The return of Russell Westbrook; will it help or hurt Houston?
Russell Westbrook has had an up-and-down season for the Rockets. Before the Clint Capela trade, Westbrook had a tough time fitting in with the run-and-gun offense that Mike D’antoni has in Houston. Of course, fitting in a guy like Russ- who plays with speed and intensity unlike anything we have ever seen on a basketball court- into that type of offense seems like it would not be a difficult task. Unfortunately, having 2 non-shooters on the floor (Capela and Westbrook) hurt Houston’s ability to space the floor for their best player- James Harden.
Houston, in a move that shocked the entire NBA, decided to move their starting center for 6'7 Robert Covington. While Covington has a great reputation around the league for being a very solid 3-and-D player, he is far from a traditional starting center. This didn’t phase Houston. They decided to use extreme small-ball to try to utilize Westbrook and Harden to their full potential- and it worked.
Harden’s numbers haven’t seen a massive spike or anything, but his efficiency has risen back to a normal standard, and his defense in the small-ball system has seen some improvement. Westbrook, on the other hand, is having the most efficient season of his career (from the field that is, he still can’t shoot from distance). With these changes, the Rockets have looked solid in the bubble, making them a formidable threat in the western conference playoff picture.
Entering the playoffs, I did not really know what to expect. The Thunder are a solid team with a mix of promising young players and vets who have proven themselves in one way or another. The problem? Their best defensive wing- Luguentz Dort- is injured and currently is not available to play. Not being able to throw a smart defender at Harden will be a challenge. Yes, they do have solid defensive guards who can try to guard the Beard, but does OKC want to trade their offensive energy for 20 seconds of a defensive stance in front of James Harden every trip down the court? In game 1 of the series, Oklahoma City had Terrence Ferguson, a former starter turned bench-warmer with the rise of Dort, covering Harden and it was not even fair. Ferguson provides length and athleticism, but he is not smart enough on the defensive end to stay on his feet through a barrage of fakes and step-back shots from James Harden.
What can we expect with Westbrook’s return? I think Westbrook returning to action in game 2 or 3 will actually make it tougher for Houston to shut down Oklahoma City in this series. The Thunder have a smart coach in Billy Donovan, who should put Steven Adams on Westbrook and dare him to shoot. If Westbrook hits 5 threes a game, so be it. He has never been a proven shooter, so letting him let it go from downtown could be the way that OKC secures stops regularly in this series, as they were unable to do that for the majority of game 1.