With the playoffs on the horizon, Westbrook’s (Han) solo act may have begun hindering the Thunder against elite competition. The Oklahoma City Skywalkers wouldn’t be on their current trajectory without Westbrook but like his Star Wars counterpart, Westbrook can be reckless, is quick to shoot first, ask questions later and instead of living as a loner, he often looks like he’d rather play one on five offensively.
On April 2, Durant told the Oklahoman that the Thunder were better when Westbrook shot more than him. However, based on Westbrook’s recent play the Thunder may want to limit Westbrook’s shot attempts for a while.That may be as likely as Dwight Howard naming Stan Van Gundy and Shaquille O’Neal as the godparents to his next child.
As the Thunder’s starting point guard and primary ball handler, Westbrook touches the ball on every possession. Even though Durant is battling with James for the league MVP, the Oklahoma City Skywalkers will live and die by Westbrook’s sword. He leads the Thunder in dribbles per game, dictates where the ball goes on every possession and has the ability to create his own shot off the dribble.
Westbrook gives his best effort as a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s position. He didn’t play the point at UCLA but has been planted at the point since his rookie season in Oklahoma City. He hasn’t learned to differentiate the bad shots he takes from the good ones. If scientists could engineer a way to swap a modicum of Westbrook’s aggressive shoot-first gene with James’ passive gene, they’d be the perfect player. Instead, the Heat and Thunder have two players with diametrically opposing flaws on their respective teams.
Against the Lakers on Sunday, Westbrook shot 3-for-22 from the field. It’s probably best he didn’t get anywhere Metta World Peace after he clocked a defenseless James Harden, because based on his 13 percent shooting percentage Westbrook probably wouldn’t have connected with his target. Durant made only 11 of 34 shots in the loss, however, in the grand scheme of things, he has remained as one of the league’s most efficient scorers throughout this season.
This season, Westbrook is averaging 23.7 points and 5.4 assists per game while the Thunder are second in offensive efficiency. However, the Thunder are also last in the league in assist-to-turnover ration, turnovers per game and assists per possession but are also the league’s third best scoring team because they thrive offensively in one-on-one and isolation sets.
This isn’t about Westbrook being a bad point guard but the fact remains that he’s not a natural facilitator either. He doesn’t have the vision to create for others when he’s shooting blanks. On his off-nights, the Thunder will likely match his struggles unless Durant can regularly counter with Herculean performances. As the competition gets even stiffer, Westbrook’s struggles will be magnified even greater.
The Thunder are in the midst of their best regular season since the primordial Seattle years, however, in the month of April, Westbrook’s numbers have dipped considerably. Last night, the Spurs clinched the Western Conference’s top seed, which Oklahoma City had a stranglehold on for most of the season.
As the Lakers and Spurs have begun peaking, Westbrook is shooting just 38 percent from the field and is on the mark just 28 percent of the time from behind the arc. By contrast, Durant is shooting higher percentage from downtown (39 percent) than Westbrook is overall this month.
After averaging 25 points per game before April, he’s averaging 20.7 this month. On a team that relies so heavily on the production from its three scorers (including Harden) his struggles could be a bad sign in May.
The last time Westbrook shot this badly from the field came against the Dallas Mavericks in last season’s Western Conference Finals series when he shot 36 percent from the field. Last season, Eric Maynor excelled in the role as Westbrook’s backup and ran the offense through Durant. In Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals, Brooks opted to sit Westbrook while Maynor led the Thunder to a win over the Mavericks. Unfortunately, a torn right ACL has sidelined the Thunder’s backup point guard since December.
The Thunder haven’t won a game against a quality opponent since they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls on April Fools Day. In each of the Thunder’s matchups with playoff teams since then, Westbrook has shot poorly.
After Oklahoma City’s win over the Bulls, Westbrook shot a combined 21-for-65 in consecutive losses to the Grizzlies, Heat and Pacers. In a pair of April losses to the Clippers, Westbrook shot 7 of 30 from the field. In Westbrook’s defense, he has remained among the NBA’s best at getting into the lane and getting fouled but he’s done so at the expense of taking forced shots.
This month has not been a positive harbinger for the Thunder’s championship aspirations and has only given ammunition to those who doubt whether the Thunder can win a championship with a non-traditional, shoot-first point guard.
Oklahoma City barely survived a second round encounter with the Memphis Grizzlies, but if they meet in the 2012 postseason, the Grizzlies will have a different dynamic with star forward Rudy Gay healthy.
The Thunder can survive a first round series against a 7 or 8 seed while Westbrook slumps. However, if Westbrook doesn’t find a balance, Scotty Brooks will have to devise a plan to weather the storm in a series against the Spurs, Lakers or even the Grizzlies. The Force may be with them but time isn’t.