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This Would be a Great Time for Russell Westbrook to Take Over

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OKC’s backs are against the wall. They need their leader to take over.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

We heard it a lot last year. “Russ has no help.” It was an oversimplification of course- Steven Adams was doing work on the glass, Andre Roberson was the one of the best wing defenders in the league, Victor Oladipo was solid (though nowhere near the player he would become in Indiana). But it was nonetheless true Russell Westbrook was the only person really capable of creating plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, for himself or for others. Leading the offensively-challenged Thunder to a 47 win season while averaging a triple-double was the basis of his MVP candidacy, and the Thunder’s first round exit was largely blamed on the lack of firepower around him. If only Russ had some help.

Well, Russ has help now, and OKC is still staring at another first round exit. Paul “Playoff P” George was excellent in game 1 (the Thunder’s only win), awful in game 2, and fine but not spectacular in game 3. In general though, he’s given the team all you could ask for out of an alleged 2nd option- 25 points per game on 45% shooting, including 48% from 3. The rest of Russ’s help hasn’t lived up to expectations- Olympic Melo is nowhere to be found, leaving plain ol Carmelo Anthony in his place. His 15 points on 42% shooting has not been good enough to justify his mediocre defense on the other end of the floor. Steven Adams, the team’s anchor all season, has been in foul trouble for big parts of the series and been stifled by Rudy Gobert in the minutes he has played.

Those things wouldn’t matter if Russell Westbrook was playing better. Efficiency is never the name of Russ’s game, but he’s been downright atrocious in this series. He’s shooting 36% from the field, nearly 10 percent worse than he did in the regular season, and it’s all been because of his shot selection. Russ is at his best attacking and getting to the rim, drawing contact and finishing anyways. And when he’s done that series he’s found success, shooting 55% on nearly 7 attempts per game in the restricted area. But he isn’t doing it enough- he’s too often settling for bad, ugly mid-range turnaround bank shot attempts after posting up Ricky Rubio. On those mid-range attempts he’s shot a putrid 32%, yet he’s taking more than 8 of them per game. That has to stop. Rudy Gobert is a great rim protector. If Russ goes into the paint, he may get blocked sometimes. But he also might draw a foul, or draw enough help to make a dish. That is the Russ this team needs. Gobert may win defensive player of the year but Russ is the reigning MVP. He needs to attack the rim and live with the consequences of that.

Despite leading the team in attempts in this series, Russ has gotten weirdly passive in the 4th quarter. He’s averaging under 3 attempts in the 4th (compared to 20 per game overall), and is shooting even worse in the final frame than the rest of the time, hitting just 27% of his attempts. No one else is hitting their shots down the stretch either- PG is shooting 35% in the 4th, Melo is somehow shooting 14% (I can’t believe that’s a real number), and Jerami Grant, who somehow leads the team in 4th quarter attempts, is shooting just 43%- not great by most standards, but Jordanesque compared to what this Big 3 has managed.

Russ is averaging 3 assists in 4th quarters, evidence of a pass first mentality he seems to have adopted down the stretch. The problem is, no one is really hitting their shots down the stretch, and Russ’s passing is far more likely to result in a turnover or a missed shot than it is a bucket. It’s weird to say for someone whos shooting so poorly this series, but Russ needs to shoot more in those 4th quarters- as long as it’s the right kind of look. Get to the rim, finish a couple times, and then when the defense is forced to help more you can look to find your teammates.

There’s a lot of other things that the Thunder need to improve tonight. They need Adams to be able to stay on the court. They need Melo to either shoot better or they need to get him off the court (something to note: Grant has a positive net rating for this series, one of only two players that’s true for. The other is Alex Abrines. Can we please see more of the Russ-Abrines-PG-Grant-Adams lineup?). They need to keep the Jazz off the boards. They need to slow down Donovan Mitchell, but not in a way that leaves Ricky Rubio wide open to kill them.

But the Thunder, for better or for worse, are Russell Westbrook’s team. When he’s at his best he can cover a lot of their weakness, and when he’s at his worst he can nullify a lot of their strengths. He’s been a lot closer to his worst than his best this series, and if the Thunder lose this series, the Paul George era in OKC might be over before it’s really begun. We’ve seen Russ take over a series before. What the thunder need most tonight is for him to do it again.


Can Westbrook save the Thunder’s season?

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