Early on in Saturday night’s game at TD Garden, the Celtics left Rockets guard Russell Westbrook mostly alone on the perimeter. There were a few possessions to start the game that Boston seemed to dare Westbrook to shoot and he obliged, missing his first two attempts.
He did not do much missing from there, though. Westbrook scored 41 points on 16-for-27 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists in a come-from-behind overtime road win for Houston, their sixth in a row.
Westbrook saw what the Celtics were doing and, he said, it didn’t bother him.
“Listen, I am going to go out and play,” Westbrook said. “If that’s what teams want to do, good luck. But I’m going to go compete and I’m gonna keep attacking every single time. It don’t bother me.”
Indeed, Westbrook has been a different player as this Rockets season has progressed. He struggled to find his role in his first month with Houston, the first time in his career he has played for any franchise outside of the Thunder, where he played 11 seasons, was an eight-time All-Star and a former MVP before he was traded last summer.
That was a point that coach Mike D’Antoni wanted to make after Saturday’s game. “Well,” D’Antoni said, “you know he was MVP one year, right? That’s what he’s been giving us.”
Westbrook Struggled Early in Houston
It didn’t start out that way. Westbrook shot below 40 percent for the first quarter of the season and barely cracked 20 percent on his 3-point shots. And he was chucking a lot of 3s, more than 5.0 per game for most of the year.
That’s changed, especially in the last 15 games. Westbrook is averaging 34.0 points in that span, with 7.1 assists and 8.2 rebounds. He’s given up the long-range shots for forays to the rim. According to NBA.com stats, he is averaging 13.1 shots in the restricted area, most in the league, in those 15 games. He’s shooting 68.1 percent from that range.
Just as important, he has slashed his 3-point attempts. He is taking only 1.7 per game in the last 15 games.
Before that stretch, Westbrook had been taking an average of 8.9 shots in the restricted area. He was shooting 58.1 percent from those spots.
“Obviously, this is his first year as a Rocket,” guard James Harden said. “So it was going to take some time and he’s finally there.”
Rockets’ Style Adjustment Helps Westbrook
It has helped that the Rockets have completely cleared the lane now as they have made a deeper and deeper commitment to small-ball offense, highlighted by the trade of center Clint Capela at the start of the month. The team replaced Capela with 6-9 forward Robert Covington, who has been technically getting the start at center.
“I try to find ways to become a better player and teammate,” Westbrook said. “Obviously based on the changes we made and the way we line up, I have got to find ways to constantly keep being effective and find ways to help my teammates win games. That’s what I try to do every night.”
More attacking, fewer 3-pointers, more wins. It has been working for Westbrook. In the same week in which Harden declared that he is the best player in the league, he was asked where Westbrook ranks.
“He’s up there as well,” Harden said. “Not just because of his ability but his confidence as well. Anyone can have the confidence but not the ability—he has both and that’s what makes him so special.”