The Oklahoma City Thunder ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, but the first game of the Russell Westbrook experience was everything people hoped it would be. Without Kevin Durant, Westbrook got the chance to dominate the ball the entire game and he did not disappoint, with 38 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds on 11-26 shooting. One of the most explosive guards in the NBA has been unleashed - there is no one to steal shots from on this team.
Westbrook has been one of the most polarizing players in the league for years, the embodiment of the debate about the importance of having a “true PG” on a contending team. A combo guard in college, he still has the instincts of a scorer, although he has slowly turned himself into more of a floor general. When he is at his best, though, he looks a lot like what he did on Opening Night against the Portland Trail Blazers - putting his head down and hunting for his own shot.
At 6’3 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, he is one of the biggest and most athletic PG’s in the NBA. His combination of size and speed means it is impossible for defenders to stay in front of him and he has a lethal pull-up jumper when they play off him. Like his former backcourt partner James Harden, Westbrook is also an expert on drawing contact around the rim. He has averaged over 6 FTA’s a game in his career and he went 15-16 from the charity stripe against Portland.
Westbrook dominated his individual match-up against Damian Lillard, who had only 10 points on 3-10 shooting on Wednesday. Lillard had absolutely no chance of guarding him - Westbrook took him down to the post, he blew right by him and got to the rim and he rained in jumpers from the perimeter. While Lillard isn’t exactly known for his individual defense, he didn’t have a prayer against Westbrook, who could do whatever he wanted against him.
His play on the other side of the floor was just as impressive, as he stymied Lillard and prevented him from getting into the lane. Westbrook doesn’t have a rep of a great defensive player, but tell it to the guys he goes up against. On a recent AMA chat on Reddit, Ty Lawson called him the toughest player he faces in the NBA. The numbers back it up, as Westbrook has a history of holding guys like Lillard, Lawson and Chris Paul below their season averages.
The problem for Westbrook is that he isn’t totally locked in on defense, particularly off the ball. Like most elite athletes who can turn it on at any time, he has a tendency to cut corners on that side of the floor over the course of an 82-game regular season. He’s a fairly unrefined player, which isn’t all that surprising for a guy whose only 25 years old. Maybe the scariest thing about Westbrook is how much room he still has to grow as he moves deeper into his 20’s.
Like the rest of the Thunder, Westbrook has been around for so long that people forget how young he is. He is in his 7th season in the NBA and Lillard is in his 3rd, yet he’s only a year and a half older. Westbrook has been playing at an elite level for a really long time - he was competing in the Western Conference Finals at 22. As a result, he has had to grow up under the national eye, with everything he does on and off the court micro-analyzed to death.
No one has any patience anymore, particularly for younger players. They are supposed to be basketball playing robots as soon as they come into the league - we have all this data that tells us why they don’t play like 10-year NBA veterans, which can skew our perception of what they can be. Everyone wants to put them in a box and judge them on their statistics, rather than looking at the big picture and accepting that they will make mistakes as they figure things out.
Westbrook is the prime example of that, as there were people ready to give up on him 3-4 years ago because of his tendency to dominate the ball and freeze out his teammates. Nevermind that Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring in four of the last five seasons, so he clearly isn’t hurting for touches in Oklahoma City. It’s a tough line to walk for a scoring PG, especially for a guy with the talent to be a primary option for the vast majority of teams in the NBA.
And for all the stats that Westbrook has racked up with the Thunder, he has hardly been playing in advantageous situations on offense. Teams straight up didn’t have to guard Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, sending multiple defenders at Westbrook and Durant with complete impunity. OKC ran a really stagnant offense and they didn’t spread the floor, so Westbrook had to bail out a lot of possessions going 1-on-3 at the end of the clock.
That’s what could be the most interesting angle of this next two months for Westbrook - not just playing without Durant, but without Perkins and Sefolosha too. If the Thunder have Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson in their spots, Westbrook will have a lot more room to operate in the halfcourt. He’s not a guy the defense wants to guard in space - imagine the type of numbers he could put up if he was playing in Jeff Hornacek’s system in Phoenix.
Westbrook is going to mount a full-fledged assault on the rest of the league and there’s no player more fun to watch in that scenario. He’s a guy you want to see live to appreciate just how fast he is - he has 2-3 more gears than most NBA players and he’s the rare 6’4 guard who can play at 11+ feet in the air with absolute ease. The Thunder might struggle on the road without Durant, but Westbrook unleashed in front of their home crowd should be something.
Durant took his game to a whole different level when Westbrook was out last season and now it’s time for Westbrook to return the favor. This experience should help him grow a lot as a player, as he will no longer have Durant around to bail him out of bad possessions. Everyone on the floor is going to depend on Westbrook to spoon feed them open shots, so he almost has no choice but to play under control as much as possible. It’s all part of the maturation process.
The knocks on Westbrook are all the stuff you would expect from an elite athlete in his early 20’s. He has always been able to get by on his athleticism, so he never had to develop the mental side of the game. As he matures on and off the court and develops the ability to think the game at a high level, he is going to be a serious problem. The intersection of the mental and physical elevators is when an athlete is at his peak and that’s still years in his future.
These next few weeks are going to be a learning experience for Westbrook. Portland was able to slow him down in the second half because they switched the 6’8 Nic Batum onto him. That’s something he hasn’t seen very often in his NBA career, since Durant commands so much defensive attention. When you tower over everyone who guards you, you can get away with taking a lot of circus shots and forcing the action, even when the defense sends help.
What makes Oklahoma City so dangerous in a seven-game series is there isn’t a team in the league who can guard Durant AND Westbrook. They are two of the five best players in the NBA and either one of them can take over a game at anytime. Everyone wants to talk about where Durant will go in free agency in 2016, but where is he going to go to find a better sidekick than Westbrook? As those two continue to improve, the Thunder only get scarier.