Russell Westbrook might have simply had an off night.
But it’s more likely that his 1-for-11 shooting struggles in Wednesday’s 117-106 win over Philadelphia go hand-in-hand with his career-high 15 assists. That’s how it goes when you’re learning the ropes, still figuring out how to set up your teammates while satisfying your own appetite for scoring.
Westbrook looked confident, cool even, as he ran the team against Philadelphia, standing toe-to-toe with his eventual one-and-done replacement at UCLA, Sixers rookie Jrue Holiday. But that look never appeared when it came time for Westbrook to put the ball in the basket. Looked as if Westbrook second-guessed his shot all night, save an early 3-point hoist with 8:30 remaining in the second quarter and 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock. It was as if Westbrook thought to himself, ‘Every shot attempt is a missed opportunity to prove I can pass.’ And his offense suffered as a result.
That’s what happens when a player as naturally gifted as Westbrook thinks too much, when a natural scorer spends too much time trying to be a set-up man. You Thunder fans out there who want Westbrook to be John Stockton (you know who you are) saw what it looked like when he tries to be. And it’s precisely why Thunder coach Scott Brooks isn’t asking him to be.
Westbrook played his 100th game Wednesday. Only 12 times has he recorded a double-double with points and assists. Of those 12 occasions, Westbrook recorded at least 15 points (his rookie scoring average) only six times.
But that’s not to say Westbrook won’t get better. Remember, he just turned 21 three weeks ago. But those figures stand as proof that Westbrook is far from finished, a long way away from mastering the art of balancing the roles of scorer and playmaker.
All signs say Westbrook is on the right track, though. Consider that, by comparison, last year’s Rookie of the Year, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, also had only four games with at least 15 points and 10 assists. And Westbrook’s 15 assists Wednesday against two turnovers is perhaps the biggest sign of his progression, a far cry from the 272 turnovers he led the league with last season.
“He’s really trying to do the right thing,” said Nick Collison. “There are a lot of plays when he could take a shot but he sees the (defender) rotate to him and he makes one more pass and (a teammate) has a wide-open, better shot. He’s making better decisions like that. He’s making better decisions in the open court. He’s really trying to figure it out and he’s coming along.”
Collison marveled at Westbrook’s development after remembering the second-year guard barely played as a freshman for the Bruins, then played off the ball as a sophomore.
“Then he comes into the NBA playing the point guard,” Collison said. “So his progression’s been great. I think he’s trying to figure it out, and he’ll get to the point when he knows when to be aggressive and when to run the team. That’s just part of his growth. But for now he’s done well.”
- I still think Samuel Dalembert is perfect for the Thunder. OK, maybe not Dalembert. Someone like him, though. Someone who has his size and skills but a different heart and hustle.
- Shaun Livingston returned was available tonight, but coach Scott Brooks opted for Mike Wilks. When asked about the decision, Brooks said he only plays nine guys and goes with the players he thinks gives him the best chance to win.
- Wilks was solid in his 14 minutes. He had five points, three rebounds and one assist without turning it over.
- Etan Thomas got a DNP as well, but Brooks was a little more detailed when answering why. The Sixers, Brooks said, play a smaller, more athletic lineup that doesn’t lend itself to many big bodies on the court.
- Nick Collison, the subject of my story for Thursday’s paper, made his return with 9:19 left in the second. As I pointed out in the paper, 90 seconds in, he nailed a baseline jumper, came up with a steal and drew an offensive foul. A minute and a half later, on back-to-back possessions, he scooped up offensive rebounds. The first time taking the ball away from Elton Brand and putting in a jump hook. The second time leading to a James Harden 3-pointer. Think the Thunder missed him?
- With Collison back, the Thunder out-rebounded the Sixers 43-29, 18-7 on the offensive end. It led to a 22-11 advantage in second-chance points.
- The Sixers made their first six 3-pointers and 14 for the game.
- The Thunder made 12-of-24 3-pointers.
- Both teams shot 50 percent from the field.
- The difference was points off turnovers. The Thunder scored 23 off the Sixers’ 16. Philadelphia scored 13 off the Thunder’s 15.
- Jason Smith had a nasty, and I mean nasty, block on James Harden’s dunk attempt in the second quarter.
- Russell Westbrook had eight assists at halftime…and only one turnover!
- Take away Westbrook and the Thunder had 10 assists and 13 turnovers.
- Westbrook left the locker room super early, before the media was done with Scott Brooks’ post-game press conference, and wasn’t available for comment. It looked like something seemed to be troubling him all game.
- Nenad Krstic rolled his left ankle, the same foot that he has been battling a sore Achilles. He said after the game that he’ll likely get some tests taken Thursday and will not practice. Krstic said it still was sore after the game, and he exited the locker room with a limp and without his left shoe on.
- Thabo Sefolosha made two of three 3-pointers. Maybe it’s a sign December will be better for him from deep than November was, when he made just 8-of-32 (25 percent), including just 3-of-24 in the month’s final 11 games.
- Speaking of 3-pointers, every time Jason Kapono threw up one I just knew it was going in. Imagine how James Harden must have felt. (Kapono was 3-for-6).
- Kevin Durant played 44 minutes or more for the second straight game and 40 or more for the fourth straight game. I don’t care how young he is or how much he loves playing the game, this will be something to watch come February.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on Russell Westbrook: “Russell did very well. I thought with Russell really attacking and making plays for others it opened up the game and we did a good job of moving the ball.”
- Brooks on Nick Collison: “It’s amazing what pro athletes are able to do. He hasn’t played in awhile. He’s only had a few practice and then he has a game like this…Defensively, I thought he did a great job on their bigs. He really battled Brand and made his shots tough.”
- Sixers coach Eddie Jordan on his team’s eight-game losing streak: “It seems like we have to play a near perfect game to get out of this thing.”
- Jason Kapono on Allen Iverson’s signing: “He is a true scorer and a winner. He’s the toughest guy in the league. He’s an asset and a positive light for us.”
- Kevin Durant on Westbrook: “You just can’t speak enough about him. Like his stat sheet shows, once he gets over 10 assists we win. Once he hit his 11th assist, I thought that it was going to be a good night for us.”
BY THE NUMBERS
12: 3-pointers by the Thunder, a season-high.
15: Assists by Russell Westbrook, a career-high.
18: Offensive rebounds by the Thunder.
33: Points by Kevin Durant, a game-high.
50: Percent shooting by both teams.
117: Points by OKC, the second most of the season.
17,332: Announced attendance at the Ford Center.