For all the concerns over the Rockets' acquisition of Russell Westbrook entering 2019-20, one truth was evident to even the staunchest critics of the former MVP. Westbrook raised Houston's ceiling compared to its former point guard Chris Paul, adding an athleticism desperately missing from last year's squad. And while the warts in Westbrook's game have been plenty evident in spurts this season, the Rockets' 122-117 win over the Clippers on Thursday provided further confirmation that Daryl Morey made a sensible gamble this summer. Russell Westbrook is beginning to find his groove.
The former Thunder point guard was the best player on the floor in Thursday's battle of dynamic duos, finishing the night with 40 points and 10 rebounds. He kept the Rockets within striking distance as Houston slogged through the first half, converting six shots in the paint in the first 24 minutes. The Clippers' bottled James Harden to just seven points through two quarters. Westbrook kept Houston afloat.
There appeared to be an internal tug-of-war within Westbrook at the start of the season. He was able to shoot with impunity in Oklahoma City, allowed to take mid-range jumpers and early-shot-clock threes to his heart's content. The Rockets demanded at least a modicum of conformity. Long two's are anathema to Houston's attack but central to Westbrook's game. Something had to give.
Westbrook was a good soldier early on, limiting the mid-range looks in order to fall in line with Morey and Mike D'Antoni's vision. Yet over the past week weeks, Westbrook has made a stylistic regression. And frankly, the alteration seems to have worked. Westbrook attempted six triples on Thursday (despite a 22.8% mark from three entering Thursday) and he attempted seven shots from 11-22 feet. His shot selection was dictated more by rhythm than math. The result? Arguably Westbrook's best performance of the season, and a crucial road win for the Rockets as they kick off an 11-day road trip.
The offensive production of Houston's second star was critical to Thursday's victory, though Westbrook and Co. won the contest on the back of its defense. The Rockets allowed 69 first-half points on Thursday, getting blitzed by Paul George and Co. from beyond the arc. The Clippers bruised Houston's frontcourt in the pick-and-roll, and a hot shooting start appeared to bury the visiting squad. Westbrook and Co. upped its intensity in the second half.
Los Angeles scored just 18 points in the third quarter, finding less breathing room on the perimeter than before the break. The Rockets spent much of their energy cooling George, able to shift their focus from the reigning Finals MVP. Kawhi Leonard spent the second half hounded by defensive linchpin P.J. Tucker, and Leonard finished the night with just nine made field goals and five turnovers. The Rockets' depth is still lacking, especially at the wing. But as a starting five, Houston has the requisite talent to compete with any team in the West.
Westbrook is largely asked to be a secondary option in Houston's attack, an easy decision in an offense centered around the best scorer of his generation. Westbrook runs second units and defers to Harden in the halfcourt, spending many possessions either ignored in the corner or with his hands on his knees on the wing. His $38 million salary can look perplexing on nights when Houston runs another edition of The James Harden show.
Yet there are some games in which Westbrook needs to shed his second-fiddle status. It's largely a thankless job, with opportunities only arising when Harden is doubled or having a poor shooting night. Another opportunity arose on Thursday. The Clippers shut down Harden and looked to be on their way to a blowout through two quarters, but Westbrook once again rose to the challenge. He punished the Clippers at the tin and banged home key jumpers, looking every bit like the elite running mate Houston needs to reach the Finals. The Western Conference crown is in play if the Rockets' receive All-NBA Westbrook in April and May. They certainly got the best of their new star on Thursday night.