Three-Pointers: Russell Westbrook gets back to business in season debut
Oklahoma City edged Phoenix 103-96 in its home opener on Sunday, but of far greater importance than the final margin was the return of Russell Westbrook from two knee surgeries. With one of the NBA's best players stepping back into the Thunder lineup ahead of schedule (and with all due respect to the Suns), this installment of Three-Pointers takes on a Westbrook-centric bent.
• Russell Westbrook is back. Four-to-six-week recovery timetable be damned, Westbrook leaped back into action to play a much-needed 33 minutes for the Thunder on Sunday. Oklahoma City's execution had been sloppy so far this season, to put it kindly. While the Thunder have never run a particularly tidy offense, even the usual mechanisms for creating baskets had been hitting snags. In the previous two games, some of that difficulty was as simple as a good team feeling the absence of an elite shot creator. Yet even in Westbrook's return the Thunder fell victim to the same pitfalls: cramped play action, stagnant sets and a corresponding failure to complete routine plays.
The difference this time around -- and the reason the Thunder were able to pull out a win in a game they very easily could have lost -- was Westbrook. Even while visibly rusty, Westbrook still managed 21 points on 16 shots, to go along with seven assists. His economic scoring stemmed from drawing seven fouls in characteristically Westbrookian fashion. He split double teams to vault himself to the rim, posted up smaller guards and challenged shot-blockers. Westbrook clearly wasn't at the height of his powers as a finisher (he converted just four of his nine attempts from the restricted area), but his surgically repaired knee bore no sign of limitation. He shot 5-of-16 from the field and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line overall.
It should go without saying that Westbrook's freedom of movement and unrestrained drives into the paint are great signs for Oklahoma City, particularly when he was able to leverage both to generate 15 points (eight on his own made baskets and free throws and seven more through assists) in the final 6:31 of the fourth quarter. That was enough to lock up a game that was far closer than it had to be.
• Now that Westbrook is healthy, all eyes turn to Scott Brooks. Not only will the Thunder coach be on the spot in creating a more nuanced offense (a regard in which he made an earnest effort on Sunday, it should be noted), but he'll also have his work cut out for him in balancing OKC's top lineups. Westbrook and Reggie Jackson are the two best backcourt players at Brooks' disposal, though neither is so credible a long-range shooting threat as to open up the floor and fully unlock the offense. That in itself isn't lethal by any means, though it could necessitate a more concerted move toward small-ball lineups when those two guards share the court.
Already we see Brooks leaning in that direction. Aside from the Thunder's traditional starting lineup, the five-man unit in which Westbrook was used the most on Sunday saw him flanked by Jackson, Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka. That group never saw the floor last season, and the foursome of Westbrook, Jackson, Fisher and Durant played together for only a minute. Brooks is digging deep already to see what kinds of lineup arrangements might work best for this Thunder team, which will need to sort out the departure of Kevin Martin just as it finished sorting out the departure of James Harden.
In this case, it worked. That group blew open the game for OKC, scoring at a blistering rate of 153.7 points per 100 possessions. It remains to be seen, though, whether the small lineup in question -- and others like it-- can work long term. The Westbrook-Jackson backcourt will likely score best when given this kind of perimeter shooting in support, but comparable lineups (such as those with Thabo Sefolosha filling in for Fisher) were an absolute wreck on defense for the Thunder in extremely limited minutes last season, a trend that held to form on Sunday. The notion of using an extra shooter and Durant's length to fully stretch the floor is an alluring one but clearly not without its serious concerns.
• Thunder toy with their team defense. On a micro note, it was interesting to see OKC engage in all kinds of proactive defensive switching -- an uncharacteristic turn for a team that has typically asked its defenders to fight through screens. A first thought is that Brooks might have had the Thunder switching on picks against the Suns as a means to ease Westbrook back into action. Maneuvering around a screening big man on dozens of occasions a night takes its toll, making it conceivable that the Thunder looked to protect Westbrook schematically in a game where he was already guaranteed to be exhausted.
That said, there are at least two other possibilities in play. The first: Brooks thought so much of Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic (who left the game, grimacing with a turned ankle) that he tweaked his team's coverage. Conceivable, though odd that we wouldn't have seen the same kind of coverage from the Thunder against higher-profile guards. The second: Brooks is noodling around with potential strategies and trotted out this one for a test drive. The strategy wasn't a disaster by any means, but Phoenix is hardly equipped to fully exploit a mid-play switch due to Bledsoe's lack of pull-up shooting ability and a team-wide dearth of post options.
Regardless, it paid off. Even if protecting Westbrook wasn't an explicit component of this strategic choice, it likely helped save his legs for the Thunder's game-sealing run in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.