Russell Westbrook’s struggles in the Game 2 loss was an alarming example of the shortcomings that could come back to bite the Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets got a combined 51 points from James Harden and Eric Gordon in Game 2. Robert Covington had 17. P.J. Tucker finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Houston’s 22 3-point makes gave them 10 more than the Los Angeles Lakers, who outrebounded their opponent by just six total boards, one on the offensive end. All those positives, and yet it was the play of Russell Westbrook that rendered them meaningless.
Westbrook was the anchor that sunk the Rockets into a 117-109 defeat, with just 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including 1-of-7 on threes, with seven turnovers to just four assists along with five fouls.
Westbrook is no stranger to as many missed shots or careless giveaways. Since 2010 — his playoff debut — only LeBron James has as many playoff outings with at least seven turnovers in more than a full regular season’s worth of extra games.
Compared to all the others, however, this instance feels different, because for quite possibly the first time in Westbrook’s career, the circumstances have dictated such.
For so long, the OKC Thunder embraced the recklessness of Westbrook’s game and everything it brought, breathtakingly magical and frustratingly detrimental.
Especially during his final years with the team, OKC really had no other choice. To attempt to reign in Westbrook’s aggressiveness is to alter a fundamental aspect of what helped his rise from questionable top-five pick to a former MVP and future Hall-of-Famer. The Thunder knowingly gambled that which they knew could lose them any given game could also win plenty of others.
Houston needs Westbrook in a similar way. Taking some of the weight off Harden’s shoulders has long been a priority for the Rockets. Westbrook’s ability to bully his way to the rim create the looks Houston covets the most, at the rim and beyond the arc.
They also need a Westbrook who can show more adaptability than at any previous point in his career.
Russell Westbrook shooting is troublesome for the Houston Rockets
The Rockets give up quite a bit of spacing with Westbrook on the court, exacerbated by his constant presence as an off-ball onlooker alongside Harden. The Philadelphia 76ers have a similar issue whenever the ball leaves the hands of Ben Simmons, whose shooting woes have been well documented.
For all that space Simmons shrinks with his presence, he does his best to make up with constant movement, having ranked 12th in total cuts during the regular season with 137.
Westbrook totaled just 44 during the regular season, a product of Houston’s desire to clear Harden’s runway as much as possible. Considering the attention his movements command, Russell Westbrook should be the exception to that rule. That attack mentality should also be present on the catch.
Instead, he stations himself somewhere beyond the arc, waiting to let it fly with the same conviction as Tucker and Covington. Much to the joy of the Lakers, five of Westbrook’s seven 3-point attempts came off the catch. He hit none of them.
It’s anyone’s guess what a Westbrook drive will produce for the Rockets. Even when factoring the possibility of erratic shots and turnovers, the potential for layups, free throws or open threes is far better than the alternative of letting a career sub-30 percent outside shooter in the postseason let fly.
Foul trouble can alter the aggressiveness a player brings to the defensive end, but it should never affect their effort. Five fouls in 32 minutes did exactly that for Westbrook, who had the highest defensive rating among Houston’s starters in Game 2.
He was the target of LeBron’s switch-hunting throughout the second half and couldn’t fake less effort if he tried.
No player can truly hide on defense anymore. Not when opposing offenses, and James in particular, are smart enough to hunt for every mismatch they can think to exploit.
The Houston Rockets offered Westbrook the most space he’s ever had on a basketball court. When he needed more, Daryl Morey didn’t hesitate to trade Clint Capela and stretch defenses to their unprecedented breaking point.
They are not beholden to Russ in the same way Oklahoma City was. It’s why Westbrook could do as he pleased, sometimes to the detriment of the team, and the Thunder had to live with the results regardless.
As important a piece as he is, Russell Westbrook is not the Houston Rockets’ engine. That title belongs to Harden. Their teammates have learned to modify tendencies developed elsewhere for the sake of the team. Time is ticking on whether Russ will ever do the same.