Russell Westbrook, point guard.
That’s often more of a technicality than a philosophy. Point guard might be where Westbrook plays, it just isn’t how he plays. On the point guard scale he’s more on the Allen Iverson side than the John Stockton end. Westbrook is one of the five best NBA point guards overall, but he wasn’t among the top 10 in the league in assists. That is his approach, and the Thunder have developed into one of the league’s best teams with his scorer’s mentality.
In the playoffs there are adjustments and adaptations. In Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Thunder defending Tony Parker with Thabo Sefolosha and readily switching their big men onto the Spurs’ guards were examples of the former. Westbrook finishing with more assists (nine) than field goals (five) for only the 12th time this season was a case of the latter.
“Just making the extra pass,” Westbrook said. “They’re crowding the paint every time I drive, and I’m just making the right pass to whoever’s open.”
The Spurs’ defense turned Westbrook from a scorer into a passer, which is one of their objectives. But when Westbrook accepted those terms in Game 3, the Spurs’ success wasn’t so successful.
“They won the game [Thursday] night when he was doing that,” Tim Duncan said. “We’re going to continue to try do defend him as best as possible. We understand he’s an explosive scorer. We’ve done a pretty good job thus far kind of containing him a little bit. He’s going to take the shots when they’re there and be aggressive when they’re there. I don’t know if that was the key to anything, but he did a good job of kind of reading our defense.”
So those are reading glasses Westbrook has been wearing to the podium after games? Let’s put it this way: the Thunder will fare better against the Spurs this series -- starting with tonight's attempt to even the series in Game 4 -- if Westbrook maintains this playing style more so than his sartorial style.
Normally Westbrook can create the Thunder’s best shot opportunities when he gets to the rim, which he does better than anyone else on the team. The Spurs are making it tough for him to get there. After getting 10 baskets in the paint in the last two games of the Lakers series, Westbrook had only six such hoops in the first two games against the Spurs.
Typically, a player's stature grows when he’s an adept passer. You know, the whole “makes his teammates better” thing. That’s not the case with Kevin Durant, primarily because any time he passes it means the ball leaves the hands of the best scorer in the league. In other words, do you want Durant taking the jumper, or Serge Ibaka? Scott Brooks has said that Durant shouldn’t pass if it’s going to result in a “lateral” shot or worse. It has to be a better shot, like a dunk or layup. And when Durant passes to Westbrook it often results in a 3-pointer. That’s not the best look for OKC.
Westbrook, on the other hand, has the option of passing to Durant for jumpers. Or even better, alley-oops. What’s not to like about that? Four of Westbrook’s nine assists in Game 3 set up Durant baskets, part of a 23-assist night for the Thunder.
“We just made a conscious effort of making the right plays,” Durant said. “Watching film and seeing where those guys help at, how we were getting turnovers and how we could have made a better pass. Coach emphasized passing up a good shot to get a great shot.
“The Spurs make you work, man. They make you work.”
For Westbrook, the toughest task might be coming to grips with a different role. Physically, he’s been offered a reprieve by spending more time against Danny Green instead of Parker. But it can’t be easy to downshift from a usage rate of 32.7 percent this season to the 23.7 percent he posted in Game 3.
The solution should be in the results. The Thunder switched things up on the Spurs, turned them from winners of 20 straight games to losers by 20 points. And it happened with Westbrook taking only 15 shots.
“Russell really controlled the tempo of that game,” Brooks said. “He got us easy looks and he got us shots when we needed them. There were two or three times during the game where they got on a little mini-run and we countered it with a great pass or a great shot. I thought Russell was really good. His defense was good on Green, his defense was good in the team concept. I thought he had a terrific game moving the ball. He didn’t shoot the ball as well as he is capable of doing but he really did a good job just controlling the tempo, being a great floor leader.”
When Westbrook was asked what part of his game pleased him the most, Westbrook said, “That we won. That’s the part that matters, regardless of what the stats look like.”
Sounds like something a point guard would say.