New game plan

Rus­sell West­brook is fol­low­ing a new blue­print to suc­cess this sea­son.

The Oklahoman - - FRONT PAGE - Erik Horne [email protected] ok­la­homan.com

The Thun­der has trailed in lategame sit­u­a­tions be­fore with the ball in Rus­sell West­brook’s hands. Only, un­like Thurs­day’s in­stant clas­sic in San An­to­nio, West­brook’s typ­i­cally been the one tak­ing the fi­nal shot since Kevin Du­rant’s de­par­ture.

Not in Thurs­day’s 154-147 dou­ble over­time loss to the Spurs.

In 10 ½ sea­sons, West­brook has pushed the Thun­der to vic­tory of­ten at the ex­pense of time, sit­u­a­tion and shot se­lec­tion. This was dif­fer­ent, West­brook drib­bling Spurs’ de­fend­ers Der­rick White and LaMar­cus Aldridge into his trap be­fore toss­ing a lob to Jerami Grant to fin­ish with 5.6 sec­onds left in reg­u­la­tion.

Thurs­day’s night’s his­toric performance in San An­to­nio was more in line with the West­brook of this sea­son, a player who for all the crit­i­cism and noise on the pe­riph­er­als, has pre­dom­i­nantly fol­lowed a new blue­print to suc­cess.

“I thought Rus­sell con­nected our en­tire team,” Thun­der coach Billy Dono­van said after the loss. “He got ev­ery­body shots and we played well of­fen­sively.”

A ca­reer-high 24 as­sists aren’t the sole de­ter­min­ers of West­brook’s suc­cess.

Yet, what West­brook is work­ing into his game with more nor­malcy through half a sea­son is us­ing his grav­ity to draw the at­ten­tion of mul­ti­ple de­fend­ers, then find­ing a team­mate for an open shot with the game on the line.

In both the fourth quar­ter and over­time Thurs­day, the Thun­der trailed by two with less than 30 sec­onds left.

Each time, West­brook lured in two de­fend­ers with pa­tient, prob­ing drives, then de­liv­ered passes to ei­ther Grant or Steven Adams for ga­me­ty­ing bas­kets.

It was not just read­ing of the de­fense, but trust­ing in the Thun­der’s other tal­ents

to con­vert the cru­cial score.

“(It was) one of those games that you give your­self a chance at the end,” said Dono­van, whose Thun­der wouldn’t have had a chance with­out the seven-time All­Star. “It was a great game and we came up a lit­tle bit short.”

This West­brook blue­print has in­cluded losses like Thurs­day’s, com­ing up short in the pur­suit of a sus­tain­able style of play that can stretch the Thun­der be­yond the con­sec­u­tive first-round play­off losses it’s suf­fered in the past two sea­sons.

Per NBA.com, the Thun­der is now 8-14 in games con­sid­ered “clutch” (score within five points with five min­utes or less re­main­ing in the fourth quar­ter or over­time). That in­cludes West­brook set­ups rang­ing from find­ing Paul Ge­orge for the game-win­ning 3-pointer in Brook­lyn, or lo­cat­ing Alex Abrines twice for must-have shots which missed against New Or­leans and Min­nesota.

Dur­ing his MVP sea­son, West­brook sported

a usage rate (pos­ses­sions a player ends with a field­goal at­tempt, turnover or free throw at­tempt) of 60 in clutch sit­u­a­tions. Last year, even along­side Ge­orge and Carmelo An­thony, West­brook’s usage was 41.8 in the clutch.

West­brook’s cur­rent over­all usage (31.0) is at its low­est since his second sea­son. That rate drops to 29.9 in clutch games.

The Thun­der trailed by as many as 16 points at the AT&T Cen­ter on Thurs­day. The second unit did well to whit­tle that deficit to six when West­brook came back at 9:18.

Even in this sea­son of ad­just­ment, West­brook’s re-en­try into a game has come with trep­i­da­tion, par­tic­u­larly since he’s strug­gling with his shot.

In­stead, fear be­gan to per­me­ate through Spurs fans as West­brook as­sisted on 11 of the Thun­der’s last 18 bas­kets of the fourth quar­ter and the over­times.

On one of the Thun­der’s fi­nal pos­ses­sions in dou­ble over­time, West­brook searched for an

open­ing be­fore fir­ing to Ter­rance Fer­gu­son.

The 20-year-old com­mit­ted a turnover which ul­ti­mately ended the Thun­der’s clas­sic come­back.

There’s an ar­gu­ment for West­brook be­ing more as­sertive in dou­ble OT. The Thun­der went 0-of-4 from the field in the fi­nal three min­utes, with West­brook never tak­ing a shot.

What is it worth, how­ever, for Fer­gu­son to know he’s counted on in those sit­u­a­tions? For Grant and Adams to fin­ish dunks with the game in the bal­ance?

For Ge­orge — who re­signed with the Thun­der in free agency in large part be­cause of his com­fort playing along­side West­brook — to see West­brook draw two de­fend­ers and find him for an open shot?

“We never got down,” said Fer­gu­son, who had four of his ca­reer-high seven 3-point­ers set up by West­brook.

“Even when they went on that good run with all of the 3-point­ers, we were lean­ing on each other through­out the whole game.”

[AP PHOTO]

Rus­sell West­brook had a ca­reer-high 24 as­sists Thurs­day in the Thun­der’s 154-147 dou­ble-over­time loss to the Spurs.

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