Pretty much everything about how Russell Westbrook played basketball over the first 10 years of his pro career, and especially over the two seasons prior to this one, was insane and impossible. Each time he crossed over into a 75-degree change of direction while sprinting—sprinting—directly at a defender, and then, with his very next step, with no perceptible gathering motion and only the tiniest twitch of his ankle to power the violent transition from sprinting to leaping, exploded directly to the empty space above the rim as though launched from a catapult, it felt like it had to be the only time a person would ever do that. Even the thousandth time Russ did it, it had to be the only time I will ever see a person do that without every ligament in his body exploding all at once.
So when he made it all the way to the all-star break of this, his 11th professional season, mostly without doing that sort of thing—mostly without doing Russ Shit or even seeming all that capable of doing it—it made more sense than the entire previous decade. Only a glitch in the matrix, a tear in the fabric separating this universe from the NBA Jam universe, had ever allowed him to play that way in the first place. The very most natural thing, the shortest and most inevitable regression imaginable, would be for the teeny tiniest erosion of his abilities to correct that error, instantly and forever.
His jump shot, always shaky, had finally abandoned him—there go the legs, I thought—freeing defenders to sag a mile back and wall off the paint with impunity, and then those raging downhill assaults on the rim just weren’t happening anymore. And that was that. It had to be. Maybe he wasn’t quite washed (he still came into the break averaging 22-11-11 for one of the West’s best teams), but nobody goes back to playing the way Russ used to play, because it wasn’t possible for anybody to play that way in the first place. The era of Russ doing Russ Shit seemed like it had to be over, definitively.
Maybe it isn’t, though! Westbrook looks like a new man, or rather a lot like his old self, lately. He found his jump shot, for one thing: In the 11 games the Thunder have played since the break, he’s attempting nearly twice as many threes per game (8.7) as he was before it (4.7), and making a healthy 38.5 percent of them, compared to the gruesome 24.9 percentage he carried into the break. And if that small-sample success has had the effect of pulling defenders a step or two closer to him on the perimeter, maybe that helps explain stuff like the ass-kicking he put on the poor Brooklyn Nets last night.
There’s a decent amount of Russ Shit in this highlight reel. The bucket at the 45-second mark of the video is vintage: After a hesitation step at the free-throw line, he drives directly at Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen, and explodes up and into Allen’s body with the kind of freak suddenness that defined Peak Russ, giving one of the NBA’s longest and best rim-protectors no chance to do more than throw his arms up and step back to avoid giving a foul. (For fans of this extremely good stuff, there’s another classic Russ bucket at the 6:12 mark, when he gets a step on Rodions Kurucs with a savage little left-to-right crossover and then, in the split second virtually any other player would have spent taking a big gather step, just springs right up and through the larger Kurucs’s upper body for an effectively uncontested layup. I love this shit.)
But I’d like to call particular attention to the play at 4:40 of the video, when Westbrook drives by D’Angelo Russell, draws a rotation from Ed Davis, and feeds Nerlens Noel for a point-blank layup. That play happens because when Westbrook hesitates at the three-point line, Russell darts toward him, in fear of a pull-up three-pointer, and doesn’t have the space to recover when Russ puts the ball back on the floor and drives. And that happens because, by that point in the game, Russ had already made three of those pull-up threes, and Russell was afraid of a fourth. Six weeks ago, the defender would have been standing in the paint, and the hesitation dribble at the three-point line wouldn’t have drawn even the slightest reaction. His legs weren’t gone, turns out. He just needed to hit some damn jump shots.
The fourth quarter was full of this sort of thing, as Russ took over the game and put the Nets away. With 6:39 left to play and the Thunder leading by three, he got by Russell on the perimeter, drew Allen over as a help defender, and tossed an alley-oop lob to an undefended Steven Adams. Not 20 seconds later, he did it again, this time in transition and at close to a full sprint. A few possessions later, after a loose ball scramble left Russ with the ball at the top of the key with the shot-clock winding down, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie left him alone to recover to a different Oklahoma City player, and Russ splashed in his fourth three-pointer of the night, pushing the Thunder’s lead to 13 and effectively ending the competitive part of the game. When they treated him like he could hit jumpers, he punished them for it; when they treated him like he couldn’t hit jumpers, he hit jumpers.
Like anybody, Westbrook is tougher to defend when he’s making a respectable percentage of his outside shots, but the difference in his case is particularly stark, as last night’s second half demonstrated. He’ll never shoot well enough to demand the Steph Curry treatment, chest-to-chest defense 30 feet from the hoop, but he doesn’t need it: When defenders can’t give themselves yards of space to stay in front of him, the job becomes all but impossible. Even now, however diminished he might be after years of playing the absolute most aggressive, balls-out, athletically demanding style imaginable, Russ is simply too explosive, too quick and fast and strong, to be kept out of the paint when his jump shot also must be taken into account.
There’s plenty of reason to suspect this post-break run of rejuvenated play will turn out to be a random hot shooting streak; that Westbrook won’t be able to shoot well or consistently enough to keep smart, disciplined defenses honest, particularly over the course of the playoffs. The whole rest of his career has felt like one extended crazy hot streak, so it’d only make sense. But the Thunder present a much more daunting challenge for however long it lasts. No less importantly, it means more Russ Shit, and that’s just cool.
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