A little over a month ago, NBA on TNT’s Charles Barkley made the argument that Russell Westbrook was holding the Oklahoma City Thunder back with his high-volume play this season. Westbrook, the new NBA record holder for most triple-doubles in a season, was coming off of a 12-of-36 shooting performance against the Portland Trail Blazers when Barkley made his comment.
The same ferocious and fearless Russell Westbrook we’ve known up to this point turned into an amplified version the moment Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. We all knew how Westbrook would look to approach this season as the lone alpha, as he would end up averaging a career-high 24 shot attempts per game.
I’m of the total mindset that the Oklahoma City Thunder would not be a playoff team had Westbrook not done what he did this season, but while his ultra-aggressiveness got them here, I think he has to take a more subtle approach in the playoffs.
In the recent past, Westbrook was often patronized for taking too many opportunities away from Kevin Durant. With this group and in this matchup against the Rockets, Westbrook won’t be able to simply maul his way into the next round.
Part of that has to do with Patrick Beverley, the ever-consistent defensive thorn making it his job to make life difficult for Westbrook. If Beverley continues to catalyze Westbrook’s struggle, like his 6-for-23 shooting performance paired with nine turnovers in Game 1, Oklahoma City simply doesn’t have a chance to win this series.
Consider how this translates into the contrast between Westbrook and his MVP rival on the other side in James Harden, who has a slower, more calculated game as opposed to Westbrook’s frenetic, at-your-neck-24-7 kind of pace. Harden is surrounded by more adept skill players and shooters, which arguably makes his job easier than Westbrook’s, but not unlike the past, even with this team, Westbrook has to find his true balance between aggression and finesse.
Offensively, the Thunder aren’t nearly as potent or versatile as Houston. Outside of the individual heroism of Westbrook, their biggest strength is on the interior. On the offensive end, Westbrook has the ability to manage his team’s possessions more tactfully. I would look for the Thunder to establish more paint and post touches to invoke their physicality. Taj Gibson, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter are all up to that task, and if they can bruise up Houston inside, it can help open up things for Westbrook on the perimeter.
I believe that Westbrook can outdo Harden, be the best player on the floor, and get his team a win without having to dominate the scoring load. This would mean shooting the ball better, which means consistently getting himself good shots, and it would also mean looking to have more of an exerted impact on the defensive end.
Efficiency hasn’t been a shining staple of Westbrook’s game, and I’m not naive enough to think he can be tamed. I’m also not arguing that the Thunder won’t need him to go ballistic in spurts. But if he’s going to turn the tide for his team in Game 2, I believe it will take an adamant adjustment from Westbrook.