James Harden and Russell Westbrook aren't in the business of prognostication. Houston's dynamic duo has eschewed visions of what the Rockets could be in April and May through the team's first 27 games, instead stressing what has become a mantra throughout the Toyota Center: patience.
"It’s not going to take 20-25 games," Harden said on Dec. 7. "It might take the course of the whole year. ...It’s still early."
Harden's reticence to look ahead was warranted through early December. The Rockets' subbed out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook in July, swapping a fine-tuned machine for an (at times) reckless stallion. Westbrook's playmaking prowess gave Houston the athletic upgrade it needed to compete in the West, but the 2016-17 MVP's singular style did require a significant adjustment period.
Westbrook hit a 10-game drought beginning in mid-November. He shot an abysmal 34.5% from the field and 21.7% from three from Nov. 13 to Dec. 5, and he turned the ball over 36 times in a six-game stretch from Nov. 22 to Dec. 5. Westbrook struggled to take advantage when opponents double-teamed Harden. He launched ill-advised triples–including one in the final ten seconds in the fourth quarter against the Clippers–and stalled possessions beyond the arc, allowing opposing players to scramble back to their assignments after Harden gave up the ball. Westbrook and Austin Rivers should be the Rockets' best players at busting the Harden trap. Eric Gordon will also help in that regard upon his return. But at the beginning of opponents' trap mania, Westbrook stalled out.
"We haven't been able to play a consistent way all season long," Westbrook said on Dec. 8. "Sometimes teams go zone, trap, do a bunch of crazy things they've never done before. We've been trying to figure it out, but we're taking care of what we can take care of."
The Rockets began to turn the tide against the Harden trap in Toronto on Dec. 5. They scored 119 points against the NBA's No. 5 defense, with Westbrook, Rivers, P.J. Tucker punishing the Raptors with decisive drives off the catch. Westbrook didn't shoot well in the contest, but he did notch 11 assists. More importantly, Westbrook began to establish his identity within Houston's offense. After two weeks of hesitation, Westbrook re-emerged as one of the game's top downhill weapons.
Westbrook is averaging 27 points, 8.2 rebounds and seven assists per game in his last five appearances, inching closer to his All-NBA form aside from a dampened usage. His three-point percentage is still under 30%, though his mark from the field is an encouraging 53.1% since Houston's win in Toronto. A look at Westbrook's shot profile since Dec. 7 explains the jump in efficiency.
53 of Westbrook's 98 shots in his last five games have been within 10 feet. He's averaging eight dunk or layup attempts per game in that span. Westbrook is attacking the rim with abandon, even as teams severely sag off him and into the paint. The former Thunder star is one of the league's most dynamic forces near the basket. He can blow by nearly any defender if he sees the slightest angle. A body at the tin is often a mere object to be slithered past, or, on occasion, bulldozed into. The Rockets are beginning to be rewarded for their patience during Westbrook's slump.
There are a slate of reasons for Westbrook's recent rise in play. Perhaps Westbrook is growing more comfortable next to new teammates Ben McLemore and Clint Capela. Harden is ceding significant first-quarter possessions to Westbrook, which may be an effort to boost his running mate early in the game. But the simplest reason for Westbrook's improved play may be the most accurate diagnosis. Westbrook is healthier than he was at the start of the season, and his improved speed and athleticism is fueling this five-game stretch.
Westbrook underwent two procedures following the Thunder's first-round playoff exit in May. He had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his finger, and he also had a procedure on his surgically-repaired right knee. The knee procedure–described as "proactive maintenance," per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski–seemed to take its toll in the first month, especially when the Rockets hit a tough part of their schedule in mid-November. Like Chris Paul last year, Westbrook's knee held him back. Bigs were able to cut off Westbrook drives with greater frequency. What were previously thunderous dunks became muted layups. For perhaps the first time in his career, the tread on Westbrook's tires began to show.
We've begun to see Westbrook's athletic turnaround in recent games. He decimated the Magic in the first quarter on Dec. 13, slamming home two old-school dunks in transition. He was dominant in the first half against San Antonio on Monday, and despite a cool finish from the field, Westbrook's defensive intensity fueled Houston's historic comeback. The warts in Westbrook's game have been discussed ad nauseam. But when he's at his athletic best, the Rockets have their co-star to compete for the Western Conference crown.
"[Westbrook] continues to grow and figure out his spots on our team and how he can help," Tucker said at the Toyota Center on Wednesday. "He's gradually looking better. You could see last game his aggressiveness was a big part of our coming back. ...We're going to keep getting better."
Westbrook and Harden will continue to keep their focus on the immediate future, refusing to consider their team's playoff prospects until April. We're less than 30 games in, and Christmas Day awaits. Predictions at the tail end of 2019 can prove foolish by February's trade deadline.
But it's hard not to look toward what Harden and Westbrook can accomplish if they sustain good health through the year. Harden is in the midst of a historic scoring season, and on the right night, he can carry Houston to critical playoff victories. Will Westbrook be able to rise to elite No. 2 status in the postseason? We've seen signs of encouragement lately. Westbrook has his burst back, fueling faith in the Rockets' bet on their latest All-Star duo.