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Westbrook’s Problem: It’s far more than just a shooting slump

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Westbrook’s struggles with consistency are the main thing holding the team back.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how the Thunder this season have a shot to regain their reputation as a top heavy-weight team in the NBA. I generally mentioned how weak over the past years the Thunder were in executing the 4th quarter, and how important it is to generate reliable offense in the last quarter of the game to pull out victories. I cannot deny that the Thunder’s ability to close out games yet remains a liability, with three losses in the last 10 days alone coming down to the final possession.

I also cannot deny that they’ve been improving over the course of the season in executing in the 4th quarter, but aside from a few Paul George offensive explosions, the best quarters have come from their defense, not their offense. On an offensive efficiency standard, OKC is actually worse than they were a year ago where, despite all the Carmelo Anthony drama, were still a top-10 offense. Weak 4th quarter execution, and late game wins/losses always comes down to a small sample size, but if we dig deep, there are several games where the Thunder should have had the two-best offensive players on the court, yet were not able to come out victorious. The bench and the team would step up late in the game but would yet fail to close out the game with a victory, which includes OKC’s disastrous ending to the Mavericks this past Sunday.

Even with George’s great play, OKC’s orbit still revolves around Russell Westbrook. As his game goes up and down, so does the Thunder’s ability to finish strong in closely-contested games. There is a reason why, in his MVP season, OKC won more games than their point differential predicted — it was by and large because they, and Russ in particular, closed games better than ever before. Which leads us to the big question — what exactly is wrong with Russ?

Royce Young investigates:

It has become psychological warfare, like a golfer who has missed a handful of 3-foot putts.

Down months aren’t unusual for a temperature player like Westbrook, but the free throw line has set the table for his overall offensive struggles. December was one of the worst months of his career, at least in terms of scoring, shooting and efficiency, as Westbrook averaged just 19.1 points on 38.6 percent shooting from the field. His season-long numbers aren’t much better: 21 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting.

The reasons are hard to pinpoint. Most within the team would point to the choppiness of his season, that he’s still working into shape or that he just needs a rhythm. He’s never been a high-level shooter, but the 3-point line has been especially unkind to him (24.1 percent from beyond the arc). He’s leaving points at the free throw line. He’s not hitting midrange jumpers consistently. It has led to some low-scoring nights, including two single-digit games in December (not including games he left early because of injury or ejection, he’d had only three in the previous five seasons combined).

There have been times where Westbrook was completely absent offensively, forcing George and the bench managed to win games in spite of Westbrook’s shooting. This is not a sustainable playoff formula. Westbrook and George are the two main offensive pillars on the team. Westbrook has an enormous role offensively but he is unfortunately not living up to his role to date, which over time will put a lot of pressure on everyone else.

I think Westbrook’s problem is more than just a shooting slump. I firmly believe it’s more of a mental and psychological problem He is a superstar with a proven track record; there is no way in hell that he is not capable of hitting midranges and 3-pointers at least up to his career averages. And as Young points out, much of his offense, even when he struggles, is being lost at the free throw line.

Leave the numbers aside, he doesn’t seem to be the player that we have known who is fearless, who remains focused and in attack mode throughout the entire game. Right now, he seems unfocused and distracted. He is forcing shots when he knows he’s not shooting the ball well. He is making poor game decisions, like the lazy pass that got picked off at the end of the Dallas loss. Something just feels different about him that is being reflected negatively on his performance. He is not playing at a superstar caliber player nor is competing at the level that we are used to see him compete at, and may be debatable whether he earns a slot at this year’s all-star game.

In conclusion, we know Westbrook has dealt with multiple leg issues as well as the birth of his twins, and that will impact any person’s performance. Perhaps all that is needed is time, and he has been slightly more consistent even with the bad performance last Sunday. But he still needs to be the alpha dog of this team and retain the old Westbrook persona back into his personality.

The team are doing well defensively and they have a great secondary unit, and George is entering MVP conversations. If that could be combined with Westbrook living up to the expectations he’s set for himself, that team has a serious shot in making this season matter in a way fans have not known in many years.