Lost in the 41-point, will-this-be-the-final-time-he-suits-up-in-Oklahoma-City performance by Kevin Durant that pulled the Thunder into a 2-2 tie in the Western Conference semifinals was a Rorschach test of a showing from Russell Westbrook.
In Westbrookian fashion, the electric cattle prod of a point guard out-assisted the San Antonio Spurs by himself, generating 33 points on 15 dimes. He added three steals and seven rebounds, falling three rebounds short of what would’ve been his 19th triple-double since October. But the first-team all-NBA candidate finished with 14 points on 5-of-18 from the field (27.8 percent). In the final frame he missed four of his five shots, including two layups from point-blank range, and threw an objectively poor pass that Kawhi Leonard turned into points on the other end to cut the deficit to five. The lone shot he connected on was a scrambling, just-throw-it-up-to-beat-the-shot-clock attempt.
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As Durant often does, the former MVP deferred much of the credit to his teammates, specifically his oft-roaring point guard: “Russell was phenomenal at controlling the game,” Durant told ESPN.com’s Royce Young.
There’s little doubt that should the Thunder have any hope of closing out San Antonio, the Westbrook-Durant tandem will need to perform in a big way. Thus far, however, Westbrook has struggled to keep his oft-scintillating stat line afloat.
As the chart above indicates, Donovan’s tasking Westbrook with more of the offensive possessions and increasing his usage. However, Westbrook is shooting a lackluster 22.7 percent from beyond the arc, made worse by the fact that he’s hoisted a team-high 22 of them and connected on 1-of-7 (14.3 percent) taken with more than six feet of space between him and the closest defender. In total, his true shooting percentage in this series has dropped 12.9 percentage points compared to the regular season. He’s also seen a dip in his scoring, rebounding and facilitating figures per 100 possessions compared to his marks in the conference quarterfinals and regular season.
After a 10-for-31 (32.3 percent) shooting performance in Game 3, he took the brunt of the blame for the loss, saying has to do a “better job of putting guys in position to score the basketball…especially to beat this team.”
Much of the regressions stem from what Westbrook is doing when he drives the ball to the basket. Throughout the regular season only five players who appeared in more than 35 games drove the ball to the rim more than Westbrook, who attacked the basket 806 times in 80 regular-season games, or 10.1 drives per contest. His field goal percentage on those plays was 50.7, by and away the highest percentage for any player who logged double-digits in drives per game. In the conference quarterfinals against San Antonio, it’s far worse: 21.4 percent. His pass percentage on those plays, or the percentage of times the driver dishes the ball to a teammate, is significantly lower, too.
Here’s an example: Westbrook barreled down the lane in the third quarter of Game 3, opting not to dish the ball to an open Serge Ibaka along the wing or Andre Roberson in the left corner, who goes as far as to raise both of his hands to call for his attention. The layup is missed and Westbrook could only watch from the ground as San Antonio turned the rebound into a transition basket on the other end.
In the same game, Westbrook attempted to finish a reverse layup over Leonard, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who has about eight inches on Westbrook. It turned into another transition basket for the Spurs.
Furthermore, Westbrook has been tepid at best defensively in this series. In the sequence below, Westbrook misses a turnaround jump shot and never hustles back on defense. Only after Danny Green drills an uncontested three-pointer does Westbrook so much as cross half-court.
As The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater noted, he’s also susceptible to try and attempt near-impossible steals, often failing to return to his defensive position if they prove unsuccessful. This has been happening far too often throughout the series: Westbrook leaving teammates out to dry while he attempts to create highlights.
The “Let Westbrook Be Westbrook” slogan is often used to express the notion that the Thunder live with the erratic shots and plays Westbrook makes because the engrossing and admittedly critical performances he brings to the table most nights significantly outweigh them. Westbrook has pieced together some remarkable performances this postseason — and his stat sheet shines. But the Thunder need even more — made baskets, cerebral decisions on both ends of the floor — from their mercurial point guard if they hope to reach the conference finals.