It was a tale of two halves for Russell Westbrook against the Portland Trail Blazers. In the first half, he scored 26 points on 13 shots and 13 free throw attempts. In the second half, he scored 12 points on 13 shots and 3 free throw attempts. The difference went way beyond the FTA disparity.
Blaming Westbrook for the Thunder's loss would be unfair. That guy scored 38 points on 26 shots, and made 15-of-16 free throws. It's impressive to do that on any given night, let alone on opening night. And accomplishing that with the guys he had around him for the night? Their second-best scorer was Lance Thomas, who scored 14 points in 31 minutes off the bench. Thomas wouldn't even have made the team if it weren't for all the injuries that limited the bench to four guys: Thomas, Sebastian Telfair, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins.
Let's start with the good: Westbrook came out of the gates looking to run steeplechase all over guys. He was doing laps over opposing All-Star Damian Lillard from the start, opening the game with a post-up (and then a tip-in of his own miss) immediately followed by a backdoor cut on the next possession to set the tone. Poor Lillard – for all the shot-making he can do on offense, defense isn't his forte.
For one reason or another, Terry Stotts left Lillard on Westbrook for the entire first quarter. Without double-teaming Westbrook (which honestly might've been a better decision, with how bad Perry Jones III was), Westbrook was able to blow by Lillard and attack the second layer of defense with a head of steam. Where he couldn't convert a look going through the help, he'd absorb contact and get to the line, even when the spacing wasn't ideal (often). If you were wondering about those 13 first half freebies, now you know.
Westbrook was rabid in attacking the rim, both in the half-court and the break. After the game, he specifically pointed his transition opportunities, saying, "We were getting big stops and the bigs did a great job of keeping the middle of the lane open for me to be able to attack in transition and that’s what I tried to do."
Westbrook was targeting and attacking the rim like a man on a mission in the first half. As Steven Adams would say, layups, bro. Six of Westbrook's seven first-half makes came directly in the paint, via NBA.com's stats site:
What went wrong in the second half? Westbrook got tired. Which, you know, should be expected when he has to carry the team on a night where only two other guys scored over 10 points, one of them being Thomas, which I still can't get over. (The other was Serge Ibaka, in what was still a very disappointing performance despite the feat of actually being able to scrape together double-digit points.)
While Westbrook's first half shot chart reflected his efficiency and dominance, here's his second half shot chart. Notice: only one make at the rim this time around, and many more jumpers. (Worth mentioning but not included in the shot chart: this was the half where he only got to the line three times.)
Westbrook settled for more jumpers out of the pick-and-roll in the second half, and while he connected on a couple more of them than in the first half, it was a huge change in tempo. The Blazers can live with that. In fact, they game-plan for it. They defend the pick-and-roll by sagging the big man into the lane, conceding the mid-range jumper and playing to percentages. That's a shot Westbrook can hit and one he loves to take, but even throwing out the fact that he wasn't shooting the 16-footer too well on that particular night, the whole point is that Westbrook isn't carving up the paint.
The bottom line: Westbrook was too tired to continue attacking over and over again. He lost his burst. Even when he could blow by guys, he wasn't able to throw himself through the second wave of defense as he could in the first half. He wasn't forced into midrange jumpers by the pick-and-roll defense, which schemed against him the same way all game, but by his own fatigue which forced his hand. And it didn't help that the Blazers improved offensively in the second half (with a swing from a first half field goal percentage of 38.3% to 52.5% in the second half), cutting down the amount of easy transition chances.
But what were the other options? Other than having Westbrook keep trying, the Thunder could only manage basic flex sets that produced at best midrange jumpers for Thomas and Ibaka. The talent pool just isn't good enough for anything better.
One change worth crediting the Blazers for, however: after Wes Matthews was given a try at Westbrook in the second quarter, Nicolas Batum was settled upon to guard Westbrook for the game. Matthews is a pretty good defender and a huge upgrade upon Lillard on that end, but Batum proved to be up to the task for Westbrook.
"That's kind of been my job since I got here, to take the best player and to try to stop him," Batum said after the game, also confirming that he asked for the Westbrook assignment.
Compared to Matthews, Batum has the advantage of length, and maybe foot-speed too. That equipped him well to contain Westbrook. It factored in a lot in the second half, where getting to the rim for easy looks was a much tougher task for Westbrook.
This play, ruled clean, was night-and-day from the Westbrook of the first half:
Tonight, the Thunder will round out a back-to-back against the Los Angeles Clippers. After the crushing fall from grace in the second half last night, there's no telling whether or not the Thunder (or what's left of them: Westbrook) can be physically prepared for the game. And we're saying this on the second game of the season.
One thing we know is that Westbrook won't be taking any breaks. He came into this game with guns blazing, and for better or for worse, he'll do the same thing tomorrow. With a bit more help from the rest of the team, maybe Westbrook can get it done next time out.