The Tao of Russ

It’s safe to say that the player eliciting the widest variation of opinion, non-Kobe or LeBron division, is a scoring point guard with blinding speed, freakish hops, and more than occasional tunnel vision.  Just not the one you think.

Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are remarkably similar players, despite what the “Rose as Gospel” Bulls fans would have you believe.  Rose takes care of the ball a little bit better, Westbrook is a more natural defender.  Rose has been handed the keys to a middling offensive team, and coach Tom Thibodeau is OK with a few less shots being distributed to Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Keith Bogans — especially in the playoffs. Westbrook knows he’s as good a scorer as Rose: equally adept at getting to the rim, and equally shaky when taking jumpers.  Of course, as has been pointed out time and again, there is one MAJOR differece.  While Rose looks for his own shot at the expense of lesser players, Russ gets his while overlooking the best scorer in the league.

I don’t mean to pile on Westbrook, especially after such a gritty, tough win last night.  He was fantastic — but he was fantastic playing his game, not the team’s, and it could have cost them big-time.  Efficient, effortless scorers like Durant come around but once in a generation, and he needs to be taking the most shot attempts every game.  Durant finished up the game with 35 points on only 20 field goal attempts, converting 16 of 18 from the free throw line.  Take a look at Westbrook’s shot chart, and while he got to the line 11 times, he also misfired on 18 of his 33 field goals, half of which were misses in the paint.

Everyone’s entitled to a bad shooting day, but a point guard must know what’s best for the team.  There’s a time and a place to be “the man,” and he just can’t seem to find that balance anymore.  After reaching double digits in assists 27 times during the regular season, Westbrook has only had one game of more than eight so thus far in the playoffs. His shot attempts have ballooned as his efficiency has slipped — through last night’s game, he’s now hitting on 40.2% of 22.1 shots a game in the postseason, down from 44.2% on just 17 attempts.

Westbrook’s idea of unselfishness reminds me of post-Shaq, pre-Pau Kobe.  Instead of feeling the game and wanting to get his teammates involved, he hot-potatoes the ball and turns possessions into a passive-aggressive “I’ll show you” to the critics.  Take the sequence at the beginning of the 3rd quarter last night.  Westbrook knifed through the lane, but missed his layup.  Next time down the floor, he fired a bad pass behind Serge Ibaka as they were jogging past midcourt — Russ had absolutely no idea that Ibaka was trailing to set a pindown screen for Durant, and not looking for the ball.  For the next three minutes, he was content to float around the perimeter and circle the ball, not providing any sort of offensive threat or attack until he stuck a long two with 19 seconds left on the shot clock at the 7:30 mark.

Fast forward to the end of the 4th.  Up 96-93 with 18 seconds remaining and the shot clock at 7, Westbrook, attached at the hip to OJ Mayo, attacked the paint, where Marc Gasol and Mike Conley converged on him.  With James Harden wide open in the corner and Thabo Sefolosha cutting clear to the basket, Westbrook pulled up to shoot just inside the free throw line, and Gasol easily got a hand on it.  At the other end, with hope still alive, Conley bombed in the shot that sent the game to overtime.  While LeBron was pilloried by many a few years ago for making the pass instead of forcing a bad shot himself, that was the right decision, and a sign of a player who truly “gets it.”

These are the kind of intuitive point guard skills that Westbrook lacks.  At only 22 years old, this is just his third season learning the position, but the fear is that the further he develops his offensive game and gains confidence in his scoring, the further running a team will slip down his list of priorities.  At this point, with the amount of money that will be needed to keep an electrifying scorer like Russ, Scott Brooks and Sam Presti will have to take a long, hard look at whether Eric Maynor is a better fit at lead guard.

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