We’ve seen this Russell Westbrook before. But we haven’t seen him be this extraordinary playing in the same backcourt with another superstar. While it took weeks for Westbrook to get his vibe going in Houston, he has arrived as alpha dog number one. Not a sidekick to James Harden and irrelevant like Chris Paul. Not mocked like Dwight Howard. But pure Russ.
Russell Westbrook has taken over the Rockets, made them his, and has defied anyone to question his credentials. He has, once again, silenced all the critics who thought his pairing with James Harden wouldn’t matter. Russ, as the lead guard running the show, doing Russ things like driving, finishing and rebounding, has the Rockets cautiously confident this might work in the postseason. As gimmicky as it seemed a few weeks ago, small ball has suppressed opponents, but only if the two superstar scorers don’t have off nights. If they are spectacular. And that is what Westbrook has been. Amazing.
Some Russ stats. In season 12, he’s averaging the third highest ppg of his career. He’s career high in field goal percentage because he has a nine year low in three point attempts per game, just 4 threes which makes all kinds of sense. One three per quarter is all we really need for Russ. The rest of his 18 shots need to be midrange or drives to the rim.
Russ is shooting a lot, nearly 23 shots per game, but he’s making the most shots he’s ever made, 10.8. He’s averaging 7.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds. Because it’s a straight up iso game Russ is playing, his PER isn’t close to what it was in his MVP year, when his PER was 30.6. Now it’s 21.7. Although his usage rate is high at 34.3, it’s not the 41.7 rate it was when he won the MVP.
Russ has taken more rim shot than he has three point shots, and more layups than long twos, and more easy buckets than mid range shots. He will never be an efficient shot maker. His 36% on jump shots is what his career has been about. But he has almost as many layups as jumpers. That is the Russ Westbrook game.
There was no way that Westbrook was going to take a back seat to Harden, not after winning a MVP. He wasn’t going to Dwyane Wade-it. And he couldn’t. The Rockets just don’t have enough offensive talent to be able to let Russ and James chill in the corner while the rest of team does their thing. The Rockets are not the Clippers. They lack depth. But what the Rockets have in Harden and Westbrook can be scary when Westbrook is on a roll.
James Harden is taking it all in stride, how it’s no longer all about him. Setting his Giannis back and forth silliness aside, Harden is a scorer on a team with a passionate and ruthless player. Harden, all of a sudden, is in the shadows, almost an afterthought. He has fallen into the Scottie Pippen, Paul Gasol, Klay Thompson role. It’s Westbrook who is driving this train now and Harden is helping the way Harden helps. Scoring. Getting to the line. Performance art with his body contortions to imitate a hard foul. While Westbrook is being maniacal.
It’s not Harden’s style or temperament to dig in and be ruthless. As he was trying to explain to Giannis, Harden has worked hard on his skill. He is the greatest scorer of his generation and perhaps ever. Nevertheless, after so many failed superstar pairings it was an obvious question: can Harden thrive with another superstar?
The regular season is ripe for this kind of Westbrook/Harden small ball. But what happens in the playoffs? When teams take away your strength, when they have a week to scheme you, what then?
If the playoffs ended today, the Rockets would play the Clippers in the second round. The Clippers have the most depth of all the contenders. They have bodies they can throw at the Rockets and a bunch of two way players. They can wear the Rockets down. Well, as much as you can wear Westbrook down.
But frankly, in March I’m not thinking about playoffs and if Harden can redeem himself and if Westbrook will be a tornado destroying everything in his path. I’m enjoying this Russ show too much right now.