What good is a series without a trilogy? For the third time, The Sports Fan Journal heads on the NBA Journey. For the first two years, we had a level of surety as to where our destination would be. The first year, we were correct. The second, we were correct in location, but not in victor, as the Toronto Raptors won the title last year. Now, the NBA springs anew and for the first time in a while, we’re not totally sure where our destination lies. This allows for a current kind of exploration. Let’s continue with our next installment after a week of games.
Even great players must make adjustments periodically. This is true in video games, as newer editions of "Street Fighter" and "Dragonball FighterZ" are released. Changes are made to the meta (basic structure of how to play) of the games, forcing players to adjust. This can result in a new learning curve and substantial period of struggle for even the best. But the ones who manage to find the adjustment that returns them to their most optimized form see a level of success they’ve grown accustomed to. We recently talked about the skill of adaptability. It is necessary to become great and very necessary to sustain greatness.
When the Houston Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook, many believed that it would be a failed experiment. Westbrook’s ball-dominant style of play seemed unlikely to mesh with James Harden’s similar traits, straining the fit. Earlier in the season, there was a feeling-out process for the two. But after that growth period, Westbrook has found his niche.
As the NBA enters the home stretch, few players have been more spectacular than No. 0 in Houston. While Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson, and LeBron James have been the talk of the NBA, Westbrook isn’t too far behind.
Houston is one of the hottest teams in the NBA and making us question whether other teams should be betting favorites against them. They’ve won six out of their last seven games and are just two games back from the third-seed in the Western Conference. Coincidentally, the Rockets have been on this run since they traded Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks. Many qualms were made about the trade, given that Houston traded away their only serviceable center. But since the move transpired, it has been beneficial for the Rockets and especially Westbrook.
Don Nelson is the Godfather of “small ball” and Mike D’Antoni has modernized that philosophy. In wake of the team’s transformation, the Rockets adopted the small-ball approach to maximize the team’s spacing to create matchup problems. Because of the spacing, Westbrook can attack the rim and dominate the painted area. This change in strategy has turned the tide for the Rockets. While P.J. Tucker is technically the Rockets center, Westbrook assumes the role of one on the offensive end in a unique way.
There is a reason why Kendrick Perkins nicknamed him “Russell Westbrook O’Neal.” Similar to The Diesel, Russ is virtually unstoppable near the rim. Despite his smallish stature, Westbrook’s ability to score inside is impressive. He attacks the paint and the added spacing makes it harder for defenses to collapse. Since Jan 1st, Westbrook is scoring 21.1 points per game in the paint, which is more than Giannis, Ben Simmons, LeBron and Zion. In addition to that, he’s shooting nearly 64 percent in the restricted area.
After having a slow start to the season for him, especially shooting the ball, Westbrook is playing at an elite level. To some, he’s considered the heartbeat of the Houston Rockets. James Harden is still doing damage averaging 35 points per game, but the team goes as Westbrook goes. Simply put, when Westbrook plays at a high level, the Rockets are a better team.
In February, the former MVP averaged 33.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and six assists all while shooting an unprecedented 54.9% from the field. He capped off a marvelous month as he poured in 41 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals against the Boston Celtics. Despite having one of the best months of his career, Westbrook did not win the Western Conference Player of the Month, but as we know that will only add fuel to his fire.
During Westbrook’s career he has been criticized in a myriad ways. He was viewed as the driving force for Kevin Durant’s departure in Oklahoma City and he was ridiculed for chasing triple-doubles with lesser talent around him. In Houston, those things are in the past and the first time since he entered stardom, he can play freely and it is showing on the court.
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An asterisk (*) indicates the player is a Hall of Famer.