Westbrook's wars: How conflict elevates Russ and the Thunder

The second free throw was out of his hand for a millisecond, and Russell Westbrook was already turning toward the Portland Trail Blazers bench.

Blazers assistant coach Nate Tibbetts had said something that caught Westbrook's attention; nobody wanted to repeat what it was, but it was enough for Westbrook to chirp back. Referee Eric Lewis apparently didn't like what Westbrook had to say and handed out a technical foul.

"What?" Westbrook yelled. "He started it!"

The technical was rescinded a day later, but the altercation was just one of the many small and large battles that make up the never-ending wars of Westbrook.

Westbrook loves talking to the opposing bench. He hears everything, and the moment someone says something -- often a "Hell no!" when he's taking a jumper -- well, then it's on. Each bucket from there on out, that bench is getting a look -- and many times, something more.

"Me, personally, I don't just start talking trash out of nowhere, randomly," Westbrook says. "I may scream or, you know -- that's how I play. But normally I'm not talking crazy. But if somebody's talking crazy to me, that's fine. We can do that."

Westbrook's public beef list is long -- Joel Embiid, Ricky Rubio, Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Kevin Durant and on and on. The reality is everyone is an enemy -- sometimes real, sometimes manifested. Along with that come the staredowns, the snarls, the glares, the gestures, the taunts, the prodding looks and, eventually, the trash talk.

One NBA scout says Westbrook is his least favorite player to watch: "He just never shuts up."

The recent beefing has led to questions about what Westbrook's big problem is and why he is the way he is. He has no chill, to be sure, but there's also a method to the madness.

"The greats at everything," Lillard says, "they're all a little bit crazy."

RUSSELL WESTBROOK'S BEEF with the Denver Nuggets started over some cheese.

It was January 2013, and the Nuggets mascot, Rocky, was attempting a backward half-court shot during a fourth-quarter timeout. If he made it, fans were going to get free Qdoba queso. Rocky had thrown up a few heaves, coming close, but his last attempt was right on line.

Standing under the basket, Westbrook bounced skyward and goaltended Rocky's shot. The boos that rained down were hellacious, and Westbrook was booed every time he touched the ball from there on out. With three minutes to go, the Thunder trailed by 11, but behind a run sparked by Westbrook -- he scored seven of their final 13 points, including a game-tying 3 with 22 seconds left -- OKC forced overtime. The Thunder ended up losing when Corey Brewer blocked Westbrook's final desperation 3-point attempt in OT.

Westbrook is one of the top players whom opposing fans love to hate, but hell hath no fury like an arena robbed of cheese. Nuggets fans have pummeled Westbrook since -- except for 2017, when they actually, remarkably cheered him when he broke Oscar Robertson's single-season triple-double record. And then the Thunder eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention with a game-winning buzzer-beater. Last season, it got to the point of a Nuggets fan yelling in Westbrook's face after Gary Harris hit a game winner.

This season, Westbrook and Jamal Murray squabbled over jump ball positioning. Then Westbrook told a very confused Nikola Jokic, "I will f--- you up!" Most recently, a young courtside fan in Denver touched Westbrook's arm, which resulted in a thousand-suns-level glare.

The Mile High City isn't alone. It seems that Westbrook has beef with roughly 40 percent of the NBA, a number that might actually be on the low side.

The feuds have been happening since he entered the league in 2008-09, and the longer he plays, the longer the list grows. No two are created equal, though. What he has with Embiid is straight-up animosity. With Lillard, it's more respectful rivalry.

In the closing minutes of a Jan. 22 Thunder-Blazers game, Lillard shot free throws with about a minute left and OKC up nine. Westbrook appeared to tell him the attempts didn't matter -- the game was over. Lillard reminded Westbrook that there's always time when he's playing. Westbrook shook his head and appeared to say, "I've been busting [his] ass for years."

As the final seconds ran off, Lillard and Westbrook talked again near midcourt. Lillard said after the game that it was the first time in his seven-year career that Westbrook talked to him on the court, and he said the final exchange was about "respect."

"I think he does it a little bit more with guys he has respect for," Thunder teammate Raymond Felton says of Westbrook. "'I know you're cool, and I've got respect for your game and how you play, but I don't care, I'm going at you.' That's who he is."

"The greats at everything, they're all a little bit crazy."
Damian Lillard

Nurkic, notably cocky and mouthy in his own right, came up to Lillard and Westbrook, thinking things were getting heated. Lillard told him to stand down.

"I mean, Russ is a good player, but he is just in his feelings too much," Nurkic told The Athletic after the game. "He's a great player -- you can't take that away from him -- but sometimes he can cross the line."

After the game, Westbrook wasn't interested in answering a question about fighting over Nurkic's bone-rattling screens. Asking Westbrook about opposing players is shaky to start with, but after he declined to answer, it sounded like he muttered, "I'm not talking about that clown" under his breath. Nurkic got his final word in via Twitter.

And the list goes on:

  • Westbrook's public enemy No. 1, of course, is Patrick Beverley. Their blood feud began in the 2013 playoffs, when Beverley ran into Westbrook's knee, tore his meniscus and ended his season. Westbrook, and people within the Thunder organization, still fume about that play, believing it cost them a championship. (The 60-win Thunder were the best statistical team in the NBA.) Some still won't say Beverley's name, referring to him as "that player" or "the player who ran into Russell."

  • Rubio broke loose and torched the Thunder in Game 4 of last season's Thunder-Jazz first-round series, with Westbrook proclaiming that he was going to "shut that s--- off" in Game 5. Westbrook came out hounding Rubio, picking him up full-court. Westbrook also picked up three quick fouls and completely disrupted the flow of the game for OKC.

  • Zaza Pachulia is up there. In 2017, Pachulia committed a flagrant on Westbrook, then stood over him and stared down. After the game, Westbrook declared he would "get his ass back" at some point. Westbrook heard from the NBA about that and has yet to deliver his retaliation. Pachulia, though, got in another shot last season, "falling" on Westbrook's knee. Westbrook called Pachulia dirty after the game.

  • De'Aaron Fox said on a podcast earlier this season that he is faster than Westbrook. For someone who proudly professes not to care about what anyone says, Westbrook misses nothing. In November, after rocking the baby on Fox a few times, Westbrook blew by the entire Kings team in transition -- including Fox -- and yelled, "I'm too fast!"

  • In 2016, Westbrook, along with Durant and Serge Ibaka, was supposed to rest the second night of a back-to-back. The problem was the Thunder were playing the Detroit Pistons, and Westbrook was not interested in sitting. On the other side was Reggie Jackson, Westbrook's former backup and a player who requested a trade from the Thunder. Westbrook played it coy. "It was nice to see a game where sometimes they expect you to sit out, but I loved to see Russ like, 'Sit out against Reggie? I want to play,'" former teammate Nazr Mohammed said in 2016. "I love how Russ looks at the opposing point guard, and he wants to kill everybody. That's the type of guy you like to go to war with."

And then there's the feud with Embiid.

THE JOKE IN Oklahoma City has always been that there are two Westbrooks: one wearing basketball shoes and one not.

"[He's] a different person [off the court]. I can see that," Lillard says. "Because every time I've been around him away from the court, it's like nothing ever happened on the court."

Some beefs extend past it, though -- the one with Embiid, for instance. The origin is Embiid waving Steven Adams off the floor after he fouled out in last season's triple-overtime thriller between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Thunder.

OKC won, and Westbrook waved back at Embiid as the clock ran out. Then Embiid dunked on Westbrook in OKC later in that season, but as the Thunder won their second game against Philly, Westbrook stared directly at Embiid and the Sixers bench as he dribbled out the final seconds.

Embiid is a known trash-talker, both on and off the court and on social media. With Westbrook, that's a combustible situation. This season, Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook late in a close game, and Westbrook took exception. After the game -- another Thunder win -- Westbrook was asked if they were "cool." His answer was an instant viral moment: "F--- no."

The funniest part about Westbrook's answer, though, was the follow-up. He was next asked about being a family man in the NBA. Seamlessly, effortlessly, almost jarringly, Westbrook transitioned into that answer, giving a thoughtful response about setting a positive example, never hesitating or lingering on what he had just said.

It's all just regular stuff for Westbrook. He isn't losing any sleep over what an opponent or fan thinks of him. The only opinions he cares about are his family's and his teammates', even if a few Thunder players sometimes break his unwritten rules of war.

Felton has played for seven teams in his 14-year career. As such, every game can become a mini-reunion, seeing old friends and former teammates. But he had to learn the hard way that getting too chummy with the enemy doesn't fly around Westbrook.

"Like, 'You're on some friendly stuff today, huh?'" Felton says Westbrook might say. "It's a joke, but at the same time, you get what he's saying. Like, 'We got a game to play, and I know that's your boy and all, but talk after the game. Lock in.'

"That's just him being a leader and understanding that, 'Look, I got friends, too, but when we step on these lines, we're trying to win, and you do whatever it takes.'"

Apparently, there are unofficial Westbrook pregame dap rules, which Adams is still figuring out. Acknowledging former teammates, especially longtime ones, might be OK. Sometimes.

"I did it to, like, say, Thabo [Sefolosha]. There's an exception there. Serge [Ibaka]. There are certain ones you can go over and maybe hug," Adams says. "I'm still feeling this out. I might be told off again here and there. So I'm still feeling my way out.

"I'll, like, look [Sefolosha] off and then see where Russ is looking and then quickly go in for the quick hug," Adams says. "'No, I wasn't doing anything, Russ.'"

"If you asked anybody that knows me, that's a friend of mine, they know that when the game starts, I'm not going to talk to them. It's not even a question. So don't come ask me anything about nothing."
Russell Westbrook

When Westbrook was younger, his dad taught him a simple basketball principle: When you're on that court, your only friend is the ball. It's why Westbrook doesn't chat up opponents pregame, instead standing alone on the other side of the floor with an imaginary force field around him while others go through customary pregame daps. He'll give a slight nod to a former teammate or friend but never anything more than that.

"If you asked anybody that knows me, that's a friend of mine, they know that when the game starts, I'm not going to talk to them," Westbrook says. "It's not even a question. So don't come ask me anything about nothing."

Every now and then, a rookie or new opponent will walk by Westbrook and extend an introductory hand. Westbrook will stand motionless with his hands on his knees, eyes fixed forward, pretending that person is not even there.

"They learn," Westbrook says of players trying to chat. "There's only one way to find out."

BEFORE THEY PLAYED on the same team, Paul George had the thought a lot of people do when watching Westbrook play.

"You think [he's] an a--h---," George says.

George saw a hothead who played angry. The outbursts at referees and opponents and hearing all the negative perception had him wondering about Westbrook when they became teammates.

"But when you get to know him and you're on the same side as him," George says, "you know what it stems from, and he's a competitor. That's what it comes down to. He is going to compete. He wants to win, and he is going to show you how he wants to win."

The perception of Westbrook's personality is driven by his on-court demeanor and combative interviews. Westbrook is well aware of that, but as he said recently, he was "blessed with the talent to not give a f---."

For George, that meant learning how to feed off that confrontational energy.

"You know what Russ brings to the table. He sets the boundaries the second the game starts off. That we're coming after you," George says. "Everybody else just gotta get in line, follow his lead. But he's gonna come out and set the standard that we're coming for you, we're not messing around."

There are different ways to make your teammates better. While Westbrook is one of the best shot-creators in the game -- leading the league in assists (10.9 per game), potential assists and points created from assists -- he also knows how to raise the competitive juice of his team, most importantly for his MVP-caliber teammate.

"There are moments throughout the game where I need that extra push, that extra motivation," George says. "Because he doesn't get tired. Russ don't get tired, and I get tired. So I rely on Russ sometimes for that extra little kick."

Westbrook is a provocateur, poking and prodding his opponent to his breaking point. He has to play on edge -- it's the only way he knows -- and there are times when he senses that a personal spark is needed. He invents enemies sometimes or, at least, assists in creating them. He thrives on confrontation because that's when the competition is best. Where animosity and tension meet, Westbrook is there.

"It does. It does," Westbrook says of opponents' trash talk motivating him. "It's just more of an edge for me, which is fine.

"It's not good for them."