By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — Make Russell Westbrook mad, and it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next.
In his rise to stardom in the NBA, Westbrook has shown off an All-Star temper to go with his unique blend of athleticism and determination.
His latest outburst came in anything but a pressure-packed situation Thursday night, when he snapped at teammates and stormed off toward the locker room after a third-quarter turnover with his Oklahoma City Thunder leading by 25.
In his fifth season in the league, the Thunder have come to understand that’s just part of the Westbrook package. He plays with a permanent chip on his shoulder, and it’s part of what makes him a great player.
Get Westbrook fired up, and he might waste a couple possessions letting off steam with ill-advised shots or unnecessary fouls. Moments later, he’s using that rage to ratchet up his defensive intensity and dunk so hard he rattles the backboard. An angry Westbrook can be even better than the ordinary Westbrook, who’s already a three-time All-Star.
That’s the conundrum that Westbrook presents. When he finished bickering with assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, slapped at a chair and headed down the tunnel toward the locker room, fellow All-Star Kevin Durant was never concerned.
“Russell is such an emotional player. I knew he would be back,” Durant said, “and I knew he would play well.”
Sure enough, when coach Scott Brooks finally put Westbrook back in to start the fourth quarter, Westbrook made the key plays that put the game away after Memphis had clawed back within 10 during his 8-minute benching.
The only concern for Oklahoma City is whether his tantrums will fracture chemistry at some point and keep the team from winning an NBA championship.
Thabo Sefolosha, the target of Westbrook’s rage this time, acted as though “nothing really happened” and steered his postgame comments toward the fact that Oklahoma City won and deemphasized the dispute.
“We can count on him every night,” Sefolosha said. “He’s a big, big part of what we’re doing with the team. Regardless of anything, he’s a big, big, big part of the team and he’s an extremely talented player.”
Durant considered it part of the game — even if you don’t see an All-Star abandoning his team on a regular basis.
“Everybody’s going to have disagreements in this league,” Durant said. “You’re dealing with so many different emotions on this team. It’s probably our third or fourth one throughout the whole year, and I’d say that’s pretty good for us.
“We’ve just got to continue to keep helping each other, keep talking to each other and we’ll be OK,” Durant added.
In brief comments, Westbrook called it a “miscommunication” and said he can control his temper like a man, and that’s what he did during the game. He wouldn’t talk about why he went as far as leaving the bench.
This was only his latest episode. Sometimes what he thinks is a blown call gets him enraged to the point he gets a technical foul, and then his blood really gets boiling. Sometimes it’s the opposite team that gets him going.
Then there’s the personality switch from the happy-go-lucky Westbrook who wears eyeglasses with no lenses and crazy shirts and playfully chides his teammates in the locker room into an unstoppable ball of rage.
In a recent road game at Denver, he blocked the mascot’s half-court shot during the fourth quarter of a close game. The Pepsi Center crowd then booed every time he touched the ball, with Westbrook soaking it in while leading a Thunder comeback. Then, he only added to it by blocking the mascot’s shot a second time.
“That’s how he is,” Durant said. “You want everybody to be themselves. Russell is doing a great job for us this year. You can’t downplay that. He’s passing the ball very well, he’s communicating very well and as a point guard, that’s what you need.”
While Nike put together an ad campaign suggesting Durant — with a squeaky clean reputation — is “Not Nice,” Westbrook can stir up hatred and criticism with any perceived misstep: He takes too many shots. He doesn’t pass enough. And, of course, his attitude isn’t right. Westbrook has absorbed it all while ranking in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring and the top five in assists and steals.
“Russell’s an emotional guy. He plays hard,” Brooks said. “He plays every night. He plays for his team every night. We can pick apart his game, like a lot of us have in the past. But Russell plays hard every night. I have no problem that guys compete every night the way he competes. If that’s becoming a problem, then we’re all in this for the wrong reason.”
The Thunder didn’t practice Friday and were traveling to Cleveland for their next game on Saturday night. Veteran Nick Collison, the team’s longest-tenured player, said he didn’t think anything needed to be addressed.
But as he pointed out, the Thunder are counting on Westbrook even more this season. They let locker room leaders Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey depart this offseason, leaving Westbrook and Durant to guide the ship at a relatively young age.
Immediately, they were challenged to keep the team together after Sixth Man of the Year James Harden was traded away at the start of the season in another challenge to the team’s chemistry.
“The reason we’ve been able to keep up and go — we made a big trade earlier in the year — is because of what Russell and what Kevin have done as leaders. They’ve been great this year,” Collison said. “They’ve grown up a lot, their voice with the team. And they’ve done it with their play, too. … Russ in particular has grown up a lot and we’re going to be fine. He’s had a great year.”