game.
“Anything he does is just amplified, and you know, if anybody knows Russ on a personal level, you know that he’s as real as it gets,” George said. “He’s 100 percent. He’s as pure as a person that you can find. If you’re watching him from afar, you might mistake that for him being a certain type of way.”
George acknowledged that Westbrook makes things difficult for himself at times.
“I mean, it’s a tough position to be in because I know being around him … I know where it’s coming from,” George said. “It just doesn’t come off the right way. But I know where it’s coming from.”
But something needs to change for OKC to get past the recent early postseason exits. One area of concern is 3-point shooting, as the Thunder struggled from behind the arc.
Westbrook is especially sensitive to criticism of his 3-point shooting. He led the league averaging 10.7 assists per game, with 22.9 points and a career-high 11.1 rebounds per contest. He finished this season with 34 triple-doubles and now is tied for second all-time with Magic Johnson with 138 in his career.
“I know what I’m able to do and 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, and I truly believe that,” he said. “If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”
Oklahoma City shot 35.9 percent on threes when others took them — above the league average of 35.5 percent. Westbrook brought the team’s average down to 34.8 percent.
Westbrook mentioned perhaps trying to take better shots next season, but sees the criticism of his overall game as unjustified.
“I’ve been blessed, and I stay prayerful, stay thankful to be able to do what I’m able to do,” he said, “and nobody can ever take that away from me. Regardless of what it is, how many stories are written, how many stats are put up, how many numbers are put up. Doesn’t matter.”
What does matter is three first-round postseason exits.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP