We’re far enough into the NBA season now to make some declarative statements about most teams’ identities and playoff hopes. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but the Thunder can only go as far as Russell Westbrook can drag them.
Last night’s game agains the Hawks ended with another overstuffed box score for the man who is still averaging a triple-double on the season. Westbrook finished with 46 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists on 33 shot attempts. This was a noticeable departure from Saturday’s win over the Suns, in which Westbrook dished 22 assists while taking just 17 shots, a shift in attack the star point guard credited to his “reading” of the game. Westbrook was in scorched-earth mode last night, and the Hawks held against his onslaught just long enough to escape with a 110-108 win.
But what an onslaught it was. Westbrook was more reliant on his outside shot than usual, and converted half of the 16 contested field goal attempts he took. His usage rate was a ridiculous 51.7 percent for the game, and that number climbed to an absurd 68.5 during the fourth quarter. (Westbrook, by the way, currently sports a 41.7 precent usage rate on the season, which currently has him on pace to finish the season with the highest usage rate in NBA history.) During that quarter, Westbrook took 10 of his team’s 22 shots, scoring 10 points while handing out one assist.
It would be easy to look at the box score from this game and determine that when Westbrook plays like this, he’s shooting his team out of games while channeling the most bitter parts of Kobe Bryant’s spirit. That’s an argument that will likely burn hotter as the season progresses and the Thunder fight to stay in the playoff picture, and neither side will be all right or all wrong. There will certainly be some yelling, though.
For now, I will say this: watching Westbrook heave up 33 shots in a losing effort feels different than watching vintage Bryant do the same. There was always an underlying petulance to Bryant’s one-man shows, a sense that he was trying to hurt his unworthy teammates as much as he was his opponents, that I don’t feel when watching Westbrook do the same thing. There’s stubborn recklessness, to be sure, but I always get the feeling that Westbrook’s only true concern is winning the game. Sometimes that desire manifests itself in the kind of virtuoso passing performance we saw on Saturday night, and sometimes it leads to Westbrook coming at the Atlanta Hawks like a nuclear fireball. In any case, the Thunder would be nothing without Westbrook, and they’d be wise to continue allowing him to attack teams however he wants.