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NBA Sunday: The Russell Westbrook Revival

After a slow start, a more efficient Russell Westbrook may help lead the Thunder deep in the playoffs.

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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.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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