In honour of the Houston Rockets’ bizarre offseason, here’s another film breakdown involving one of their two stars – Russell Westbrook – and his historic game in 2017.
Russell Westbrook wants out of Houston. He reportedly wants a return to a role where he’s captain of the ship – but what does that look like? Well, it would look something like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s offence, when Westbrook was their star, after Kevin Durant left for Golden State. Put simply, the only time Russ doesn’t have the ball is when he’s resting on the bench.
His 50-point triple-double, in the Thunder’s 106-105 win against the Denver Nuggets on the 9th of April 2017, was Russ summed up. That season (2016-17) he posted an NBA record for Usage Percentage at 41.65, which basically means that Westbrook was involved in 41.65% of OKC’s entire plays that year. In this game against the Nuggets, he had a Usage Percentage of 42.9. Captain of the ship.
That season, everything went through Westbrook, unlike in Houston, where James Harden is the man in charge. Interestingly enough, Harden posted the second highest Usage Percentage for a season in 2018-19 with 40.47. Two high usage and ball dominant players, that also can’t play off the ball, couldn’t mesh on the same team – who could have guessed?
Anyway, back to 2017. In this game against Denver, Westbrook was going for the single season triple-double record – and managed to get it, with his 42nd of the year. He ended up with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, on 53% shooting from the field, 41% from three-point range and 100% from the free-throw line (making all 11 attempts).
For Westbrook, these splits are surprisingly efficient, so it’s easy to see why this game is considered his best. What makes it more impressive is the fact that he was shooting from all over the floor, not just hitting layups and threes, as his shot chart shows.
To start, Westbrook was constantly getting to his spot at the elbow and making mid-range jump shots. At times he would gather the rebound from a Denver miss, walk the ball up the court and simply step into a shot.
If Westbrook wasn’t walking into a shot from a Denver miss, he’d be looking to assist his teammates – usually by making lead passes in transition.
In terms of specific actions, Westbrook used the pick and roll constantly against the Nuggets. The two-man game enabled Russ to easily get to his spots on the floor – which, as mentioned, usually included the elbow.
The offence was typically in Mid-Screen alignments, with a big screening for Westbrook in the middle of the court, the other big in the ‘dunker’s spot’ near the baseline, and a shooter in each corner (like below).
Denver’s drop coverage on pick and rolls helped get Westbrook going. Usually running the action with Steven Adams, Taj Gibson or Enes Kanter, the sinking Nuggets’ bigs allowed Westbrook to walk into open jumpers after his man had been screened. Like in this play, where Westbrook receives the screen from Kanter, and because Mason Plumlee is so deep into the lane, it allows Westbrook an open shot at the elbow.
Here, the drop coverage gives Westbrook space to drive towards the basket. He obliges, and finishes the layup whilst drawing a foul on Plumlee.
The main purpose of drop coverage is to invite mid-range shots, as they’re seen as inefficient in today’s NBA, but Denver’s drop coverage eventually led to Westbrook stepping outside the three-point arc to shoot. Here, again, the Denver defender (which in this case is Nikola Jokic) is so deep, it gives Westbrook an open look for three when coming around the Adams screen.
When the Nuggets didn’t drop on pick and rolls, Westbrook still created problems for them. He was too fast for any Denver big that would be defending the screen, so he could drive past them, and he was equally adept at finding his rolling big for assists.
In this play, Jokic doesn’t drop on the pick and roll, and switches onto Westbrook as he drives. Westbrook easily blows right past him, and all Jokic can do is foul.
Here Wilson Chandler hedges the ball screen to try and send Westbrook away from the basket. However, it allows Westbrook to make a nice pocket pass to Gibson, who hits the runner in the lane.
Billy Donovan, OKC’s head coach, was running various kinds of sets to get Westbrook the ball in different parts of the floor, or to give him opportunities to drive and create. It wasn’t just transition offence and ball screens.
Here, Westbrook hands off the ball to Semaj Christon, who reverses it to Andre Roberson. Westbrook cuts under the basket and receives a cross screen from Taj Gibson, and then collects the ball from Roberson on the opposite side.
Westbrook then receives a screen from Steven Adams, who slips his man and rolls to the rim. Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris attempt to trap Westbrook, but he manages to get the ball to Adams, who easily scores over the smaller rotating defender.
On this out of bounds play, Westbrook inbounds a floated pass to Victor Oladipo, then receives a pin down screen from Adams to get the ball back at the top of the key. This allows him to isolate, get to his spot and hit the elbow jump shot.
The strangest part of the game happened in the fourth quarter, which also happened to be the part of the game that perfectly sums up Russell Westbrook. There was a 4-minute stretch where everyone in the building knew that Westbrook only needed one more assist for the triple-double record. And Westbrook wasn’t shy about trying to get it.
Westbrook passed to Kanter out of a pick and roll, but he was called for a travel when rolling towards the rim. In the next offensive possession, Russ passed to Sabonis only for him to miss an open 20-footer. Later on, Westbrook again passed to Sabonis – but he passed out of the 20-footer this time. On a drive, Russ dumped it off to Sabonis (for a third time) and he missed a jump hook inside the paint. Semaj Christon finally hit a corner three off a Westbrook kick out, with 4:17 left in the fourth quarter, to give him the record.
Then the Thunder tried to win the game.
That Christon three was the start of a 13 to four OKC run, that brought them back to within four with 29.8 seconds remaining. The Thunder then ran this out of bounds play, in a Single Stack set, where Westbrook and Oladipo are stacked just outside the lane on the right of the court. Oladipo comes off a pin down from Adams, and moves towards the inbounder as if he’s to receive the ball. At the same time, Adams sets another pin down, but for Westbrook – who comes off that screen, catches the ball and drives to the hoop. He adjusts in the air as the Denver defenders collapse around him, and finishes at the rim.
After getting the stop at the other end, OKC have the ball with 2.9 seconds left and are down two. It all came down to this final out of bounds play.
The two OKC bigs are stationed at the elbows, while Westbrook is at the top and Oladipo is on the right wing. Westbrook cuts towards the basket, which cues Jeremi Grant and Oladipo’s cuts to the corners. As they get to the corners, Westbrook runs up the court back to where he started, coming off a pin down from Adams – but the Nuggets are switching defenders and do a great job of communicating, which stops Singler getting the ball to Westbrook. With no time-outs left, he has to inbound the ball to Adams.
This is where everything breaks down, and Russell Westbrook hits, arguably, the most iconic shot of his MVP season.
Adams fakes the hand-off one way, then Westbrook changes direction and goes back to his left. Adams then dumps the ball off to Westbrook, who has enough space to hit the deep game winning three-pointer.
If you trade for Russ and make him your star, this is the show you’re buying a ticket for. The ball is in his hands to start the game, and the ball is in his hands to end the game.
But he’s 32, is owed $41 million this season, $43 million next season and has a $46 million player option for the 2022-23 season. It’s a hard contract to move, and people probably don’t want to pay that much for a ticket for the Russ show. Plus, with Harden rumoured to be leaving, maybe Westbrook will stay in Houston and become the man – then again, he might not have a choice.
Does a team with Russell Westbrook as the captain of the ship have a high ceiling? No – but it’s fun to watch.