There was a time when Russell Westbrook’s gaudy numbers would make headlines around the league. But these days, with the Thunder point guard averaging a triple-double nearly halfway through the NBA season, his nightly spectacular box scores have become commonplace, if not expected.
There’s no real answer any of the other 29 teams can give on how to stop the MVP frontrunner, and the shorthanded Bulls became the latest team to realize just that. But where Westbrook is making his biggest impact of late – and perhaps the one attribute that makes him the likely candidate to take home MVP honors – is his ability to improve those around him, and it’s what allowed the Thunder to win in convincing fashion Monday in Chicago.
Westbrook was surgical in his 33 minutes against the Bulls, though he finished relatively short of his lofty averages with 21 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists. The league’s leading scorer could have done more damage against his primary defenders in Michael Carter-Williams and an ailing Jimmy Butler. But where Westbrook can be guilty of forcing too many shots at times – he attempted 31 and 34 shots in losses to Charlotte and Houston last week – he was patient against a Bulls defense that he realized early had no answer on the interior.
Westbrook routinely found himself in the middle of the Bulls defense, ready to finish (he went 3-for-4 in the paint), drop off a pass to one of his two talented bigs, or kick out to an open 3-point shooter. More times than not Westbrook made the right decision, and the end result was Oklahoma City shooting 57 percent from the field and handing out a season-best 30 assists in the runaway victory.
“I really felt like Russell was an incredible catalyst today from the start,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “Passing, getting everybody involved. It was good to see our ball movement like it was.”
Westbrook wasted little time initiating the offense from as many different spots on the floor as he could. His four first-quarter assists went to four different players, and by halftime he had attempted just nine shots while handing out seven assists. His most important sequence came in the third quarter, after the undermanned Bulls had cut the deficit to 10, 67-57 with a 7-0 run.
Westbrook responded on the following nine Thunder possessions – spanning just over 4 minutes – with five assists and a layup, part of a 17-7 run that pushed the lead back out to 20 and ended any real threat of a Bulls’ comeback.
In that nine-possession stretch Westbrook did his damage in the halfcourt, through pick-and-rolls and in transition. He picked his spots, getting out on the break against a Bulls defense they knew would crash the offensive glass. Westbrook also noticed the Bulls defense collapsing on him each time he drove to the lane off pick-and-rolls. That made it easy to drop passes off to Steven Adams, who had four of his team-high 22 points in that stretch.
“My head is always on the game,” Westbrook said of his third-quarter spurt. “I just find and pick my spots and see what’s open, see what’s not. And at that time (the Bulls) were collapsing a lot so I tried to make some passes.”
Westbrook’s heady decision making – he had just three turnovers, his second fewest in nearly a month – also put the rest of the Thunder offense on the same page. Oklahoma City spent much of the night playing out of the post, where Adams and Kanter combined to shoot 20-for-25 and hand out five of the Thunder’s 30 assists. The Thunder outscored the Bulls 60-36 in the paint, and also held a 25-4 advantage on fast-break points.
“That’s the type of dude he is, and it trickles down from there,” Adams said. “When the main dude on the team holds himself to that standard it trickles down on everyone else.”
It’s also resulting in wins. Whereas two years ago when Westbrook arrived in Chicago as a one-man wrecking crew in the wake of Kevin Durant’s season-ending injury, he’s now finding a balance of doing it all himself and relying on the talent he has around him. The results are evident, as Oklahoma City leaves Chicago with a 23-16 record that is just 2.5 games out of the No. 4 spot in the West. Performances like Monday’s also have given Westbrook the chance to go after his own personal numbers once a victory is secure.
Head coach Billy Donovan inserted Westbrook back into the game with the Thunder up 22 points with 8 minutes left, citing the Bulls’ come-from-behind victory over the Raptors two days earlier. Westbrook ultimately fell one rebound shy of his 18th triple-double, just missing out on another individual accomplishment in a season full of them.
But as Adams noted after the game, Westbrook is now getting everyone involved, and both he, Kanter and Victor Oladipo – his main supporting cast – are playing their best collective basketball of the year.
“What’s good is he’s really taking on the leadership role to where he’s getting everyone involved and he’s really trying to do that really well. Whether he does (put up a triple-double) we’re not gonna be like, ‘sign my poster’ or something like that when he gets a triple-double. It’s just another night.”