The most surprising thing about Russell Westbrook’s 3-for-20 shooting performance on Wednesday is that, somewhere along the way, he actually made three shots. I had to go back Thursday morning and double-check to make sure they really happened.
Two—a slick driving layup through traffic, and a prove-it 3-pointer after Lonzo Ball went under a Steven Adams screen—came midway through the second quarter, as the Thunder were trying to get their offense unstuck in an ugly game against the LeBron James–less Lakers. The third was a putback off an offensive rebound with 63 seconds left in a game that had been decided by Oklahoma City’s two biggest advantages this season: Paul George (37 points on 15-for-29 shooting) and a smothering defense that held L.A. to 18 points on 21 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter to deliver a 107-100 win.
The three makes were a sparsely inhabited archipelago in a vast ocean of Russ misfires. He clanged flailing runners and early-shot-clock midrangers, contact-seeking finger rolls and one-legged fadeaways, wide-open catch-and-shoot triples and ill-fated pull-ups—17 misses in all, and watching it live, it felt like more. He did his level best to make up for it elsewhere, pulling down 16 rebounds and dishing 10 assists with two steals and two blocks for his league-leading 11th triple-double of the season. But that only earned Westbrook a share of an ignominious bit of statistical trivia—although I suppose there are worse things than being united in struggle with Jerry West and Isiah Thomas. Maybe the biggest takeaway from Russ’s game was how familiar it now is, how increasingly common it’s become for the former Most Valuable Player and seven-time All-NBA selection to spend a night bricking away.
Just three nights earlier, Westbrook went a dismal 4-for-22 against Dallas, missing a bad, contested, one-legged 3 at the buzzer to seal a two-point loss. That he’d hung 40 on Phoenix two nights prior, and that he’d atone for his poor showing by roasting the Mavericks for 32 in the second night of their back-to-back set on Monday, only underlined Westbrook’s inconsistency in a season that’s been twice derailed by injury. He hasn’t shown any signs of finding a steady rhythm yet. The man himself acknowledged as much after the Dallas loss: “It’s really on me. I’ve been shit the last month or so. I’ve just got to get focused in and locked back in on what I need to do.”
It might sound odd for a man who still averaged a triple-double in that month to say that he played badly during it. But Westbrook, more than anyone else in the NBA, has spent the past three seasons normalizing that particular feat. His triple-doubles, while still impressive, no longer mask the issues surrounding his game. And in the context Westbrook has created, when it comes to the offensive end, it’s hard to dispute his self-assessment. He’s posting the lowest true shooting percentage of his career, but that hasn’t made him more bashful; while he has ceded a greater share of the Thunder’s offense to George and Dennis Schröder in two-point-guard lineups, he’s still finishing more than 30 percent of OKC’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover. The only players in Basketball-Reference.com’s database with a usage rate that high and a true shooting percentage this low are Michael Jordan in his first season with the Wizards and Kobe Bryant in his farewell tour with the Lakers—not exactly the peak versions of the all-timers with whom Westbrook wants to be rubbing shoulders.
For all of his explosive athleticism, and for his ability to get to the basket seemingly at will and finish among the trees, Westbrook has never been a particularly efficient scorer. That’s due in part to the fact nobody has ever shot both as frequently and as errantly from beyond the arc; Westbrook owns the lowest 3-point percentage ever among players with at least 2,500 career attempts. And while he loves launching pull-up jumpers enough that they’ve accounted for nearly 51 percent of his total field goal attempts over the past six seasons, they don’t tend to love him back. Westbrook has knocked them down at only a 36.9 percent clip during that span. (That includes the stop-on-a-dime elbow J that he’s long called his “cotton shot,” because he always expects it to fall softly through the net.)
Westbrook is shooting just 31.8 percent on those stop-and-pop tries this season, according to Second Spectrum’s shot-charting data. Among players with at least 200 such attempts, only Hawks rookie Trae Young is connecting less frequently. Despite stronger-than-ever marks as a finisher at the rim, Westbrook’s touch beyond the paint has all but disappeared; whether off the bounce or off the catch, he’s taking nearly eight shots per game from 15 feet and beyond this season, but shooting just 25.9 percent on them.
He’s battling at the free throw line, too, shooting just 62.6 percent. Perhaps Russ lost his stroke at the stripe due to the disruption of his longtime foul shot routine; ESPN’s Royce Young recently posited that Westbrook’s rhythm at the line has been off since last season, when the league implemented a rule change meant to prevent players from wasting time at the free throw line. Whatever the reason, he’s never shot this poorly on freebies, or earned them this infrequently.
It’s a vicious cycle. Westbrook hasn’t shown he can make jumpers, so opponents sag off of him to take away his drives (he’s averaging four fewer a game this season than last). So he takes more of the shots the defense wants to give him, which he misses, and doesn’t get to the line. But when he does, he doesn’t have any rhythm and is also engaging in “psychological warfare” with himself, so he’s missing those, too. Add it all up and Westbrook’s leaving points on the board left and right, looking less like the offensive engine of an elite point-producing machine and more like a player who, for the first time in a long time, is having to search for what makes him special.
That’s not how the rest of the Thunder seem to see it, though, due largely to Westbrook continuing to fill in the blanks elsewhere. He leads the team in rebounding, leads the league in assists, steals, and deflections per game, and doesn’t allow his effort to wane even when his shot’s not falling.
“He does so much more stuff than just score the ball, and it’s the reason why we’re winning when he’s not shooting well,” George told reporters after Wednesday’s win. “It’s because he just does so much stuff to help that sometimes doesn’t even show up on the stat sheet. He just makes winning plays.”
But while the Thunder have proved they can win ugly on the backs of George and that no. 1-ranked defense in November and December, doing it in April, May, and June in best-of-sevens against the league’s finest will be a much tougher task. The recipe for Oklahoma City to contend for a title is clear: Westbrook and George carry the offense, and everybody swarms on defense. It’s commendable that Russ has mitigated his woes by making space for George to be aggressive and “taking care of the rest,” but that can’t be enough; not even George and that defense can prop up Westbrook’s 42/24/63 shooting split in the crucible of the Western Conference playoffs.
“His greatest strength is his determination, his will and his drive,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told reporters after OKC’s win over the Mavericks on New Year’s Eve. “Whatever it is that he’s going through, when I say that I don’t worry about it, I don’t worry about it because of his intangible things. If it was somebody different that didn’t have that kind of will and drive and belief and determination, it maybe would concern me a little bit more. It doesn’t with him, because he thrives on stuff like this, in my opinion. He thrives on challenges.”
He’s got one now, and as cosmic jokes go, it’s not half bad: After years of slings and arrows about how his inflated box-score statistics didn’t necessarily correlate with winning, Westbrook has started to prove he can impact the game without scoring in bunches … only for the Thunder to need him to show he can put up crooked numbers again. Scoring isn’t everything, but it’s the biggest thing, and whether Westbrook can get back to doing it loudly and more often will likely dictate just how credible a championship contender Oklahoma City can be.