OKLAHOMA CITY -- Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook couldn't be more opposite as basketball players. Paul is measured and cerebral. Westbrook is audacious and bull-headed. Paul is smooth, surgical and incisive. Westbrook is one big fast-twitch muscle, a cataclysmic nova whose gravitational pull can overwhelm a game.
Paul falls in the traditional category of what a point guard is. Westbrook has created a category all to himself. They both play the same position -- officially speaking -- but they run their teams in different ways. And in the absences of their All-Star teammates, both have found ways to carry them.
Paul and the Clippers have gone 8-5 since Blake Griffin's elbow surgery on Feb. 9. Westbrook and the Thunder have gone 6-3 since Kevin Durant's foot procedure on Feb. 22. Westbrook is on a remarkable triple-double binge, averaging 34.4 points, 10.9 rebounds and 11.9 assists in the nine games without Durant. Paul has scored more willingly than usual, averaging 20.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 12.6 assists. The two square off in Oklahoma City as the Thunder host the Clippers on Wednesday night (8 ET, ESPN), with both teams in need of a win. And it will be the matchup of Paul and Westbrook that could ultimately decide it.
What's interesting about Paul and Westbrook is last season they were in the same shoes as Griffin and Durant. With Westbrook out all of January following an arthroscopic procedure on his knee, Durant evolved into the Slim Reaper, putting together a month of volcanic offense that helped win him the MVP. Likewise, with Paul out virtually all of January, Griffin obliterated the stereotypes surrounding his game and carried the Clippers.
For Westbrook, the experience of not playing not only humbled him, but also gave him the chance to step back and observe -- not just in how his own game fit alongside teammates, but in how Durant took the reins of his team and guided them. What has he learned about himself, though, in playing unfettered without Durant?
"Nothing really," Westbrook said. "Nothing I didn't know already about myself."
Paul's reputation has always been mostly sterling throughout the league. Despite a lack of postseason success, Paul is regarded as a master craftsman, the prototypical floor general who balances between taking over himself and distributing to others. He's a reluctant scorer, and a brilliant facilitator.
Westbrook is different. Maybe because of the position that's listed next to his name, or the superstar teammate he shares a spotlight with, he's never fit the conventional standards of some, thus remaining one of the most polarizing stars in the league.
But this time without Durant has not only allowed Westbrook to spread his wings offensively and play the role so many have always assumed he's coveted -- his usage rate is an astronomical 42.2 percent the last nine games -- but it's also resulted in the best PR he's ever had. Westbrook is showcasing what he can do as a lone wolf, and that his efforts to fit with Durant in the past have held back the individual wrecking ball that he can be. We're all witness to the full-on unfiltered Russell Westbrook Experience right now, with each 48-minute game an open field for him to roam free. The near-universal praise is something new for Westbrook, but he's not hanging newspaper clips in his bedroom or anything.
"For me, doesn't change my mindset, doesn't change anything," he said of the recognition. "People that know me, I'll be the same if I have a good game, bad game. If I play well, people are going to talk about me. If they love me, if they don't love me, I'm going to play the same way regardless. That's just what I've been doing. Sticking to it. Trusting what I do. Trusting the people in this building. It's the same for me."
Westbrook seems to always have drawn motivation from his critics, even turning friends into enemies to make sure that he constantly has someone to prove wrong. At least that's been the perception, something he actually disagrees with.
"Says who?" Westbrook said when asked about using criticism as fuel.
"It's always seemed like that, maybe it wasn't fuel ... correct me if I'm wrong," a reporter responded.
"You're wrong," Westbrook said flatly. "I just compete, man. I compete. I compete every night regardless of what's going on, regardless of criticism. ... My job is to do that every single night, compete at a level that I don't think nobody else can do."
Westbrook's competitive spirit is what makes him special. He has a will to win that most can't match, a relentless motor that is charged with a tangible anger against his opponent. Without Durant, he's been backed into a corner and forced to answer the challenge of carrying his team to the postseason. After a November in which both Durant and Westbrook sat because of injuries that resulted in a 3-12 start, the Thunder have no room for error.
For both Paul and Westbrook, though, playing without their star teammate has created the required narrative to build an MVP candidacy. But when it comes to what's really important, to what matters, they know what their team needs, and it's more than they can give.
"If I play well people are going to talk about me. If they love me, if they don't love me, I'm going to play the same way regardless." Russell Westbrook
"We need Blake," Paul told reporters in Memphis recently. "Don't get it twisted: We need him, and we need him bad."
Paul had more of a cushion when Griffin went down. Some wondered whether the Clippers might slide enough to have their playoff position put in doubt, but that was quickly put to bed. It's not that Paul had to prove anything, but he did have to do some reminding. Starting with a Game 5 meltdown in OKC last postseason, Paul has seen his glimmering reputation take a few hits. Some wondered whether he was slipping out of his prime, if his best NBA years were already behind him. The last three weeks have pretty much shut up those doubters.
"With Blake, obviously we play a lot different because we can depend on him," Paul said. "With him being out, we definitely move the ball a lot more. Guys are finding themselves, too.
"I keep saying it is kind of similar to when I went out last year. The ball started hopping, and then when I came back, it started hopping even more."
What's interesting about the Westbrook/Paul-carrying-the-team dynamic, though, is the critique of Paul is that he's often too unwilling to score himself, that he defers too much. The critique of Westbrook is obviously the opposite.
But in this run in which they're flying solo, and they've been forced out of their comfort zones to carry their teams, they aren't doing one or the other. They're doing both. They're doing what's necessary. They're doing what they're supposed to do.