OKC Thunder: Russell Westbrook seems to be changing his ways
Someone asked me today how jarring it was to see Russell Westbrook in a jersey other than the Thunder’s.
I hadn’t even thought about it. So the answer must be, not very.
The Rockets beat the Thunder 116-112 Monday night, and watching Westbrook play for Houston was not as startling as I figured it might be. That could change on January 9, when Westbrook plays in Oklahoma City. But Monday night, it didn’t seem like a massive change.
Maybe because Westbrook was more incognito than we ever saw him with the Thunder. First off, his new haircut. Sometimes, you’d have sworn it was Gerald Green, the long-time Rocket who plays with braided hair. Only when Westbrook flew through the sky and did Westbrook-like things did you remember, oh yeah, he’s in this game.
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Westbrook was never lost with the Thunder. Never went more than 25 seconds without the ball in his hands. He was pounding the rock or firing a pass or flying for a rebound or jacking up a shot.
But that wasn’t the Westbrook we saw Monday night.
Oh, you saw all kinds of glimpses of the old Westbrook. A rebound dunk. A drive into the paint and a wicked pass into the corner for a P.J. Tucker 3-pointer. A game-deciding offensive rebound in the final minute that snuffed out OKC’s best chance for a comeback victory. A wild pass into the seats.
We saw all kinds of things that Westbrook used to do with OKC. We just didn’t see it consistently.
After the trade last July, Westbrook vowed he could adapt to the James Harden-centric Rockets. Who knows if Westbrook can sustain it, but darned if he hasn’t done it so far.
Monday night, Westbrook played 35-1/2 minutes – is Mike D’Antoni going to wear out his older roster? – and made nine of 16 shots from the field, including just one 3-point attempt, which missed. Westbrook made three of four foul shots, an inordinate low number for one of the NBA’s great drivers of the last decade. He had nine assists, five turnovers and 12 rebounds.
If you’re counting, that’s 23 possessions used by Westbrook; 19.1 percent of Houston’s total. Harden used 36 possessions. Thirty percent of the Rockets’ total.
That’s a different Westbrook.
Through three games, Westbrook’s usage rate – an estimate of the number of possessions used by a player while he is on the floor – is 28.2 percent, which would be his lowest rate since his sophomore season, 10 years ago. Westbrook actually was down to a 30.9 percent usage rate last season, down significantly from his 41.7 usage rate in 2016-17.
Harden’s usage rate is 37.2 through three games. So kudos to Westbrook for making the attempt to adjust to being so ball-dominant.
Harden remains Houston’s primary ballhandler, but Westbrook still leads the Rockets in assists, 9.7 per game to Harden’s 8.7.
The most eye-popping statistic from Westbrook with the Rockets is his 12.7 rebounds per game. We spent three years debating whether Westbrook was taking away rebounds from his Thunder teammates.
But maybe we didn’t focus on the right things. Westbrook was averaging 10 rebounds a game on a team that was good at rebounding. Now Westbrook is on a poor-rebounding team, and his rebounding numbers are soaring. The Rockets have no interesting in rebounding; they seem thrilled that someone actually wants to go after the ball.
It's a long season. Who knows if the new Westbrook will last the season, or if he’ll revert to being ball-dominant. But through three games, Westbrook’s attempts at transformation are a positive for Houston.