Russell Westbrook curled around Serge Ibaka, simultaneously using him to screen off his primary defender and neatly receiving the handoff. Like a running back, Westbrook hid behind Ibaka for a split second before going back from where he came, but this time, with the basketball in tow.
Westbrook beat Iman Shumpert to the corner, hesitated when Quincy Acy showed and then, like freight train, exploded with a quick first step and accelerated down the baseline. Shumpert was left in his wake.
As he approached the basket, Westbrook showed no signs of attrition. There was no trepidation, no hesitation and no doubt.
He recklessly dashed toward the hoop, rose majestically and defied gravity for what seemed like 45 seconds before throwing down a thunderous dunk that nearly blew the roof off of Oklahoma City’s Energy Solutions Arena.
Two minutes into their November 28 contest in which the Oklahoma City Thunder ultimately prevailed 105-78, this was the scene. It was Westbrook’s first contest after missing a month of action, yet he amassed 32 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
What was most impressive was that he did it all in just 24 minutes.
“His determination and his ability to impact winning is reflected on what he throws out there every night,” Scott Brooks said after that powerful performance.
“He plays with a force and an energy and a determination that is hard to contain… He makes the right decisions. He can score and he can make plays for others and that’s what he needs to continue to do.”
Since then, Westbrook has.
The Thunder are attempting to dig themselves out of the deep hole that they found themselves in after going just 3-12 over the course of the team’s first 15 games.
And as the Thunder continue to rise up through the standings in the NBA’s Western Conference the same way Westbrook rose up over those Knicks almost a month ago, it is he who continues to be the determinant as to whether the Thunder will have an opportunity to win an NBA Championship.
Since winning the NBA’s Western Conference back in 2012, the Thunder have come no closer to becoming a champion. A large part of that is due to an overall talent deficit due to the franchise’s selective spending and striking out on a few of the higher profile free agents that the team has pursued over the past few years.
Still, the Thunder have steadily improved as a bull club since 2009. After winning just 23 games that year, a pair of 21-year-olds in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook helped the franchise pull off one of the best single-season turnarounds in NBA history. Since the Thunder turned in an impressive 50-32 record in the 2009-10 season, they have quickly become a perennial powerhouse. Durant and Westbrook have been the constants.
But for all he contributes on the basketball court, Westbrook has often found himself as a target.
For all the game he has and capably utilizes on the basketball court, Westbrook is still seen by many as too selfish. When the Thunder had an opportunity to engage the New Orleans Hornets on a trade involving Chris Paul, the Thunder opted not to, believing that Westbrook and Durant were a tandem with which they could compete. Some have wondered if that was a mistake.
As a basketball talent, Westbrook is an improved, more athletic version of former NBA All-Star Stephen Marbury. In his prime, Marbury’s greatest gift was his combination of explosiveness, athleticism and brute force strength for a man of his size. Opposing guards had almost no chance at staying in front of or overpowering Marbury, and defenders often have similar struggles with Westbrook.
In his conscience, Westbrook is unafraid of being labeled as a selfish gunslinger. Over the years, he has intentionally been developed by coach Scott Brooks and encouraged by Durant to be an aggressive offensive player who presses the issue and keeps opposing defenses on their heels by aggressively looking for his own scoring opportunities.
With the attention that Durant attracts on a nightly basis, the effect has often been Westbrook taking more shots, yet inefficiently scoring less points than even Durant himself.
His basketball IQ has been questioned, and his lack of his discipline has been cited for the team’s failures.
This season, though, with their backs against the wall, Westbrook has clearly shown some signs of alteration.
Sometimes, as a player, getting injured, taking a step back from the game and keenly observing is good for perspective development. While Westbrook sat out for that month, he observed games closely, he conversed with his head coach regularly and he, by his own admission, began to evaluate things he had never considered on the floor and reevaluate some of which he had already come to know.
Mainly as a result, suddenly, entering play on December 14, the Thunder have won seven of eight games and have quietly moved to within 1.5 games of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. At this point, the question most often being posed as it relates to the team is not whether they will make the playoffs—something many people questioned earlier this season—but what seed they will eventually attain.
The main reason? Again. Westbrook.
Since returning from his month-long absence, Westbrook has shot an amazingly efficient 52 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. In just 32.3 minutes per game, he has averaged 27.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.6 steals.
He has shot better than 47 percent from the field for five straight games, something that he failed to do all of last season and hasn’t done since February 2013.
On the offensive end, post-injury Westbrook has the same DNA, but the overarching theme seems to be that he has learned to value each individual possession a little more than he did pre-injury. Each time the Thunder secure a rebound and Westbrook has the ball, the team has an opportunity to get and take a good shot, hone their offensive execution, get one another in rhythm and score points.
That—the importance of each individual possession—is something that once seemed lost on the All-NBA performer. But although his sample size is much smaller, in important areas, Westbrook seems to be growing. He has taken similar strides as John Wall of the Washington Wizards.
The man who should be most happy about that?
Durant—who wants nothing more than to bring a championship to Oklahoma City.
Make no mistake about it, Durant is by far the team’s most valuable and best player. With Westbrook and without Durant, the Thunder would be a fringe playoff team in the Western Conference, at best. With Durant and without Westbrook, they could succeed at a much higher level with a competent point guard and an offensive system that absolutely deferred to Durant and allowed him to approach Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony’s shot rates.
But the development of Westbrook—and his lack thereof—has contributed heavily to the Thunder’s dearth of success in the post-James Harden era.
One thing that many perimeter players struggle with in the NBA is changing their mind once they have begun a movement toward the basket. Often, when a guard catches the ball at the top of the key and they see a lane to the basket, they dart toward it, having made up their mind to get there and attempt to score. Often, the result is a charging violation or blocked shot if the opposing defense reacts quickly enough.
Two players whose patience and poise in those situations was remarkable were Steve Nash and Dwyane Wade. Nash and Wade would often handle the ball out on the perimeter, move toward the basket and then lift their foot off of the accelerator once they got below the free throw line. They would survey the scene and determine to not necessarily pursue what they resolved when they began their movement, but to simply make the right play once the defense had reacted to them.
Just close your eyes and think for a second: how often do you recall Nash being whistled for a charge that occurred in the lane? What about Wade?
Now what about Westbrook?
To this point in his career, his impatience has been a major contributing factor to his inefficiency, his high turnovers and his team’s offensive plight. Over the course of the beginning of his season, though, Westbrook appears to be seeing the game a bit differently.
On December 12, after the Thunder had defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oklahoma City, Durant—who was playing in his fifth game since recovering from his Jones fracture—was pleased with his team’s development.
”We’re growing,” Durant said when asked what has changed.
”Every single game, you can see defensively, offensively, we’re starting to catch a stride. We’ve just got to continue to do it.’’
Without question, the point guard is the captain of the ship, and without question, Westbrook has been an appreciable part of that growth.
Long ago, general manager Sam Presti had decided that his franchise would sink or swim with the duo of Westbrook and Durant. And this season, when it seemed as though injuries and attrition would be the cement shoes that would ensure their demise, Westbrook’s growth helped his team persevere and remain afloat.
In what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive playoff races the NBA’s Western Conference has ever seen, the Thunder have come storming back after being thought by some to be out of the picture.
And on that night against the Knicks, like a greyhound, Westbrook dashed out of the gate and sprinted. Since then, there has been no looking back. No for coach Brooks, not for his Thunder and certainly not for Westbrook.
“Russell’s speed and his ability to impact the game in many of the areas that we feel that are important and an area that is not shown on the stat sheet is his ability to make and raise the level of the his teammates,” Brooks said on the night when Westbrook made his return.
“I thought everybody responded when he was on the court, he did a good job of getting guys involved. With the minutes he had, he nearly had a triple-double.
“We just gotta continue to build on that.”
Since then, they have. And in what is poised to be the one of the most competitive playoff races this league has seen, the Thunder are emerging as not only a shoe-in for the playoffs, but as one of the most intimidating lower-seeded teams in recent memory.
With Westbrook’s growth and their continued health, the Thunder aren’t merely thriving, they’re rolling. And for the rest of the Western Conference and the league alike, that’s a scary thing.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.