Remember two years ago when Russell Westbrook could do nothing right? He was the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t beat the Dallas Mavericks. He was holding Kevin Durant back and the Thunder should have probably considered trading him.
All of that went away last season when the Thunder made their run to the NBA Finals. The late-game offense was no longer an issue as Durant asserted himself as one of the deadliest crunch time players in the league.
Maybe the biggest reason why the criticism of Westbrook was no more was the emergence of James Harden and his increased responsibility as a ball handler, especially late in games.
Obviously, Harden is gone now and while Westbrook had a very good season in his absence, the game changes in the playoffs and it probably won’t be for the better for Russ.
The thing that happens in the playoffs is stars of a team usually start taking more shots and have a higher usage rate. In no way is this a recipe for success for Westbrook.
Westbrook is the kind of player that’s perfect if he can go 9-for-19 from the field and scored 25 points and have eight assists while wreaking havoc on defense. But once Westbrook turns into 10-for-27 and the assists start going down and the turnovers start going up, the haters will come back out.
That is the biggest difference from this year’s Thunder team and last year’s. The Thunder were able to appropriately distribute the load between their three best guys last year. In these playoffs, the load that was carried by three players will likely be carried mostly by just two.
Durant has always been able to be efficient. This season, he was as efficient really as anyone ever besides Larry Bird who scored so much becoming just the seventh player ever to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line.
Expect Durant to still shoot very efficiently in these playoffs. He’ll continue to try and be a playmaker too but he just doesn’t seem to have it in him to go all Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs and start shooting 30-plus times per game.
That means that it will be Westbrook who takes on this burden. It’s in Russ’ DNA to do so. He is always there to take the tough shots for the Thunder and the bad ones. It’s really a great thing that Russ does this so KD can remain the golden boy who can do no wrong but it will result in hate for Westbrook this postseason.
Westbrook has seen his assists drop down as the season has gone on this year. He started out around 8-9 per game and in the last few months has been closer to 5-6. Against the better teams, Westbrook is always shooting more and passing less. That’s the Russ we’ll be seeing in these playoffs.
The real question is if this will be the death sentence to the Thunder’s title hopes this year. It might be but it’s not all on Westbrook’s shoulders as his way of playing is more a direct result of the construction of the team and Scott Brooks’ coaching decisions.
The Thunder can still win the West with this Russ. It will be more difficult than last year but the competition does seem a little less this year too. That Spurs team from last year was really playing at an all-time level. It’s hard to foresee an opponent that tough standing in the way of the Thunder in the West this year.
Thunder fans need to hope that Westbrook looks more like a point guard than ever in the playoffs. The good news is that he will probably be that in the Houston series which may get him into that mindset going forward.
When Westbrook is in playmaking mode, it gets Serge Ibaka rolling and everyone else a little more too. If Westbrook is the scorer then it will be Ibaka that suffers the most, which will be a very bad sign for OKC since they need a third scorer to emerge in the playoffs and Ibaka seems to have the best chance to be that.
Westbrook seemed to have a rough time dealing with the criticism a few years ago. He should probably be better at handling it now but he is an emotional guy who may be affected by it somewhat.
The easiest way to avoid this Russ showing up in the playoffs would be if Durant is playing similar to Carmelo. The Thunder really would probably be best off if Durant has it in his mind that he’s going to try and score 40 every night but there just doesn’t seem to be any chance of Durant having that mindset.
This will in turn make Russ into old Russ. The hate will come his way. Only time will tell if the Thunder can handle it.