Russell Westbrook’s calming influence gets it done for Thunder

The calming influence of Russell Westbrook carried the Oklahoma City Thunder to a Game 3 rout over the Dallas Mavericks.
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DALLAS — The way of Russell Westbrook is to overwhelm. Defenses regularly bend on his drives, and many break with their coverages snapped by a vicious dunk or desperate foul. Few teams are fully equipped to deal with a guard of Westbrook’s speed and physicality. Even those that are generally have to shift around their entire defensive structure to absorb the blunt force of his assault.

All of which made Westbrook’s Game 3 performance a bit peculiar in its process. Westbrook drove, but rarely with the full-tilt abandon that typically fuels his scoring game. What points came in Oklahoma City’s 131–102 win were almost incidental; this was a performance of dedicated playmaking, perhaps Westbrook’s most calculated yet. The drive was merely the prelude to the dish.

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Westbrook’s results Thursday were, dare I say, fundamental. Two games of film eased Westbrook into a crowded lane and helped him easily identify his open teammates. From deep within the paint, he played the expectations of the Mavs’ defenders against them. What on any other night may have been a frantic layup attempt was transformed into a dump-off pass. A sequence that might have seen another version of Westbrook kick into overdrive instead saw this iteration cruise through the coverage and rocket the ball to the weak-side corner. Salah Mejri, Zaza Pachulia and David Lee had no choice but to honor Westbrook’s drives for the immediate scoring threat they present. Westbrook, contrary to the scouting report, ventured into the paint for the purpose of clear-eyed surveillance.

“They do a good job of packing the paint,” Westbrook said. “My job is to be able to get in the paint and find guys and get those guys open shots.” He finished with 15 assists in 35 minutes. Westbrook has long been effective as an on-the-fly playmaker. This kind of steady creation was so specific in its timing as to be premeditated.

By operating in that way, Westbrook ushered the Thunder through some of Game 3’s most turbulent stretches. The closest the evening had to a legitimate turning point came in the third quarter, when a Mavs rally cut a 17-point deficit to 10. It was the mercurial Westbrook who improbably offered the Thunder its means to re-center.

On Oklahoma City’s first possession thereafter, Westbrook worked his way into an open spot-up three-pointer. The next trip down, Westbrook knifed his way through the lane and into a read-and-react setup for Enes Kanter. The Thunder’s lead guard played the part on the following possession as he created a mismatch (against Mejri) and cleared the floor to operate. Rather than fall into the step-back jumper trap so many guards do in that situation, Westbrook drove into the teeth of the defense and whipped a pass to Serge Ibaka in the weak-side corner. As the defense rotated, so too did Westbrook up into the slot adjacent Ibaka, where he nailed another catch-and-shoot three-pointer. To top it all off, Westbrook again darted into the paint on his next trip down, eyeing Kanter all the way. The Thunder big man ducked in at just the right time, completing a 10–2 run.

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This was an entirely different kind of control from the Westbrook standard—a furious sort of poise.

“For us, if we can generate and get good shots, it allows us to set our defense,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought Russell shot the ball and made some really good plays. If a couple of those shots don't go down, maybe we’re going back down the floor in transition and maybe a 10-point lead is down to six. Obviously, when guys are taking good shots, you can live with them. I thought Russell did a great job of attacking the basket and also taking advantage of when he was open from three.”

Kevin Durant rebounded from his nightmarish showing in Game 2 to drop 34 points, yet it was in Westbrook’s time on the floor that the Thunder were most dominant. Oklahoma City wouldn’t have fared as well without the contributions of its role players, yet it was Westbrook’s drives that fueled them; half of Kanter’s field goals were Westbrook-assisted, as were five of Ibaka’s seven. When tempers ran hot between the two teams, if was Westbrook who gathered his teammates to keep them focused as the most unlikely of pacifists.

He also badgered officials, loafed his way through transition defense and gambled as he liked. This is Russell Westbrook, after all, merely clarified with a sense of what the offense needed at any given time. The passes came early and often. Beyond that, Westbrook did a nice job of backing down Raymond Felton for easy, collected scores when the situation called for it. When it was Durant’s turn, Westbrook made the entry pass and dove through the paint occupying the defense’s attention just long enough for Durant to throw a pass over the top of the defense or fire off an unbothered jumper.

“They were isolating Westbrook and Durant all night long, basically have those guys attack and jump over us,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of defending and defending individually. In situations where we double team, our rotation needs to be better. When we did something good at the point of attack, too frequently there would be a guy there to tip the ball in if there was a miss. They’re a great team—great talent, great rebounding. They have two superstar players and they have a couple other guys who are star-caliber players. You’ve got to turn the heat up on them competitively.”

On that point there can be no disagreement. But how can a team turn the heat up on Westbrook when he’s somehow, contrary to his very nature, the coolest, most collected player on the floor?