NBA Playoffs: Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and finally ending this fallacy of 'playing the right way'
Playing the right way means taking the right shots, and Westbrook cannot be trusted to do this
Russell Westbrook isn't too enthused about answering questions these days. His Oklahoma City Thunder are down 3-1 to the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers, and Westbrook, who has been thoroughly outplayed by Damian Lillard, has turned his postgame press conferences into a theater of childish silence, outright refusing to even acknowledge a reporter's attempt to do his job with anything other than a "next question" or an "I don't know" or some other blatant form of an old-fashioned blowoff.
He did, however, say something after Game 3.
It made no sense. But it was something.
The Thunder were coming off a 111-98 loss in which Westbrook had shot 5 of 21 from the field, including 0 for 7 in the second half, when Westbrook was asked what potential counters he might have for a Blazers defense that has largely taken away his basketball lifeblood of getting into the paint and attacking the rim.
"It wasn't taken away," Westbrook said. "I get in [the] deep paint any time I want. But I always make the right play. ... My job is to get other guys the basketball. I don't need to shoot a layup every single time. But I'm in the paint all game."
Certainly, Westbrook, as stubborn a competitor as you'll ever find, isn't going to credit a defense, no less the defense of a Portland team with which he has been jawing at from the jump. But man, on so many levels, Westbrook is wrong here. For starters, yes, Portland has definitely stifled Westbrook's penetration. Of the 21 shots he took in Game 4, only three came from the paint. He missed all of them. For the series, he has taken 16 more jump shots than shots in the paint. You can argue this is more about Russ settling than anything Portland is doing defensively, but either way, these are facts.
Now, Westbrook is suggesting that you can't quantify a player's paint presence on shot attempts alone. Fair enough. There is huge value in penetrating the teeth of a defense, getting it to collapse, and kicking to shooters in rhythm. Problem is, Russ isn't doing all that much of this, and even when he is, it's still not "the right play" based on OKC's roster. That's the key point here. The Thunder don't have the personnel to support this style.
If Westbrook was surrounded by, say, Milwaukee's roster, with knock-down shooters all over, the drive and kick would be deadly. But the Thunder were the sixth-worst jump-shooting team in the league this season, per Synergy. They're shooting 30.8 percent from 3 against Portland, the fourth-worst mark among the 16 playoff teams. Not one player is shooting better than 40 percent from 3 vs. the Blazers.
To be fair, this is a big reason why Westbrook isn't finding much room in the paint. Portland's defenders can squeeze down because they don't have to honor anyone behind the 3-point line other than Paul George, and even he's only shooting 30 percent from deep in the series. Sam Presti, financially strapped, has not put together an ideal playoff roster. Billy Donovan could definitely get a little more creative with his offense, but understand that would require Westbrook's cooperation in bending some of his ways. It's pretty plain to see that as long as he's never going to change that any attempt by OKC to change as a team is going to prove futile.
"All things are related to personnel," a league executive told CBS Sports. "Shooting creates space which allows penetrators to have more success. OKC is void of real shooters with the exception of Paul George. Quite frankly, their regular season record was a little better than I expected. They are so long and athletic and good defensively that they had a solid regular season, but without shooters, it's easy to game-plan against in the playoffs."
So is the problem Westbrook or the roster?
"Definitely a combination," the executive said.
So we can all agree: Westbrook doesn't complement the team, and the team doesn't complement him. With that said, Westbrook can't control the roster around him. He can only get the most out of what he has to work with. And he's not doing that. Since Kevin Durant left, the Thunder, with Westbrook as the roller, are basically playing a game of craps: every once in a while they catch a hot Westbrook streak, but over time he's a bad shooter who takes bad shots who's going to lose you all your money.
We need to reiterate that. This is mostly about Westbrook being a really bad shooter yet refusing to stop shooting. Again, think about the aforementioned shot ratio in Game 4: Three shots in the paint, 18 jumpers. Eighteen! For a historically awful shooter. Portland is GIVING him that shot and he's either not smart enough or too stubborn to see it. This is largely NOT about Westbrook "making the right play" and getting into the lane and kicking out. He's taking a bunch of bad shots for him. Don't let him or anyone else fool you.
But for argument's sake, let's look at this only through the prism of the few time Westbrook DOES resist the urge to pull up and gets in the paint and, supposedly, makes the right play. This is where's Russ's decision making is as questionable as his shot selection. Consider that Westbrook finished 65 percent of his shots at the rim this season, the best mark of his career, and on top of that, the Blazers are playing without one of the better rim protectors in the league in Jusuf Nurkic. This would seemingly add up to a pretty bright green light for attacking the rim to score, even if he has to force his way there through some congestion.
Tell me: How is a guy who shot 65 percent at the rim this year "choosing" to instead forgo those opportunities to pass to a bunch of really bad shooters the so-called right play? Here's a hint: It's not. This remains one of basketball's great misconceptions -- that "the right play" is somehow always synonymous with passing. The right play, very simply, is the one that ends with the best shot for your team. James Harden forgoing an isolation opportunity to pass it to Danuel House or Austin Rivers for a 3-pointer is not the right play.
Do you know who understands this? Damian Lillard. And he's killing Westbrook and the Thunder because of it. In this series, Lillard is assisting on 24.5 percent of Portland's made shots, while Westbrook is assisting on over 44 percent of OKC's shots. Lillard has a lower assist total, a lower potential assist total and a lower assist ratio, which is a fancy way of saying he knows the Blazers don't need him to "make the right play" as much as they flat out need him to score. So that's what he's doing. A lot of the shots Lillard takes would not qualify as "making the right play" by some basketball-elitist definition. They're largely contested. Often in isolation. But these are the right shots for the Blazers. Frankly, they're the only shots that give them a chance to win.
Meanwhile, Westbrook is settling, once again, for all the wrong shots -- mid-ranger after mid-ranger, 3-pointer after 3-pointer, even though he's literally one of the worst shooters in NBA history at his position. The problem, of course, is that once in a great while they actually go in. Westbrook scored 33 points on 50 percent shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3, in Game 3, and the Thunder won their lone game of the series thus far.
The only team happier than OKC to see Westbrook have some success was Portland because they knew this would only encourage Westbrook to keep firing away. At one point in Game 4, you could literally hear the bench yelling at Enes Kanter to back up and bait Westbrook into taking another jumper. Westbrook obliged. And missed. Again.
You'll hear a lot of people talk about how the NBA is a "make or miss league," but this is only true if you're taking the right shots. If you're doing that, sure, sometimes they aren't going to go in and you live with the results. But if you're taking the wrong shots, you are choosing to throw darts in the dark just so you can chalk up the inevitable misfirings to chance. That's a copout. That's how the Thunder have gone 4-11 in 15 playoff games since Kevin Durant left, with Westbrook shooting barely 38 percent from the field in two first-round losses.
Portland is one victory away from making it three straight first-round losses, two of which will have come against teams plenty of people would tell you were inferior, from a collective talent standpoint to the Thunder. If and when that happens, how long can we keep talking about Westbrook's triple-double prowess? About how hard he plays? About how he stayed with OKC when Durant bailed? Maybe there was a reason Durant bailed. Maybe he realized that you don't win championships with a guy who can't be trusted to take the right shots, or to consistently "make the right play," or even to answer a simple question at a press conference.
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