MVP Ladder: Westbrook recapturing mojo from last season Global on Jan 27, 2018 08:33 AM
MVP Ladder: Westbrook recapturing mojo from last season
FILE - OKLAHOMA CITY, OK -NOVEMBER 15: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during the game against the Chicago Bulls on November 15, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith,

When the Oklahoma City was fighting against stereotype early this season and battling to craft a new identity, patience was preached by some. With reigning Kia MVP Russell Westbrook flanked by fellow All-Star acquisitions Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, change was afoot for the Thunder.

Westbrook, however, was noticeably reserved on the topic. He made sure, it seemed, to avoid rushing to any sort of judgements about the new situation and where things were headed.

Was he confident the Thunder would find their way? Of course, he was. Westbrook has never lacked confidence in himself, his game or his team.

So it’s not surprising to see him now, in full lather with the Thunder finally looking like the team so many thought they would be when they swung those offseason deals for Georgeand Anthony.

His public rebuke of an All-Star voting and selection process that didn’t include George, his trademark snarl at the first sign of anyone doubting him and the monster production he delivers in the face of any sign of disrespect is all there.

It comes at the perfect time, with the Thunder riding the wave of a six-game win streak after Thursday’s (Friday, PHL time) win over the visiting Washington Wizards and their All-Star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Westbrook, who rises into the top three of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, is clearly back in attack mode with the Thunder having won 20 of their 28 games since a rough 8-12 start to this season.

And if you don’t think Westbrook’s season-high 46-point night was fueled by the circumstance, no matter what he says, then you haven’t paid attention to Westbrook.

“I just read the game honestly, and if it’s time for me to take over, then that’s what I do,” Westbrook told reporters after shredding the Wizards’ defense, making 19 of his 29 shots (1-for-3 from three-point range) in what was easily one of his most efficient offensive outings of the season.

Westbrook feeds off a lack of respect better than any other player in the game, and usually lets his effort and energy do the talking instead of engaging in a public back-and-forth the way he did after labeling George the biggest All-Star snub.

There will be more of this in the days and weeks leading up to the Feb. 18 (Feb. 19, PHl time) All-Star Game, which will take place in Westbrook’s hometown of Los Angeles.

You know he won’t be shy about chasing MVP honors that night as a member of Team LeBron, alongside his former Thunder teammate Kevin Durant, when the league’s biggest stars hit the Staples Center floor for the league’s 67th All-Star showcase.

The stretch run of the regular season will offer more opportunities for Westbrook and the Thunder to prove they belong among the league’s elite.

The time for patience, it appears, is over.

* * *

The top five in the Week 15 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 31.2 points, 9.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds

It didn’t take Harden long to regain his form after missing seven games with that hamstring injury. Since his return, the Rockets have won four straight games, locked up the season series (2-1) against the Golden State Warriors and made the statement to the rest of the league that they're serious championship contenders. Harden didn’t go all Clint Capela and proclaim his team as the league’s top dog just because they finished on the right side of the regular-season series against the Warriors. But he’d be right to have his confidence sky-high given the the fact the Rockets are 17-0 when he, Chris Paul and Capela are in the starting lineup together. That makes today's game against the New Orleans Pelicans and their All-Star starters DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis extra spicy.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 26.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists

Durant got it all in Thursday (Friday, PHL time). He picked up that $15,000 fine for his public criticism of a game official, was the first pick in the All-Star Draft (joining Team LeBron) and then capped things off with a 28-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound performance in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Oracle Arena. None of it should come as a surprise from Durant, who also added three blocks and two steals to his stat line last night. The nine-time All-Star said after the game he was humbled by being picked first in the All-Star draft (something he believes to be true). Durant was the No. 2 overall pick in his Draft class and has always said that served as part of his motivation. But the man who has developed into one of the league’s truly elite two-way players since joining the Warriors, is riding high these days with the Warriors cruising toward the All-Star break. He’s averaging 26.3 points (on .556 shooting), 7.5 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks in his last 10 games.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week's ranking: No. 8

Season stats: 25.4 points, 9.9 assists, 9.5 rebounds

Westbrook and the Thunder took their lumps early this season as they worked to get comfortable with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony sharing the leadership load. And now that they have found the right vibe, they’ve won 20-of-28 after starting the season after an uneven 8-12 start. That success is in large part because Westbrook has gotten back to the style that helped him win the 2016-17 Kia MVP. He’s not on the same triple-double pace and isn’t chasing a scoring title, but he’s not far off. And the Thunder, winners of six straight, are better with Russ doing his “Lil’ Rage” routine on a regular basis. He was spectacular Thursday night (Friday, PHL time), plowing over and through the Washington Wizards and their All-Star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal for a season-high 46 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals. Westbrook isn’t happy about being the Thunder’s only All-Star (see his lobbying for George earlier this week) which means the rest of the league -- and the teams on the Thunder schedule between now and Feb. 18 (Feb. 19, PHL time) -- will pay.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 27.5 points, 6.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Curry is taking the criticism of his All-Star Draft work in stride, defending his picks after Thursday night’s (Friday, PHL time) reveal on TNT of the rosters for next month’s All-Star Game with his trademark wit. Anyone focusing on Steph’s GM skills, however, is missing the point. He’s been on fire of late, knocking down 48.3 percent of his three-pointers in his last five games while averaging 28.8 points (on .500 shooting), 7.1 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals in his past 10 games. He followed up an ugly 6-for-20 shooting performance in a loss to Houston last weekend with a 32-point shelling of the New York Knicks (he was 8-for-15 from deep) and a stellar 25-point (5-for-9 from distance), nine-assist, five-rebound, three-steal performance in the Warriors’ win over Minnesota last night. Remarkably, Steph’s scoring is up from last season (from 25.3) in Year 2 alongside Kevin Durant.

5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week's ranking: No. 6

Season stats: 26.8 points, 8.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds

As poorly as the Cavaliers have played since Christmas, LeBron shouldn’t shoulder the blame for teammates who can’t seem to find their mark. While the Cavaliers’ recent ugly stretch has seen them lose 10 of their last 13 games, LeBron became just the seventh player in NBA history to reach the 30,000-point plateau and also earned the most votes in the All-Star balloting. Make no mistake, though: the Cavaliers' issues are real. Changes to the starting lineup and rotation are clearly needed for a team struggling like Cleveland is. But LeBron, who has averaged 23.3 points, 6.7 points and 6.6 assists (on .511 shooting) over his last 10 games is the least of coach Tyronn Lue’s problems. Those problems, however, could perhaps be addressed by the Feb. 8 (Feb. 9, PHL time) trade deadline.

The next five:

6. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

7. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

8. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

9. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

And five more ...

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

Next up?

An inside look at Goran Dragic from an Eastern Conference executive:

“I’ve listened to all of this stuff about guys being snubbed for the All-Star Game and who should and should not be included, and I think the one guy who I’ve been surprised hasn’t come up more often is Dragic. He doesn’t have the gaudy numbers and he’s not nearly as flashy at this stage of his career, but I’d make the case for him based on the impact he’s had on one of the top teams in the conference. The coaches know what he brings to the table. He’s running that team extremely well, picking his spots and really doing exactly what (Heat coach Erik) Spo(elstra) is asking him to. When you have a team like that, with so many guys who have gotten paid and are all battling for positions in the rotation, it can get a little sticky when you are the one with he ball in your hands and triggering the offense. That responsibility, the floor leadership, is where I think he’s made his greatest strides since earlier in his career. In Phoenix, he struck me as more of a one-trick pony, a scoring point guard who really didn’t have a great feel for how to consistently facilitate for his guys.

"He never had a problem getting his own shot and scoring with the best of them. But his game has evolved nicely. He’s by no means a lock-down defender, but his effort is righteous. It’s legit. I don’t think there is any doubt that his work with the [Slovenian] national team played a part in the development. When you have that burden and take that team to the title at EuroBasket, it says a lot about what type of leader he has become. I’m sure it’s more important in Miami that he continues to fine-tune those leadership skills than worry about being an All-Star. And like I said, you haven’t heard anything from anyone down there chirping about him being disrespected or snubbed. They are focused, and rightfully so, on the bigger picture and where this guy can lead them in the playoff hunt. They’ve got a chance to earn a top three or four seed. That’s most important. The fact that he’s focused on that is what really shows the growth.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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