Why OKC doesn’t need Westbrook to be superhuman anymore

The Oklahoma City Thunder had just built a big lead against the Boston Celtics but watched it steadily slip away in the second half and disappear for good in the final frame. They didn’t score a point over the final four minutes and lost by six.

It was only late October, but the Thunder had already dropped to 0-4.

Russell Westbrook, in his second game back after September knee surgery, was asked the innocuous question: “Did you like the looks you got?” — reporter-speak for, “What were those shots?”

Westbrook, far more self-aware and self-critical than most realize, blinked fast and answered quickly.

“I take full responsibility regardless of what happened in the fourth,” Westbrook said. “Miss or made shots, it’s my responsibility to make sure we get a good one, and I take responsibility. It won’t happen again, we on to the next.”

It felt a bit platitude-ish, and possibly empty, as Westbrook tried to shoulder a loss that left the locker room eerily quiet and staggered. But really, it was Westbrook’s recognition that he had stepped outside the boundary of what the Thunder are trying to do this season.

There has been an organizational adjustment to play faster — quicker movement, quicker passes, quicker decisions — in an effort to reduce the ball sticking, with an isolation queued up as a last resort. It’s also an intentional way to reduce the workload on Westbrook to fuel the offense on his own.

It’s a far cry from the triple-double monster and usage-rate record setter who captivated the NBA in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors two summers ago. That was a different time and a different Thunder team, but also a different Westbrook. There were many factors at play, but in the same way that single-minded player was an evolution from the one who played with Durant, Westbrook is now leaning in to maximizing the current talent around him with Paul George, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder.

It only works, however, if Westbrook is on board. According to many inside the team, Westbrook’s buy-in, to this point, has been total and comprehensive. So much so that it has not necessarily been described as surprising but more affirming and uplifting.

“Russ is the guy that wants us to be out there making plays,” George said. “Russ is not a stat guy. He wants us to be out there making plays, he wants the game to open up for everybody, and you’re seeing that. You’re seeing that with myself, you’re seeing that with Schroder making plays.”

The Thunder are playing more systematically, whereas in recent years Westbrook was the system. It’s why they can absorb his absences; they are 5-3 this season without him, an inconceivable thought a couple of years ago.

In past seasons, when Westbrook sat, the Thunder dove headfirst off a cliff. So much of that had to do with the gravity Westbrook carries, and how much he did for everyone around him that when he went to the bench, nobody knew how to play without him.

It’s part of the reason the Thunder traded for Schroder — to add a capable secondary handler and creator to spare Westbrook, to maintain a more stable identity and to alleviate some playmaking burden.

“The more people that are in potential assist situations, that are creating or facilitating leading to good shots, that’s a good thing,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “That helps Russell, that helps Paul, that helps Dennis. That helps our team.

“It’s not like when Russell is out we change our offense. Everything is still the same.”

Any changes have been subtle, such as how Westbrook’s individual assist numbers are down, but the team’s as a whole are largely up. In recent years, if the Thunder were going to produce 25 or 30 assists in a game, it meant Westbrook had a monster passing night with 16 or 17 dimes of his own.

This season, he has had two double-digit-assist games, with George averaging an assist more per game and Adams and Jerami Grant up as well.

Westbrook is passing less because, believe it or not, he has the ball in his hands less. He is currently averaging 12 fewer touches per game compared to last season, nearly two fewer dribbles per touch and almost a second less with the ball per touch, per NBA.com tracking data.

Westbrook’s individual time of possession has dipped from 9.1 seconds last season to 7.0 this season. Some of that has been impacted by Westbrook missing eight games, but the plan all along has been for OKC to shift its focus on offense.

The Thunder still want Westbrook to be their engine. They just don’t want him to be their steering wheel, doors, windows, brakes and tires.

“We’ve just got more creators,” George said. “It takes pressure off all of us when you’ve got guys that can make plays at different positions. Then when I have two point guards out there that can make plays, the game is so much easier for me.”

George’s comfort and confidence compared to last season is striking, and it has him looking like a potential MVP candidate. He always has been a two-way monster, but he is now dominating games and asserting himself both alongside Westbrook and riding solo.

George prefers to score in the flow of the offense and isn’t the kind of player hunting for his own looks until he finds his rhythm. He has remarked at how the refreshed style suits him, with quick plays and speedy possessions helping him find his shots. And with better looks — the Thunder are now making the shots they’re supposed to — and a swarming defense ranked No. 4 in the league, there’s a stable identity forming.

But what will happen when the going gets tough against elite opponents? The Boston game was an early look at that, and one that Westbrook quickly recognized went the wrong way. Westbrook’s driving force is his confidence and never-ending self-belief that he can get it done himself. It’s what makes him great; it’s also what holds him back.

He returned Monday in a loss to the Sacramento Kings, and after missing time because of an ankle injury and for the birth of his twin girls, his reacclimation to the cadence the Thunder had going without him was a little bumpy. There will be moments when The Westbrook Experience will be a welcome sight for OKC, but the goal now is more break-in-case-of-emergency than lazy relapse.

“I don’t think people truly understand how unique Russell is as a player,” Donovan said. “The goal is to come down and generate a good shot, right? He’s got the unique ability for the ball to go directly from him to a guy for a wide-open shot. And you want to utilize that.

“But then obviously there are times where that shot is taken away; can that guy make the next play, can someone else create the next rotation, the next help or the next shot?”

The Thunder’s improvement isn’t guaranteed to be permanent, but it is noticeable. This is the vision George probably had when he spent all of last season pointing out that he and Westbrook were only in Year 1 as a duo — George could see the potential for growth and chemistry on both sides, and a better overall brand together.

It’s what the Thunder have wanted to find for a while, but Westbrook’s singular greatness sometimes ran counter to it. To find something deeper, something better, there had to be a different kind of commitment. For that, this latest version of Westbrook will need to continue to evolve.

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