Blog Entry

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Posted on: May 7, 2011 9:59 pm
Edited on: May 7, 2011 10:34 pm
Posted by Royce Young

Russell Westbrook was playing a fantastic game. One that was bringing his critics back around. One that was reminding people was an incredible talent he is at just 22 years old and in his third year as a pro. He was creating, dishing, scoring and finishing.

He had the Thunder cooking the Grizzlies, taking them up to a 16-point lead as he racked up assists and played a solid, controlled game. Oklahoma City looked downright dominant and appeared to be cruising to a 2-1 series lead and regaining the homecourt advantage.

But things felt apart in a big way the final six minutes of the fourth quarter. Spanning to overtime, where OKC lost 101-93, the Thunder went eight minutes without a basket, missed 11 straight shots and scored just 17 points the final 17 minutes, including overtime.

Most everyone with a Twitter account, a blog or even a voice pinned it all directly on the shoulders of Westbrook. Most saw it being his fault for stopping the ball, for not getting it to Kevin Durant, for killing the Thunder's chances to win this game. And you haven't heard the last of it. It's just going to get worse the more people stew on this game.

From my eyes, though, I just didn't see it that way. I'm evidently very much in the minority, but I just refuse to place the blame on Westbrook for Game 3's incredible meltdown.

Does he deserve a big slice of blame? Definitely. Probably one right out of the middle of the pie. With lots of icing. He didn’t do the things those last six minutes that he had done up to that point. The first 42 minutes, he was fantastic. Setting up teammates, scoring in rhythm, making good decisions — it was beautiful. But with the Thunder trying to hang on a lead, a lot of that flew right out the door.

Not entirely because of Westbrook, though. Again, he’s absolutely got blood on his hands. He might even be holding the knife. He entered the fourth quarter with 12 assists and finished the game with that number. That’s all on him.

But I have to stop short of joining the bash party and piling on Westbrook's game.

What the Thunder looked like those last few minutes was a team up by a touchdown and content to just run the ball three times into an eight-man front and punt. They wound the clock down with a lot of dribbling, then brought Kevin Durant to the top of the key and tried to isolate him there. But, because of great ball-denial and the fact Durant didn’t position well enough to actually receive the ball, Westbrook was basically left with a ticking time bomb in his hands. The play was a dud and he was left standing there having to make a play with five on the shot clock.

Where Westbrook failed was that he then put his nose down and tried to just make a play on his own. It was all up to him after the initial, one-option play crumbled, but he still could have drawn the defense and dished. He could've gone all the way to the rim. He settled instead for jumpers — mostly good looks too, I’d say — that he didn’t make. The offense went entirely stale, the ball stopped and nobody moved. Is that Westbrook’s fault? Or is it a product of the play call coming from the sideline? That’s the question I’m asking right now.

Everyone is griping that Durant didn’t see the ball much in those moments, but again, he was in no position to score. The Thunder basically ran the same stuff that killed Denver in Game 5 where Durant took over and started etching his name into playoff lore. Difference here was Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler weren’t on Durant. Tony Allen is terrific in ball denial and can stop Durant’s dribble. Durant just doesn’t have the ability to put the ball on the floor more than twice and get a good shot over Allen. It’s not happening.

But at any point did you really see a time where Durant was open and Westbrook truly looked him off? What I saw was Durant hovering around the 3-point line with his hand up, not moving. I mean with four on the shot clock, what do you want Westbrook to do? Kick it out there and let his buddy fire from 30 feet? Why does KD deserve the ball if he’s 30 feet from the basket, not moving and covered? How is that Westbrook being a bad point guard?

I know I’ve seen Westbrook succeed in exactly what he tried to do Saturday at least 20 times during the regular season. I’ve seen him take over when the other options (or this case, option) was locked down. It’s the great luxury the Thunder have had all season long, and the reason this team won 55 games.

Because, let’s face it, it’s not like Durant was absolutely pouring it on the Grizzlies and Westbrook was waving him off. Durant finished the game just 2-11 from the floor and I’m not sure he got a clean look in the bunch. What people tell me about that though, is that’s somehow Westbrook’s fault. You’ve got to get him in a better position to score! You’ve got to set up teammates! You’ve got to create better looks! True, yes. But what do you want Westbrook to do — shoot and make Durant's shots for him too?

At some point, it’s about Durant getting himself open. If you’re open, Russ will find you. Those last five minutes, nobody was. I won't blame Westbrook for that. I blame horrific team offense and questionable play-calling from Brooks. Not just Westbrook playing hero and trying to start some alpha dog battle, as most would make you think.

Prepare for a comparison you’re going to hate, but I want to say it: If Dwyane Wade did exactly what Westbrook did in this game, would everyone freak out? I realize Westbrook isn’t Wade, but he is an All-Star and averaging better than 20 points a game this season. But if Wade tried to take over and LeBron was left standing with a hand up on the 3-point line, would we all yell, curse his name and place an incredible amount of blame on him? Or would we just say, "Hey, Wade's a great scorer and he's capable of taking over too." That's my point here. It's not like this was Royal Ivey trying to make something happen.

Why the Thunder quit running the offense late in the fourth is beyond me. Maybe it was indeed Westbrook, but it really appeared to be more a product of the Thunder trying to kill clock, get the ball to Durant and let him finish. It’s a good plan in principle, but it didn’t work. The cutting, moving, screening and slashing disappeared. And Westbrook is left to pick up the pieces and rescue each bad possession by making a play.

It's pretty unfair to single out Westbrook here simply because No. 35 is on the floor with him. Should the ball go there first? Yes. And if you re-watch, that was the design every time.

But once that option is shut down, you go to Plan B, which, in the Thunder's case, is a pretty good one. A lot of the criticism I see for Westbrook stems almost entirely from "Don't you see Kevin Durant over there!" and other sentences like that. I understand the idea there, but it's not really fair to me. Why does Derrick Rose get a free pass from dominating the ball and taking bad shots? Only because Durant isn’t on his team? That’s what people always tell me but it’s not like Rose is playing with two janitors, a ball boy and some hobo picked up from Navy Pier. Rose gets excused because he's a great offensive player. And so is Russell Westbrook.

It's the curse of being a scoring point guard. If someone were curling off a screen and doinking shots while Durant stood idly by, I don't think we'd say nearly as much about it.

Could he have done better? Obviously. The Thunder dropped a crucial Game 3 because the offense left early. Westbrook is the commander of that offense and he's got to do better. But blaming him only? Comparing him to Stephon Marbury? That's just, well, stupid.

Since: May 8, 2011
Posted on: May 9, 2011 1:34 pm

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Yor point about the shot-clock is well-taken. I hadn't thought about that, but you're right. They need to get the ball upcourt faster.

Since: Nov 27, 2006
Posted on: May 9, 2011 11:06 am

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

He played pretty good through 3 1/2 quarters and stunk for half a quarter and OT,,, it will be ok. He is 22 in his 3rd year in the NBA playing a new possition and has lead his team to increasingly better years since his arrival.  He will have bad moments, no doubt, I was dissapointed in the end of the game, I understand.  He only shot the ball more than 24 times this season in a game 6 times and over 30 shots twice, we just noticed the last game he did it was against Denver in a lost, before that is was against the Nets without Durant in triple overtime for a win.  My advice, Quit making the slowest guy on the court throw the ball in after the other team makes a shot,,,, It takes 11 seconds for Perkins to get the ball, throw it in and run the length of the court to start the offense,,,,, the shot clock is already half way through and we are jsut trying to start our first set at the basket,,, tooo much time.  By the time plan A fails Westbrook is caught with the ball in his hands with an expiring shot clock,,, never your best option.  KD needs to be more assertive, they are still playing like they trying to beat the Nuggets,,, these are not the Nuggets, change tactics.  KD is 6'10" at least,,,, being gaurded by 6'6" Tony Allen,,,,,,Isolate him on the block, its a foul or a bucket everytime. the same goes with Russell 6'6" gaurded by 6'1" Conley,, get them on the block.  Let KD bring the ball down the court,,, hard to deny him the ball that way, plus they have done it before, its nothing new.  I have watch about every OKC game for 3 years and I notice that they have quit running 3 or 4 of their best sets, not sure how you can run a play for 82 games and then abandon it for the last 8 games.  Brooks needs to wake up a little, love the guy and a big fan but he needs to put his young team in better situations to succeed.  THUNDER UP!

Since: May 9, 2011
Posted on: May 9, 2011 5:59 am

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

I must respectfully disagree with most arguments here and I will tell you why.  It is obvious that there is a power struggle and Westbrook is determined to show the NBA and fans alike that he and Durant are on the same level. In game 3 vs Memphis, Russell channeled his inner Allen Iverson in the 4th QTR to the detriment and eventual loss for the Thunder.  I'm not sure if Scott Brooks thought there was a mismatch that could be exploited, and if so, He was greatly mistaken.  Durant is the best scorer in the league and it was obvious that he was frustrated with not touching the ball possession after possession.  To Russ's credit, He has developed his PG skills quickly for not having played the position at any other point in his basketball life-But there is still so much room for improvement especially with the mounting turnovers. And in my opinion, Westbrook was the reason OKC loss game 3, If he would have played the 2nd half like he played the 1st, Thunder would be up 2-1 in the series.  Westbrook needs to play more like chris paul and less like steve francis.

Since: Dec 28, 2007
Posted on: May 8, 2011 3:46 pm

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Terrific analysis. I posted somethin like that. What bothers me is he has Mo Cheeks on the bench. Mo's game was exactly the opposite of RW's. A limited physical guard with great intelligence, ability to penetrate and then pass. It is impossible for me to believe that he doesn't try to mold Russell's game but that might fall upon Brooks who I don't think is the right coach for this team now that they are maturing. Someone could probably get Jerry Sloan's phone in Kentucky. 
Presti didn't hesitate to trade Green and Krystic. I have a sense if he feels Brooks is not developing this team properly, he might give him a short leash. I don't think they can beat a smart team with RW at the point.

Since: Dec 28, 2007
Posted on: May 8, 2011 3:41 pm

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

I have watched many Thunder games over the past 3 years, What is disheartening about Russell's game is that he has not really improved as a point guard over the past two years. I realize he never played the position and he is but 22, but you would expect some tangible signs that he "gets" it as DRose has this year. 
He still makes the same mistakes, and his turnover to assists is getting worse. He rarely gets the ball to Durant where KD can get it and just go or shoot. He just isn't a natural passer. Maynor is able to do this when he is on the floor. Someone did a statistical comparison of KD when RW and Maynor is on the court and KD's figures are much better with Eric than with Russell.
At this point, you would have to give RW another year to see if he finally realizes he doesn't have to control the ball 80% of the time and that he can learn to pass the ball quickly. So far he hasn't seemed to be able to do this. RW is a superior athletic player but seems to lack court iq and an inability to penetrate and pass to someone not under the basket. Until he improves in this part of his game and can stop his man from going by him, seemingly any time he wishes, he is as much a liability especially at the end of the game.
One more observation is that the Thunder does not have a particularly involved or special coaching staff. Even in the last game when the Thunder had the ball the team wasted 14 seconds before Brooks realized anything. Not impressive job of coaching. Plus, he has Mo Cheeks sitting next to him who should be the perfect teacher for RW. He doesn't seem to add anything to his game.
If Russell is still playing the same way next year, the management will have to decide to see about an adjustment either playing him at the 2 or perhaps something even more drastic.

Since: Oct 12, 2006
Posted on: May 8, 2011 11:41 am

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Great, Great, post Savannah.  Westbrook is a point gaurd on a team with a top 5 NBA talent (Durant).  It is absolutely his job to calm the team down and make sure it's running smoothly those last few hectic minutes in the game.  He did nothing but contribute to the chaos.  I actually think the team would have been better off if Eric Maynor, who has no where near the talent Westbrook has but has a high basketball IQ and is more of a classic point gaurd, was playing. 

As a side note I want to say something I've been saying for years that's a little off topic.....Chris Paul is the best point gaurd in the league hands down and Westbrook should take notice of how he plays the game.  Now let me explain that statement a little bit you Derrick Rose fans.......There are many good to great players that just happen to play pg but are not necessarilly great pg.....Watch the absolute clinic Paul put on the Lakers in the first round with one of the least talented team in the playoffs.  Watch how he dribble drived in the lane, worked the high pick and role to perfection, got the ball to teammates in the right position, forced big men such as Gasol to switch on him on the perimeter and proceeded to easily score, hit open jumpers, played solid defense,.... it was one of the best pure point gaurd performance I've seen in years.....Untill Westbrook's game approach's that level I don't know if the Thunder will be able to compete for the NBA title.

Since: May 8, 2011
Posted on: May 8, 2011 11:15 am

I Hang It On Westbrook

It's perfectly fair to single out Westbrook, because he's the POINT GUARD. It's his job to run the offense, to distrilbute the ball and get the ball to those who can score in a position to score. The problem is, as good as he can be, he has no idea how to run an offense. He can be great handling the ball, penetrating and dishing off the penetration, but he has no idea how to move without the ball. How many times have you seen him, at the top of the key, pass the ball to one flank or the other, and then just stand there? When he does that, he not only makes himself useless, but the rest of the team useless, because he's stopped the flow of the offense.

Watch him carefully, and see how rarely he sets a pick. Almost never. It doesn't do any good to pass the ball to a Durant who is blanketed by a defender, unless he moves to screen the defender. Or he could pass the ball to another player and then pick Durant's man to free him up. But he never does. The only concept of team offense he has is to penetrate and then either shoot or pass out of a drawn-in defense. Which is all fine and good, but you can't do that every time up the floor.

Since: Mar 31, 2009
Posted on: May 8, 2011 1:03 am
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Since: Mar 6, 2011
Posted on: May 7, 2011 11:55 pm

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Conley vs Westbrook in this series..........whats the call?  Well, Id say Conley by a mile.  Point guard is a complex position. You cant very often be such a gunner and also lead your offense. Conley had zero turnovers in the first game and only three today.  Thats what westbrook averages a quarter.  Memphis has played excellent defense. Battier is a monster shut down guy, which is not often enough noted.  And hollins has outcoached Brooks I think.  And well, zach, what can you say. But its at the point that memphis has a decided advantage.

Since: Feb 19, 2007
Posted on: May 7, 2011 11:28 pm

Russell Westbrook and the evolving blame-game

Rose gets excused because he has no other offensive players on the court with him in most situations, and everyone decided to kiss his butt at the same time.

Westbrook can be a good PG, but most often he's a ballhog.  That's what he showed today, and it's likely that Memphis' defense had a hand in forcing him into playing that way.

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