The Rockets were mired in their worst funk of the season prior to Wednesday's win over the depleted Nuggets, limping to four consecutive losses as they slid down the Western Conference standings. James Harden's three-point stroke disappeared, Houston defense disappointed and a general malaise hung over the Toyota Center.
Russell Westbrook didn't get the memo.
Houston's point guard is currently in the midst of his best stretch of the season, ripping off a string of strong performances since New Year's Eve. Westbrook is averaging 29.8 points and 8.1 assists per game in his last eight appearances. He's shooting 51.3% from the field in that stretch. Westbrook is posting MVP volume with impressive efficiency in January, and the eye tests match the metrics.
"He’s so versatile, he gets everybody involved. Once he’s attacking the rim and doing what he does, everybody’s on alert," Harden said after Wednesday's victory. "Guys get open shots. We saw that from Eric [Gordon], we saw that from P.J [Tucker], we saw that from all the guys that made shots. ...It’s key to what we do.”
There was a critical tension that appeared be simmering when Westbrook joined the Rockets after 11 seasons in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is nothing if not unique. He's a truly unconventional scorer, and a poor shooter from three. Westbrook relied heavily on mid-range attempts with the Thunder. There was no guarantee he'd would accept the Rockets' three-heavy ethos.
Westbrook made an honest attempt to integrate himself into the tenants of Moreyball in the opening weeks of his Rockets' tenure. He attempted 5.8 threes per game in Houston's first 15 games, tracking for the second-highest rate of his career. The percentages were ugly with increased volume. Westbrook made just 22.7% of threes–his struggles were exacerbated by a dislocated finger–and he consistently looked uncomfortable as teams sagged off him beyond the arc. Westbrook double-clutched and held the ball often, especially when opponent's smothered Harden. One of the game's most ferocious drivers was downright reticent with open space ahead of him. A key question lingered: Would Westbrook stay the course, or would his old habits emerge? The latter has won out, and the Rockets are better for it.
The idea of "Let Westbrook be Westbrook" has prevailed since the calendar turned to 2020. The eight-time All-Star is responsible for 32 of the Rockets' 46 mid-range attempts since Dec. 31, ranking No. 7 in attempts across the 2019-20 season. He's nearly eschewed threes altogether lately, taking just one in his last three games. Westbrook isn't lacking in opportunities from three. He often has more than 10 feet of open space when he catches a pass off the Harden double team. But Westbrook refuses to settle. He's rushing toward the tin at a breakneck pace, attacking bigs and creating open triples for his teammates. Westbrook's aggression is paying major dividends.
"We're in a system with so many threes, but I think he just said, 'I'm getting to the hole,'" D'Antoni said after Monday's loss to the Thunder. "He went from sometimes pulling up and then getting to the rim to now always going to the rim and every once and a while pulling up. He's got it going, he's gone a great job."
Westbrook isn't simply attacking open space after Harden doubles. The 2016-17 MVP is creating his own gravity in half-court sets, especially near the paint. Westbrook leads all guards in post-ups, sporting a near-fanatical obsession with bullying smaller guards. Perhaps Westbrook's forays into the block are motivated in part by ego, though they've been increasingly effective of late. The Westbrook post-up is a Rockets' staple when neither Harden nor Clint Capela are on the floor. Eric Gordon was the beneficiary of Westbrook's back downs on Wednesday.
A shift in mindset isn't solely responsible for Westbrook's strong play over the last three weeks. His health continues to improve as well. Westbrook battled both a hurt finger and some lingering knee pain at the start of the year, slowly regaining his burst after offseason surgery. The Westbrook of October and November generated concern as his inevitable physical decline began to show. But Westbrook is turning back the clock of late. His speed in the open floor remains elite, and his vertical is returning to Oklahoma City form. The first two months of the season were littered with cautious layups. Westbrook uncorked a classic slam on Wednesday night. The Rockets assumed they'd receive a major athleticism upgrade in swapping Chris Paul for Westbrook. Their hopes are finally coming to fruition.
Harden's backcourt mate remains an imperfect player, and Westbrook's true value won't be fully assessed until the postseason. There is plenty of skepticism outside of Houston regarding the Rockets' MVP pairing, and an early playoff exit would bring the criticism to a fever pitch. The Rockets aren't concerned with the noise. They're beginning to see the best of their former rival, feasting on the open looks he generates. Westbrook is a singular talent. He isn't changing anytime soon.
"That's why he's an MVP," D'Antoni said. "He does things on the floor I have no idea how he's doing it. You don't coach that. That's greatness."