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Russell Westbrook Is Bending—and Opposing Defenses Are Breaking

Mike D’Antoni says he never explicitly asked his point guard to change his game, he just tried to give the former MVP the necessary room to find his havoc-wreaking way. “I think he found it.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For more than a decade, Russell Westbrook has gone about his basketball life by doing more or less the same things in more or less the same way. Before games, he completes an elaborate set of rituals down to a synchronized yawn. During them, he attacks with such abandon that he drives straight through most opponents and any voice of reason. After both wins and losses, Westbrook often explains the result as a matter of execution—of his team doing what it has always done, or failing to.

A career’s worth of evidence would suggest that Westbrook might not find adaptation to be all that useful; part of what made him an MVP was the way he met challenges with defiance, insisting upon his methods until they pushed through. Then something changed. First was the obvious: After an 11-year run with the Thunder, Westbrook was traded to a Rockets team where, merely because of the presence of James Harden, something had to give. Then, after an uneven start to the season, Westbrook committed to the most deliberate adjustment of his career. His entire shot profile shifted. The 3-pointers that Houston had encouraged Westbrook to take were, for a period, cut from his diet completely. During a five-game stretch in January, Westbrook attempted just two total 3s while averaging 34.4 points per game. (In those same five games, for comparison, Rockets guard Eric Gordon attempted 48 shots from beyond the arc.) The very lean of Westbrook’s game moved toward the interior, and toward what he does best.

When Houston acquired Westbrook, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni saw only two possible outcomes for his new point guard. Either Westbrook, ever the willing (often too willing) 3-point shooter, would hit more of those shots within the freedom of the offense, or he wouldn’t but the impeccable spacing around him would allow him to get to the rim with ease. The latter has proved true. In the midst of one of the worst long-range shooting seasons of his career (which is saying something for a player who has made just 30 percent of his career 3s), Westbrook doubled down on the driving angles that would make him a more consistent presence for the Rockets. According to D’Antoni, Westbrook was never explicitly asked to adjust in this way, or to take fewer 3s. “I had to do what I had to do to help him out as much as I could,” D’Antoni said, “but that’s him.”

Some of Westbrook’s adjustment came from starting out possessions physically closer to the basket, turning drives into short bursts. Once he started catching the ball around the free throw line (as opposed to out on the perimeter), Westbrook—who, at 31, can still attack at synaptic speeds—barely left defenses with any time to register and respond. “We don’t have anybody like him in the league,” D’Antoni said earlier this month. “He’s all by himself in that category.” In transition, Westbrook will streak past scrambling opponents at full speed. Even when he begins half-court possessions beyond the arc, Westbrook now more fully understands how to use the cleared lane to his advantage, stuttering his way past some forsaken defender en route to the rim. It’s not always easy for a star point guard to find balance alongside a creator as ball-dominant as Harden. Houston’s goal for Westbrook—as it was for Chris Paul—was to give him the room necessary to find his own way.

“I think he found it,” D’Antoni said.

Westbrook has scored at least 20 points in 28 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league. The longest inactive streak this year belongs to Harden, who kept up that level of scoring for 34 games in a row earlier this season, until the Thunder held him to 17. It was as if a baton were passed back in December—not in some grand gesture that would make this Westbrook’s Team, but in a practical measure to make the Rockets a better team for them both. Houston won’t be going anywhere in the playoffs if Westbrook isn’t a series-altering threat. Thanks to his adjustment, he’s well on his way. Westbrook has made more drives to the basket and scored more points in the paint than any other player in the league since January 1, reframing his contributions in radical fashion.

Russell Westbrook’s Changing Shot Distribution

Time period %FGA in the restricted area FG% in the restricted area
Time period %FGA in the restricted area FG% in the restricted area
Before January 1 40.90% 57.70%
After January 1 52.00% 63.40%
Data from NBA Advanced Stats

This version of Westbrook is a perfect fulfillment of D’Antoni’s either-or vision. Now that he understands what Houston’s offense will allow, Westbrook is both getting to the rim and finishing with more success. The Rockets are obsessed with spacing—so much so that they traded away their starting center and a first-round pick for a floor-stretching forward, thereby committing to a life undersized. It’s a gambit, but what makes the risk worthwhile is the way it amplifies Houston’s two stars. Westbrook’s evolution served almost as a proof of concept. If he would be doing most of his work inside, it made sense to clear some of the traffic from his commute. Swapping out Clint Capela for Robert Covington accomplished that, while making it impossible for defenses to match up with Houston—and Westbrook in particular—in any conventional manner.

“Before, [defenses] were just leaving the big man right at the lip of the rim,” D’Antoni said. “Now, they have a hard time doing that. So that’s way different. They double-team James, but when they double-team now, Russell has a free run to the basket.” The changes Westbrook made to his approach have been catalyzed in that momentum. His force moving toward the rim mimics that of the game’s most athletic bigs, like a fun-sized Zion Williamson. With no other option to maintain the basic shape of their defense, some opponents are beginning to treat Westbrook like a big, too. The Jazz have played the Rockets twice since they traded for Covington, and on both occasions assigned center Rudy Gobert—the reigning Defensive Player of the Year—to guard Westbrook by backing off of him and protecting the rim. In those two games, Westbrook scored 73 points on 32-of-59 (54 percent) shooting.

“I don’t know if it’s working,” Westbrook said through a chuckle after a win over the Jazz on Saturday, almost choking on a piece of popcorn. “I can get what I want. I can get whatever I want. Get to the basket, shoot, drive and kick. Pace and speed is something you can’t scout for. You can scout for moves, you can scout for all that. But speed you can’t scout for.” Westbrook shrugged. Coaches around the league may already be doing the same. If an opponent wants to keep its bigs on the floor, it will have to leave those bigs out in the cold to guard a corner shooter like P.J. Tucker, far away from the rim, or throw them into the fire against Westbrook. And as Gobert found out this weekend, guarding Westbrook is never as simple as guarding Westbrook. Containing him demands one skill set, and containing Harden a completely different one. That gives Houston’s offense some interesting points of intersection; should Westbrook set a screen for Harden, Gobert is all but required to switch—then forcing him to defend the most lethal stepback shooter in the league. What makes the Rockets particularly dangerous in this alignment is how often they force opposing players to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Players who are out of their element get frustrated. They get fatigued. They start to lose faith in the schemes, and in the teammates who couldn’t protect them. Backing off of Westbrook is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory, but comes off quite different when he’s screaming in your face after one of the best dunks of the season:

Despite all the success in the paint, Westbrook’s midrange game was actually crucial in getting the best of Gobert, and it’s not as if long-range shooting can be cut from his game completely. Since his five-game fast, Westbrook has begun taking a few 3s as circumstances demand. It’s more about moderation than outright avoidance, especially since these adjustments are driven by feel. D’Antoni and his staff are still puzzling out all the new lineups and configurations to find what works best, and rearranging the pieces around Westbrook, in particular. Harden, as the best isolation player in the league, is somewhat immutable. Westbrook is not; Westbrook is a bit more reliant on space and scheme to consistently get where he needs to go. It’s clear by now that Houston can manage it. Efficiency once was the great divide between Westbrook and Harden, then dueling MVP candidates on rival teams. Yet in this calendar year, Westbrook’s true shooting (57.3 percent) comes just short of his running mate (58.3 percent), and just short of LeBron James (58.0 percent). This is a new day. Not only has Westbrook never been this efficient for a full season, but before January 1, his true shooting (50.6 percent) fell more in line with that of Kevin Knox (50.7 percent) and Darius Garland (50.1 percent) than his superstar contemporaries.

With this surge, there is now an outside chance that Harden (35.2) and Westbrook (27.2) could become just the second pair of teammates in history to average 30 points apiece. What Westbrook brings to the table beyond that is complexity—not just the biggest, loudest flavors, but a hint of fish sauce in a dish where you wouldn’t expect it. Opponents now have to weigh every defensive assignment and rotation more carefully. Every mistake and hesitation cascades; even teams that can collapse on Westbrook and Harden risk giving up target-practice 3s to their teammates. Some games for Houston will still come down to whether Danuel House or Austin Rivers hit their open shots on a given night, not to mention whether the Rockets defend and rebound well enough over a longer term. Results will vary. Any offense built around long-range shooting will have to deal with that, and the Rockets have long since made their peace.

What matters is that the Rockets are now a more demanding opponent of the best teams in basketball. There is no way to play them without in some way playing on their terms, which in and of itself is a testament to how far Westbrook has come. Who we are, as people, is always tied to a sense of place. There were years in Oklahoma City when the Thunder would have been better served by their point guard settling a bit less, or compromising a bit more. Stubbornly, Westbrook carried on, taking whatever improbable shots he pleased. It was part of the pattern he created for himself. It was where he lived. Some of that inflexibility remains, but Westbrook finally chose to scale back an empty part of his game, reorienting instead to what the Rockets needed. The proof of real change is right there, in a meaningful show of restraint.