New game plan
Russell Westbrook is following a new blueprint to success this season.
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.”
Russell Westbrook had a career-high 24 assists Thursday in the Thunder’s 154-147 double-overtime loss to the Spurs.