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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Houson Survives Westbrook's Historic Triple Double to Take 2-0 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook authored the first 50 point triple double in NBA playoff history (51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-111 and claim a 2-0 series lead. Westbrook averaged a triple double this season despite playing just under 35 mpg--and the Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double--but in game two Westbrook played 41 minutes and fatigue clearly had an effect down the stretch, notwithstanding Westbrook's admirable refusal to make any excuses: he shot 13-25 from the field in the first three quarters but just 4-18 in the final stanza. Westbrook's critics predictably focus on the number of shot attempts and the low fourth quarter shooting percentage but the most telling statistic is that the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 with Westbrook in the game but were outscored by 15 during the seven minutes that he sat.

Westbrook nearly had a triple double at halftime (22 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) but the Thunder only led 68-62 and the writing was already on the wall: unless someone else stepped up at some point, Westbrook would inevitably wear down under the massive burden he is being expected to carry just to give his team a chance to win.

Was Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection great? He took some questionable shots but most of the shots that he took are shots that he normally makes and shots that he made in the first three quarters. Eddie Johnson made a great point on Sirius XM NBA Radio today: when a caller suggested that the Thunder's problem was that Westbrook stopped passing in the fourth quarter, Johnson retorted that plenty of guys who are willing and able to shoot in the first three quarters simply do not want the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game. Westbrook knew that his team's best chance to win was for him to shoot the ball; if he were truly "chasing stats" as his critics suggest, then the easiest way to do that would have been to pass the ball every time in the fourth quarter: he already had a triple double with more than 30 points on an excellent shooting percentage, so shooting the ball when he was tired was more likely to hurt his stats than help them. Westbrook was asked about his stat line and he replied that it did not matter because his team lost.

The easy narrative is that James Harden is outplaying Westbrook but that narrative is false. In two games (admittedly a small sample size but that is the nature of comparing two players early in a playoff series), Westbrook has more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots than Harden. Westbrook's free throw percentage is slightly better than Harden's. The only individual categories that Harden is winning are field goal percentage and turnovers.

The true narrative is that Harden's teammates are dominating Westbrook's teammates. Five Rockets not named Harden are averaging at least 10 ppg and three of Harden's teammates are averaging at least 7.5 rpg; Harden is averaging 5.5 rpg, barely half of Westbrook's series-leading 10.5 rpg. Only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 10 ppg and only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 7.5 rpg--Andre Roberson is averaging 15.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg.

Harden's team is outplaying Westbrook's team but that does not mean that Harden is the better player or even that Harden is having a better series; when evaluating players I look at skill set and production, not necessarily the team result.

It is also worth noting that Houston's team success is only loosely correlated with Harden's minutes and productivity, which was also true during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Harden was on the bench when the Rockets cut into the Thunder's double digit lead and that is why his plus/minus number for this game was just +2; when he and Westbrook were both on the court, the Thunder outplayed the Rockets. The difference is that Eric Gordon (22 points, +15) and Lou Williams (21 points, +18) annihilated the Thunder's bench players--every single Thunder reserve had a negative plus/minus number!

It is stupefying that after Westbrook accomplishes rare or even unprecedented feats the critics nitpick Westbrook's flaws instead of appreciating his greatness. Prior to last night, there had been just five 40 point triple doubles in NBA playoff history. The players on that list are Oscar Robertson (twice), Jerry West, Charles Barkley and LeBron James. Robertson, West and James are on any sensible list of the top 10-15 players in pro basketball history. Barkley is no worse than a top 30 player. West won the first ever NBA Finals MVP after his triple double, even though his team lost the game and the series.

LeBron James posted the most recent 40 point triple double in a playoff game, with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a 104-91 game five loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 7-19 in the second half and his plus/minus number was -11. Thus, his shooting performance was similar to Westbrook's--including excellent first half shooting followed by poor second half shooting--and James' team was actually losing with him on the court, while Westbrook's team was winning while he was on the court but I do not recall James receiving much if any criticism after his triple double. James was carrying an injury-depleted team but he still had Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova (who started 54 games this year for a Milwaukee team that made the playoffs), which is a better supporting cast than Westbrook currently has.

Game three could be interesting. Oklahoma City is clearly a deeply flawed team that is inferior to Houston but home court matters in the playoffs and Houston has weaknesses that can be exploited; if the Thunder defend their turf in this game and in game four then in game five there would be a lot of pressure on the Rockets. It will probably take 35-10-8 or something like that in each game from Westbrook just for the Thunder to have a chance but Westbrook is up for that challenge; the real question is whether or not his supporting cast can at least tread water long enough to permit him to rest for 10-15 minutes so that he can be fresh down the stretch. Westbrook plays so big and with so much energy that it is easy to forget that Westbrook he is 6-3, 190, not 6-6, 225 like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant; no matter how athletic Westbrook is, his body simply cannot take the pounding or workload that Jordan or Bryant could.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 PM

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4 Comments:

At Thursday, April 20, 2017 9:17:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Long time reader, always appreciating your analysis and insight. I think it's ridiculous that people equate the Rockets' supporting cast as being elevated by Harden's play when they themselves are just shooting the lights out - also when Harden was sitting.

It's a drag to watch this series because of Harden's flopping antics.

You called it ages ago when you said that Westbrook is the new Kobe in terms of getting lambasted by the media even though he is arguably the top guard in today's game.

 
At Thursday, April 20, 2017 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Thanks David for pretty much iterating exactly what I've been saying.

 
At Thursday, April 20, 2017 10:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric,

Thank you. Harden is a very good player who is fortunate enough to play in a system/with a supporting cast that is tailor-made to accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses. Westbrook does not currently enjoy that same luxury.

Jordan and Bryant have publicly praised Westbrook and they have compared his tenacity with theirs, which is about as big a compliment as any NBA player could receive.

 
At Thursday, April 20, 2017 11:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

While I agree with you in general that Westbrook had an excellent game, I do not think that somehow puts his fourth quarter beyond criticism. As I said in the other thread, my main issue was not so much the number of shots he took/missed but which shots those were; many of them were early-clock contested three-pointers (often with a better shooter open) or 1-on-3 paint forays hoping for a whistle. Neither of those are especially shots "he usually makes," especially the threes. RWB has always been a poor three point shooter (34% on the season, 31% for his career), he remains a poor three point shooter, yet he insists on taking them in volume. He is currently shooting 11 of them per game, and making 2.5 (good for about 23% shooting, down from his career playoff average of 29%). No matter how superlative the rest of his offensive game may be, that is bad basketball, and it's something he should stop doing. If you pass to an open teammate and they miss, so be it, at least they were open.

I absolutely agree with you that Harden's supporting cast outplaying RWB's supporting cast is the main reason they are losing the series. That said, RWB's supporting cast has not looked better in this series than they did during the first two quarters of last night's game, when he was going out of his way to find easy buckets for them and entered halftime with an awesome 10 assists; I am not sure he logged a single assist in the fourth quarter, and as it became clear that he had decided to take the game into his own hands, Houston largely stopped covering anyone else. That's not a winning strategy.

As usual, he was also often disinterested on defense, even in crunch-time, though I suspect you will disagree. Many of those easy points from Williams/Beverly/Gordon come with Westbrook nominally "on" them. For what it's worth, it's totally understandable for a player taking 43 shots to be too gassed to play defense, but they're still not playing defense, and Houston benefitted from that.

As for Harden vs. Westbrook, at this point Harden has outplayed Westbrook in one game and Westbrook has outplayed Harden in one game. I think RWB is much better than Harden, but I'm not going to pretend Harden wasn't the better player in G1. Sometimes a lesser player has a bigger night.

Your points that RWB perhaps receives more criticism than most are totally valid, but they do not invalidate those criticisms. Yes, he is put under the microscope but that is the price of superstardom. If anything, it's a badge of honor. Kobe got the same treatment, as you've pointed out, and so has Lebron, although somewhat more on-and-off throughout his career (titles seem to muffle the critics something fierce). That's pretty good company to be in.

I initially picked OKC to win this series, but I seem to have overestimated RWB's supporting cast and underestimated Harden somewhat (credit where its due, thus far his numbers have not seen their traditional playoff decline and he is playing well in his roll). Hopefully OKC can make a series out of it in OKC, though of course as a Seattlite I don't want them to win a single playoff series, ever, against anyone, whether I picked them beforehand or not.

 

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