Analysis: Russell Westbrook, A True Point Guard Extraordinaire
Russell Westbrook took 22 shots last night. He missed 15, which means he only made seven. Most of the successful ones came next to the basket, most of the missed were far away. This math typically doesn’t foreshadow pleasant comings for the Thunder, but last night they more than weathered the storm…with Russell Westbrook steering the ship.
The elite guard showed why Oklahoma City still believes he’s best suited to run the point, finishing with 12 assists, two turnovers, and a gritty road victory against a blood thirsty Chicago Bulls team fighting for both a statement win and their own wounded pride.
I was honestly beginning to doubt if he could help Oklahoma City win basketball games when he wasn’t scoring in a variety of athletically marvelous ways, but tonight he proved me wrong. Is Russell Westbrook an elite player when it comes to elevating those around him? On Thursday, the answer was an emphatic yes.
This wasn’t a good game from Westbrook, it was great. I’ve re-lived a few sequences in my mind several times since the final buzzer, and—just, wow—the vision, the precision, the patience; these are the plays Westbrook makes that nobody wants, nor is able, to remember when the Thunder lose and he attempts more shots than Kevin Durant.
We’ll start with the night’s first notable play. The Thunder choose to begin the game running a simple 1-4 low stack set, with Kendrick Perkins first setting a screen for Durant to clear him to the other side of the court, and then coming up on Westbrook’s defender.
After failing to get the switch he wanted, Westbrook reverses field and uses another Perkins screen for separation as he moves back towards the center of the court. I’m nearly positive the thought of launching himself down lane and towards the basket crossed his mind, but the wily veteran Rip Hamilton knows this, and so he cheats off his man Thabo Sefolosha to plant himself all the way at the opposite elbow.
Sefolosha tells Hamilton “You’re being disrespectful,” and cuts into the wide open lane. Westbrook says, “Thanks for being active, man!”, and gently drops the ball off to his open teammate. Oklahoma City would score one second later on a Sefolosha layup.
Fast forward—through 46 minutes of ugly missed shots and annoying audio of Carlos Boozer yelling “AND-1” from the bench—until you arrive at one of the game’s most telling sequences.
Let me set the scene. There’s less than a minute to go. Oklahoma City is up by two points with the ball and a single-digit shot clock. Westbrook catches it just beyond the three-point line with six seconds to make a play, and a spent Kirk Hinrich racing in his direction.
Going on this screen shot alone, there looks to be enough space for a player 75% as quick as Russell Westbrook to produce something on his own—at the very worst he could kick it out to a wide open Sefolosha when the defense collapses.
Instead, what eventually happens is Westbrook runs the play he’s supposed to. By the time he catches it, Kevin Martin has sprinted across the baseline, and the only two members of the Thunder found on the right side of the court are himself and a 24-year-old, three-time NBA scoring champion. So I guess Westbrook could have freelanced on this play by attacking Hinrich off the dribble, but he doesn’t.
The pass is made, Durant catches the ball, takes one dribble towards the baseline, and pulls up for an un-blockable jumper/floater from eight feet. The game is all but over.
Westbrook didn’t directly win this game down the stretch with his scoring, but he was smart enough not to lose it. If the mental part of basketball is Russell Westbrook’s greatest weakness, last night’s performance could indicate a scary transformation taking place inside a player who already can’t be guarded.