Rest easy, Oklahoma City Thunder fans: Everything is going to be OK.
For those of you who haven't paid attention, the Thunder has dropped three consecutive games since point guard Russell Westbrook returned from knee surgery. To be fair, two of those losses came at the hands of the Heat and Clippers. But OKC reached a new low Wednesday night when the NBA's second-best home team fell to lowly Cleveland, its third consecutive home defeat. We've got two questions here: What exactly is going on, and how can these issues be fixed?
To be clear, Westbrook is too dynamic and aggressive of a player to change his ways. What makes him so good is the fearlessness and constant attack-mode mindset. Balance however, is the key word, because without him in the lineup, Kevin Durant was playing the best basketball of his storied career. Durant, shooting four more times per game, had never been more efficient or productive. The key for Westbrook is not merely to defer to Durant, but to be the true floor general of this offense, and make life easier for him. He can be the first option when the league's leading scorer isn't on the floor, but not when he is -- and that continues to be an issue.
One of the best -- and perhaps most unheralded -- parts of Westbrook's return was that he could shoulder the ball-handling and creative duties from Durant. In the three games since he's been back though, the Thunder is down an average of three full points per game, per ESPN.com Stats & Info. A key issue that has plagued this offense in the playoffs has been the lack of cohesion between its two best players. As I stated in a previous column this week, late-game situations too often result in isolation basketball from either Durant or Westbrook. Not to say a balanced size of that is bad, because very few in this league are better at getting their own offense. But NBA defenses -- specifically those in the postseason -- are far too complex for that. Durant has even been criticized for not demanding the ball from Westbrook, even when he goes for 40.
One potential solution for head coach Scott Brooks is to run more frequent ball screens between the two. Traditionally, teams will run big-to-small pick-and-roll, but Westbrook and Durant are so versatile and talented that it doesn't matter who's handling the ball. In theory, this will create more ball movement and defensive switches, which in turn will create more defensive rotations and room for error. The bottom line is that while the two superstars rank first and second in usage rates, Westbrook's domineering ways significantly hinder this team. Both Brooks and the Thunder would be best served by not trying to make Westbrook conform to Durant -- or vice-versa -- but instead maximizing their rare skill sets to make the league's fifth-most efficient offense that much better.
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