Russell Westbrook made his season debut for the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns, a full 3 weeks before he was initially expected to. Westbrook scored 21 points and dished out 7 assists in 33 minutes of playing time.
Despite three first quarter turnovers, he looked back to his explosive self, using his athleticism to drive to the basket and finish or dish to cutting teammates throughout the game. He also reconnected with Kevin Durant in their transition game, turning 25 Suns turnovers into 25 points offensively.
Aside from the win to move them to 2-1 overall, the big story for the Thunder was Westbrook’s superhuman healing ability. Despite being urged by Bulls superstar Derek Rose to slowly work his way back, Westbrook missed only two games after his second surgery on his right lateral meniscus.
The biggest impact that the early return has is to take a heap of the scoring load away from Kevin Durant. Averaging 29.3 points over the first three games, Durant has been shouldering the load left by Westbrook’s absence. Although it was expected that Durant would have to step up his scoring output, it was somewhat troubling to see no other players step up in the first two games and make key scoring contributions. The team’s next highest scorer was point guard Reggie Jackson’s 10.7 points per game. Serge Ibaka, the other part of the Thunder’s “Big Three”, is only averaging 8.7 points. Yes, it was only two games in, but it is a relief to see Westbrook return to the lineup with the lack of offensive production the rest of the roster was providing.
With Westbrook back, the Thunder can return their focus to winning the West. If they are to do that, however, they need to find someone who can hit from beyond the arc with consistency. Durant is an excellent three point shooter, and Westbrook has a nice stroke from deep, but the Thunder are at their best offensively when Westbrook can drive to the basket and dish out to a shooter left open because of the defensive focus on Durant. With Kevin Martin providing a sharpshooter role off of the bench last year, the Thunder were third in the NBA in three point shooting at just under 38%. This year, it is one of their weaknesses, as evidenced by their 2 for 18 shooting from downtown in Sunday’s game.
With Martin’s departure during the offseason, there is no true pure shooter on the roster anymore. Thabo Sefolosha has shown the ability to hit an open three, but not with consistency. Jeremy Lamb is expected to be the big three-point threat in the future, but he has shown that he will need time to develop his stroke at the NBA level. But is Lamb the only threat that the Thunder have from deep? Even if Lamb steps up and ends up shooting around 40% from three, it is unlikely that the Thunder will be an elite three point shooting team again this season.
With that being said, the return of Russell Westbrook becomes all the more important. Westbrook’s ability to drive to the basket should now lead to more layup attempts than passes to a shooter. The Thunder should also try to use big man Nick Collison more, as he excels in the pick and roll. Westbrook can shake his defender and drive to the rim, dishing to a cutting Collison. With the lack of a formidable long range attack, I expect to see more offensive production from Collison and Ibaka in the low post.
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