Russell Westbrook on Saturday at Houston shot the ball as well as he has all season.
Of course, given the start Westbrook has had to his year, that’s not saying a whole lot.
Still, he’s got to start somewhere if he is to break out of his surprising shooting slump.
He’s hopeful the Thunder’s 124-94 win over the Rockets will be his turning point.
“I felt comfortable,” Westbrook said after the game. “This is probably the first night all year I shot the ball well. But I got to put two games together.”
That’s something Westbrook has struggled to do all season. For every precise shooting performance he’s had, Westbrook has had three subpar showings. As a result, he’s shooting just 40.3 percent this season, barely above the career-low 39.8 percent he shot as a rookie.
Against the Rockets, Westbrook scored a game-high 28 points on 11 of 22 shooting. It was only the first time since Dec. 4 that Westbrook has shot at least 50 percent from the field and just the sixth time this season that he’s reached that percentage.
The key was Westbrook finishing at the rim. Seven of his 11 made field goals were layups. On the season, though, Westbrook has converted just 51 percent of his shots in the restricted area, according to NBA.com/stats. Westbrook’s career low in that location is 47 percent, which came during his rookie season, according to hoopdata.com.
Elite point guards like Westbrook should hover around 60 percent from in close. Chris Paul, for instance, shoots 61 percent from the restricted area. Tony Parker is at 59 percent. Rajon Rondo is connecting on 58 percent.
Last season, when Westbrook shot a career-best 45.7 percent, he connected on 59 percent of his shots in the restricted area.
What makes Westbrook’s tendency to whiff on layups such a burden is that’s where the majority of his offense historically comes from. Nearly 37 percent of his shot attempts this season are in the restricted area. But by not finishing, and not getting as many calls to get to the free throw line, Westbrook’s shooting percentage has plummeted.
Another issue has been Westbrook’s reliance on the medium-range shot. His pull-up jumper has been a deadly weapon that has developed rapidly, but Westbrook has had far too many moments when he’s settled for his go-to shot too quickly. The transition pull-up on an unfavorable fast break stands out most. Those types of shots account for more than 27 percent of Westbrook’s attempts, but he’s knocking down just 35 percent from the mid-range area. Players like Parker, Paul and Cavs guard Kyrie Irving are all shooting better than 45 percent from that spot.
It’s also impossible to ignore Westbrook’s 3-point shooting. He’s connecting on a career-high 34.2 percent from downtown, but that clip still is below average accuracy. Yet Westbrook is launching a staggering 4.1 3-pointers per game, an enormous amount for a player who coming into this season was a career 29 percent 3-point shooter.
The overly simplistic, easier-said-than-done solution to Westbrook’s shooting struggles is two-fold: finish better and take better shots.
But it’s anyone’s guess as to how bruised and battered Westbrook is, and how his nicks have negated his scoring efficiency. He doesn’t discuss his injuries. What we do know is Westbrook has managed to continue to be effective even while dealing with a left wrist injury for the last two weeks and knee pain for God knows how long.
Westbrook currently is averaging career highs in rebounding (5.2), assists (8.7) and steals (2.1) while also decreasing his turnover average from the past two seasons.
Those contributions are sustaining the Thunder despite Westbrook’s shooting slump.
“I just try to make an impact on the game every night,” Westbrook said. “Maybe it’s not scoring. Maybe it’s rebounding. Maybe it’s passing. Maybe it’s defending.
“I just stay aggressive throughout the whole game. Sometimes shots are going to fall and sometimes they’re not. But I know if I continue to play the right way offensively and defensively something good is going to happen.”