Russell Westbrook was a mixed bag in Game 2. He suffered through another poor shooting outing, struggled at times finding holes in the Miami defense, and allowed his team to fall behind by 16 in the opening quarter. On the other hand, Westbrook continued to play aggressive defense, got better as the game went on, and was critical in the Thunder's last-second come-back attempt. So why did he get skewered by the TV analysts, and was it fair?
Coach Nick (@bballsource) from BBall Breakdown steps in to analyze every single one of Westbrook's offensive plays from Game 2.
With Coach Nick's blessing, I've posted his two-part analysis here. You might be surprised that Coach Nick, who has not been afraid to take Westbrook to task in the past (we rebut him here), finds that the young guard performed quite a bit better than we might have thought after first glance. He examines every single play and groups each on into categories he titled, "good," "bad," and "meh." Take a look and see if you agree or disagree with his assessment.
(after the jump)
A few additional thoughts:
- Coach Nick has been critical of Westbrook in the past and will likely continue to be, but I have a sense that it is because he has a strong affection for the play of point guards and he knows how much better the Thunder can be if Westbrook learns the trade better.
- Westbrook is evolving as a point guard. He has his own natural tendencies and he has an understanding of what works, but what happens when another very good defensive team starts to try to take away Westbrook's reads? I think this is one of the big things that gets missed. The Miami Heat are probably the best perimeter defensive team in the league and their staple is defending guards out past the 3-point line so that those guards cannot make good reads or find open space. This is what they do. So if Westbrook struggles at times, I think it is more proper to realize that it is partly due to Westbrook's growth as a young leader for his offense, but it is also partly because the Heat actually have the ability to defend Westbrook. The same cannot be said of the Mavericks, Lakers, or Spurs.
- One of the consistent themes in our analysis of Westbrook is that he often makes the game harder than it needs to be. He tends to do this because he is a young player who is still learning to see the floor properly and his team overall is learning how to execute offensive sets efficiently. One of the ways we see this is in his post play. Count me on the team that is 100% fine with Westbrook taking Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, or even Dwyane Wade into the post any time he can. What Westbrook likes to do though that I don't like is he dribbles up the court and then head right into the post. It would make his job much easier and open greater opportunities if he just made use of a simple pass to either James Harden or Kevin Durant, crashed down onto the block, and then received a feed pass into the post. This subtle change would allow Westbrook to explode down onto the block and get much deeper position. It also would also delay any defensive rotation because it's not like Durant or Harden's defender is going to leave those guys to help out on Westbrook. In short, it would make Westbrook's job easier.
- One of the things that gets Westbrook in trouble the most is that when he is pressing his offense, he tends to take bad angles at the rim. These angles could either manifest as an awkward bank shot or a lay-up attempt that just bounces off the backboard. One of the ways the Thunder can help with this problem is by allowing Westbrook to play off the ball more and use him as a cutter. There are maybe 2-3 players in the NBA who can stay in front of Westbrook when he has the ball, but there is no man in the NBA who can stay in front of him when he's off the ball. OKC needs to take advantage of Westbrook's physical superiority in this way, and as a byproduct it will cut down on some of these bad angles.
- Westbrook's favorite pull-up jump shot is not going to be there in this series. The Heat have scouted it and are defending it; they know Westbrook will rip them apart if he is given the shot. Westbrook needs to look back at his series against the Spurs and realize that if the shot isn't there, his shooting volume needs to decrease. He simply isn't as effective a shooter on the wings, so he must resist the temptation to take an overabundance of those shots. Instead, he needs to continue to drive into the lane and be ready for his kickouts to the corners.
- Coach Nick does a great job examining each play on its own merits, but another aspect to Westbrook's play is what you might call his management of the team's overall emotional state from quarter to quarter. An effective point guard is one who understands when it is time to ratchet up his team's energy and when it is time to slow things down and help everyone concentrate a little bit more. It is how the guard strings together a sequence of individual plays and the appropriate energy he carries that helps his team get from point A to point B. In Game 2, despite executing what Coach Nick deemed more good plays than bad, I don't think Westbrook did as good a job in managing his team's emotional pace, especially in the first 6 minutes of the game. He was pressing the action when his team really needed to slow down and execute better. Conversely, Westbrook knew when he had to force the action in the 2nd half and attack the Heat, and he did a good job at this despite still making a handful of mistakes in the process. I think that a team can absorb spotty guard play at times as long as the guard is still moving the team in the right direction.
- Long term, the reason why I tend not to listen too much to critics who say that Westbrook can never be a 'championship point guard' is because we have ample evidence that he wants to become the kind of player who makes the right plays. When some people see him and accuse him of playing 'hero ball,' I see a guy who is desperately trying to figure out how to make the right play, only he (and most importantly his team) has yet to fully grasp all the moving parts of a dynamic offense. The problem is that, like Coach Nick points out above, he does not yet always see the momentary opportunities that arise, like the half-second Durant slashes through the lane or when Ibaka executes a good pick and roll. The longer Westbrook plays though, the more he will be able to both see the opportunities as well as create the opportunities for himself and his teammates.
- Much like LeBron James, Westbrook has turned into a social enigma and people see what they want to see in him. The Skip Baylesses of the world will always see an irredeemable ball dominant shoot first hero ball player who will prevent Durant from reaching his full potential. Others (like me) see a physical mini-LeBron who, like a young Spider-Man, is still trying to fully grasp his full capacity of talents, but wants to apply the growing collection and be a dominant player who is hungry for championships.
- To bring up an anecdote we used before, a few months back there was a Twitter debate that we got into, where Coach Nick argued that he'd rather have a pass-first point guard. He started ticking off names like Jose Calderon and Ray Felton as guys he'd rather have on his team rather than Westbrook. One fellow eventually retorted with the obvious response: "you can have your pass-first guys, I'd rather take Westbrook and win games." OKC needs Westbrook to be himself if they are going to win games in these Finals, just more of the good and less of the bad.