We’ve basically scene two Russell Westbrook’s this season. There’s the one that is growing up now in his fifth season in the NBA cutting down the turnovers and improving his defense. Then there’s the one we saw on Christmas against the Miami Heat.
Westbrook was a different player than he has been this season against the Heat. He went back to being a volume shooter going 5-for-19 from the field with three assists versus five turnovers.
Here is how a league source describes Westbrook’s play vs. the Heat.
Russ Westbrook wants nothing more than to beat the Miami Heat. He might just want it too much. A league source who knows Russ well believes that for the Thunder to avenge their loss to the Heat in last year’s Finals, Westbrook can’t go to his reflex, which is to take matters into his own hands when the game gets wobbly. It is a reflex that makes him both a great player and a highly criticized point guard. That’s how he went at it in last year’s finals and again on Christmas Day. “Russell has to trust his teammates more,” the source said. “He does in most other games, but he just wants to win so bad against Miami, he doesn’t as much.” The Thunder are convinced they are, or can be, better than the team that went to the Finals last season and come out on top should they meet the Heat there again. For me, it rides on Serge Ibaka being the best big man on the floor, essentially outplaying Chris Bosh in a redux — that is how they overcome the absence of James Harden. The two theories fit: Ibaka can only do that if Westbrook lets him.
This seems to hit it right on the head. Westbrook looks to be in such a hurry against the Heat compared to when he plays against other teams as if he is putting all of the pressure on himself.
This is an understandable approach for Westbrook. The criticism of the Thunder for a long time has been on him, that he is the one holding the team back. So for him to try and take the responsibility in this matchup against the Heat and do everything is his natural response.
But it’s not the right one because it plays right into the Heat’s hands. They are one of the best teams in the league at taking away that first option of a team’s offense. When Westbrook is scoring, it is most often as the first option in a play whether it be an isolation play or as the pick-and-roll ball handler.
To beat the Heat it will take Westbrook getting Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin involved better. Westbrook’s done a fantastic job of this so far this year, just not against the Heat.
It’s easier said than done but Westbrook is definitely capable of becoming this player in this matchup. He’s always the best athlete on the floor and the best athlete can always dictate where he wants to go on the floor and what he wants to do.
The Thunder have the best record in the league right now but it doesn’t quite feel that way with the loss on Christmas Day in Miami. It was proof that the Thunder aren’t quite there yet, on that level they need to be to win a title.
They’re definitely getting there though and that pressure to do so lies with Westbrook mostly.